Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar dies at 92

NEW YORK (AP) - The kids at first didn’t seem to know how to respond as Ravi Shankar began his four-hour set on the final afternoon of the Monterey Pop Festival, in the fabled summer of 1967.

As captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, some nodded along and smiled; Jimi Hendrix listened carefully. Others dozed, or chatted. A few hippies danced wildly, as if they couldn’t tell _ or didn’t care about _ the difference between Shankar’s raga and a Jefferson Airplane jam. But as the performance accelerated from isolated strains to a pace that could exhaust the speediest rock star, eyes opened, minds expanded and Shankar and his fellow musicians left to a long standing ovation.

Labeled “the godfather of world music” by Beatle George Harrison, Shankar helped millions of Westerners _ classical, jazz and rock lovers _ discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music. From Harrison to John Coltrane, from Yehudi Menuhin to Andre Previn, he bridged, sometimes unsteadily, the musical gap between East and West, between what Shankar noted as the classical East’s emphasis on melody and rhythm and the classical West’s foundation of “harmony, counterpoint, chords, modulation and other basics.”

Indian music was the original `world music’ _ appealing to a generation of educated, middle-class Western listeners,” said producer Joe Boyd, who has worked with everyone from Pink Floyd to Nazakat & Salamat Ali. “Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were the first musicians to reach that audience in a profound way that transcended cultural boundaries.”

Shankar died Tuesday at age 92. A statement on his website said he died in San Diego, near his Southern California home with his wife and a daughter by his side. The musician’s foundation issued a statement saying that he had suffered upper respiratory and heart problems and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery last week.

“My Dad’s music touched millions of people,” his daughter, musician Norah Jones, said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere.”

Through Shankar and his bond with Harrison, countless rock acts absorbed Eastern sounds, including the Beatles, the Byrds, Aerosmith and R.E.M. Shankar also became a conscience for all popular musicians when he helped pioneer the rock benefit show with the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh, where featured acts included Harrison, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan. His last musical performance was with his other daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright, on Nov. 4 in Long Beach, Calif. The multiple Grammy winner received a lifetime achievement honor Wednesday from the Recording Academy.

“It’s one of the biggest losses for the music world,” said Kartic Seshadri, a Shankar protege, sitar virtuoso and music professor at the University of California, San Diego. “There’s nothing more to be said.”

As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with and teaching some of the greats of Western music, including violinist Menuhin and jazz saxophonist Coltrane. He played well-received shows in concert halls in Europe and the United States, but faced a constant struggle. Shankar was amused after he and colleague Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were greeted with admiring applause when they opened the Concert for Bangladesh by twanging their sitar and sarod for a minute and a half.

“If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more,” he told the confused crowd, and then launched into his set.

He might never have inspired the Bangladesh concert or played Monterey, where other breakthrough performers included Hendrix and Janis Joplin, if not for the curiosity of Harrison while on the set of the Beatles’ 1965 movie “Help!” The plot featured the Beatles, four of the West’s most famous faces, being hounded by an Eastern cult that coveted one of Starr’s rings. During filming, Harrison noticed a sitar, a long-necked string instrument that uses a bulbous gourd for its resonating chamber and resembles a giant lute.

He developed a crude facility and played the instrument, with Western tuning, on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” The Rolling Stones soon used a sitar on the hit single “Paint it Black” and the Byrds used raga-influenced guitar on “Eight Miles High.” Meanwhile, Harrison sought out Shankar, already a musical icon in India, to teach him to use it properly. According to Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, he told Harrison about Shankar during an acid trip in Los Angeles, at, of all places, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s mansion.

Harrison and Shankar spent weeks together, starting the lessons at Harrison’s house in England and then moving to a houseboat in Kashmir and later to California. Harrison, who died in 2001, revered Shankar as a father figure and cited him as a noble and selfless contrast to the devouring rock music world.

Gaining confidence with the sitar, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song “Love You To” on the Beatles’ landmark 1966 album “Revolver,” helping spark the raga-rock phase of `60s music and making Shankar a favorite at Western concerts. He not only played at Monterey, where Beatle Paul McCartney was on the festival’s board of directors, but was featured on the opening day of Woodstock.

In some ways, he was an ideal hippie hero, with his long musical sets, bright clothing and his aura of higher consciousness. But Shankar, a serious, disciplined traditionalist who had played Carnegie Hall, objected to the drug use and rebelliousness of the young culture.

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