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“The Godfather of World Music” and Genre

Along with being instrumental in bringing Indian music to the “Western world,” composer and performer Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) had a keen interest in music from different genres. Conversely, a number of musicians from other genres returned the favour. The Guardian’s obituary for Shankar, who passed away on 12 December, touches on this point a number of times, describing his connections with jazz musicians (including John Coltrane, who named his son after Shankar); classical musicians like Andre Previn, flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and violinist Yehudi Menuhin; and, perhaps most famously, popular musicians like The Beatles’ George Harrison (who took sitar lessons from Shankar). Such connections extend into Shankar’s family, as is the case with the range of genres associated with his daughter Norah Jones. And, yes, the link is from Wikipedia, which I selected deliberately due to its crowdsourcing of contributions; especially interesting in terms of genre.

For Shankar‘s 1968 autobiography and sitar-playing guide My Music, My Life, Menuhin wrote the introduction. Both musicians had known each other since the early 1950s. Considering the context of the time, both in relation to Western art music (another term for classical music, broadly speaking) and social upheaval, it is interesting to note what Menuhin says about his colleague. After commenting on contemporary composers who had “lost this sense of serene exaltation,” he writes:

If the Indian musicians who now are so graciously beginning to bring their genius to us – like Ravi Shankar – can help us find this quality [of serene exaltation] again, then we shall have much to thank them for.

The appeal that Ravi Shankar exercises over our youth – the magic aura his presence and his music evoke – is a tribute both to his great art and to the intuitive wisdom of the searching young (1968, 7).

Menuhin’s comment on composers from the late 1960s likely refers to a diligently avant-garde fundamentalism, which had ovetaken composition practice in the period following the devastation of World War II. However, as major rock musicians like Harrison and The Grateful Dead‘s Mickey Hart started turning to Indian music for inspiration around that time, so too did a fair number of composers. This was especially true in the United States. In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross provides a quote from composer Steve Reich that summarizes this trend. In contrast to composers writing about what it was like to deal with life in war-torn Europe, as well as reflecting upon the historical contexts leading up to it:

‘… for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1968 – in the context of tail fins, Chuck Berry, and millions of burgers sold – to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the dark-brown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie’ (2007, 475).

Reflecting similar sentiments, composer Philip Glass’ assessment is even more blunt. Once again from Ross:

He later called [the European avant-garde] ‘a wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music’ (2007, 503).

Upon meeting Shankar in Paris in 1965, Glass found an alternative. In his 1999 autobiography Raga Mala, Shankar describes how Glass “transcribed my music into Western notation,” and asked him about various aspects of Indian music. Glass provides his own commentary, bringing up the easy-to-forget concept of composer-performers in Western art music (especially, but not exclusively, from before the mid-19th century), and how Shankar was a reminder of that tradition. Furthermore, Glass drew upon Indian music’s tendency to focus on rhythm while “minimizing” harmony and melody. Hence, the rather loosely overused term “Minimalism” to describe Glass’ music (179-180). In 1990, Shankar and Glass collaborated on a recording entitled Passages. Each musician contributed three movements, with two each arranged by the other (250-252).

The collaborations with Glass provide just one series of examples of Shankar’s cross-genre interests. As evidenced in the aforementioned Guardian obituary, there are many more, coming from jazz, classical, and popular music. Of course, all of those genres are generally associated with the “Western world.” In the opening paragraph, The Guardian quotes The Beatle George’s assessment of Shankar as “the godfather of world music.”

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in what’s understood as “world music.” Nonetheless, I have pondered the term in relation to the ways in which we construct genre.

Warning: Heavy Library and Information Science lingo in the next few paragraphs.

For categorizing world music, one clue can be found in the Alpha-Numeric System for Classification of Recordings, or ANSCR (1969), developed by Caroline Saheb-Ettaba and Roger B. McFarland. At the top level, which typically encompasses performance medium or broad genre-based categories (kind of like what you would see in a music store), Category Q (International Folk and Ethnic Music) seems close enough to a quasi-Platonic notion of world music… at least in a “Western” context. To help with settling ambiguities between whether a recording is popular (which typically ends up in an M category, regardless of nation or language), ANSCR suggests the following:

When in doubt, the recording may be classed in category Q by country. It can be assumed that most persons seeking recordings of international folk and ethnic music are as interested in the linguistic aspects of the recording as they are in the music (1969, 97).

The suggestion may help for categorization of physical recordings on shelves or in bins, but there is still the issue of Category P, which focuses on “Folk and Ethnic Music: National.” The last term refers specifically to the United States, which makes the international applicability of ANSCR problematic. Furthermore, while Category P provides a section for “Contemporary ‘Folk’ Music” (which was big around the time ANSCR came out, and interestingly when Shankar was gaining popularity in the “Western world” as well), could musicians like Bob Dylan easily be placed in that category? Could rock musicians influenced by Dylan fall under the same category, or could at least the line of folk influence to rock musicians (whether through Dylan or other “contemporary ‘folk’” musicians) be indicated somehow? Or does that remain invisible until someone happens to stumble upon it?

End of Library and Information Science section.

While this discussion of categorization digresses from the central focus on Shankar, it is highly relevant within the context of his broad appeal and George Harrison’s assessment of him: What exactly is world music? Perhaps we could reconsider what Harrison might have meant. Certainly, Shankar became one of the first musicians outside the “Western world” to become popular, most likely due to the help of electronic media that had become ubiquitous around that time. Furthermore, Shankar’s interest in a number of “Western” musics, as well as his ability to build bridges with musicians from a variety of them, indicates a cosmopolitanism that connects well with Harrison’s statement: All music, in a sense, is indeed world music. Beyond that, Shankar’s long lifetime of accomplishments demonstrates the fluidity of music categories, as well as the connections that can be found among them… and that can confound them.

  1. December 29, 2012 at 12:49

    I was a kid when his autobiography Raag Anuraag was serialized in the Bengali literary journal Desh. He describes his enduring love for the Varanasi the city of his birth, his life as a dancer in the dance troupe of his elder brother – Uday Shankar. It was during those years that he studied Western Classical music and jazz. He describes his encounters and relationships with other well known musicians and the women in his life with equal candour.

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