The face looks familiar even if the angles appear different. Most photos of Ravi Shankar feature the man gazing down in fierce concentration, a musical sadhu performing intense tapas by plucking and stroking tightly wound strings. That the 91-year-old sitar player from India is a legend is already beyond mentioning. You'd have to be in order to title your newest recording The Living Room Sessions Part 1 on a label you yourself recently started, honoring the moment you cut a celebrated recording with a Russian Jewish American violinist in 1966. East Meets West Music pays homage to a performer who can do no wrong.
It's hard not to expect greatness from a man who has brought the world so many great things. He nearly single-handedly introduced America to the classical Indian tradition a half-century ago; all those fuzzy sitar twangs that George Harrison managed were influenced by Shankar. At the same time he was revolutionizing his homegrown folk music by allowing his tabla accompanists to solo. The moment that great performers like Art Blakey waited for was unheard of to Indian percussionists. On the four-track Sessions longtime collaborator Tanmoy Bose rounds out the rhythm in Shankar's Encinitas living room, with tanpura players Kenji Ota and Barry Phillips providing the essential drone.
The opening 17-minute 'Raga Malgunji' is a slow journey into the sadness of man's inability to merge with divinity; forget the gods and meld into the sound. It's a perpetual epiphany unfolding over a ten-beat pattern. The romantic 'Raga Khamaj' is a Shankar staple. He reworked it with Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra, and performed a wonderfully ecstatic version on The Man and His Music, as well as Rare and Glorious. This latest version never arcs with the same severity. Nearing 92 years old and adorned with the bushy white beard indicative of the fourth stage of Indian life, it is a more reflective, mellow mood he transmits. Yet don't for a moment think he's lost an iota of that fire: the last two tracks, the upbeat 'Raga Kedara' and curvy 'Raga Satyajit,' show the man's got plenty of fuel to burn.
Of all the legacies that Shankar will leave behind, one of the most prominent is undoubtedly his daughter Anoushka. After cutting three gorgeous traditional albums, the young acolyte became curious about the possibilities of her instrument. With Rise, the sitar player began tinkering with electronics and flamenco pianists, as well as writing her own compositions. Then she recorded an absolute juggernaut of a record with tabla player/producer Karsh Kale, Breathing Underwater, which featured primetime contributions from Papa S, as well as Sting, half-sister Norah Jones and ghazal singer Vishal Vaid. On her latest, Traveller (Deutsche Grammaphon), it turns out that flamenco won her heart.
Flamenco has a colorful and illustrated history. Its gypsy origins meant that it was performed in small household circles away from public gaze, not unlike the Indian mephil, featuring only voice and handclaps. The foot stomps and thigh slaps were extensions of the arms the way that McLuhan realized our media are extensions of ourselves. The guitar came later. By the time castanets were broadly introduced, the style had already infiltrated the fancy cafe circuit, but to embody duende one had to remain humble and honest.
The last decade has seen a tremendous evolution of flamenco. Ojos de Brujo infiltrated the form with hip-hop rhythms and an unparalleled stage show, spawning an entire circuit of like-minded souls. Miguel Poveda wove cante into qawwali alongside Faiz Ali Faiz with the tremendous Qawwali Flamenco project. And, within these ranks, Anoushka Shankar and flamenco pianist Pedro Ricardo Miño cut 'Solea,' the sound of ivory rushing into raga. The marriage was instant and enduring.
And so Shankar looks back on a history of gypsy music and the Romani route from India through Persia into Spain, creating an entire record dedicated to finding common ground between the two. A lifelong lover of flamenco, her invitation to producer Javier Limón, himself an accomplished singer and guitar player, helps draw out the heart of his cultural birthright. With a Grammy in his pocket for the exceptional union of Romani flamenco singer El Cigala and Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, Lágrimas Negras, Limón was the perfect choice for bridging gaps, even if that gap was originally bridged by solid musical footing a millennia ago. Call it a reintroduction.
Ravi Shankar contributes lyrics to the astounding 'Krishna,' which also features the aforementioned Tanmoy Bose on tabla (a frequent Anoushka percussionist as well). Shubha Mudgal's voice is splendid; this particular adventurer was recently heard alongside American poet Ursula Rucker on the unique No Stranger Here, produced by a duo that also specializes in marrying flamenco and Hindustani music, Patrick Sebag and Yotam Agam.
Anoushka's all-star roster continues, with a return by Miño on the startling "Buleria Con Ricardo," rich in rhythmic textures as palmas meets cajon. The dancer Farruco adds his dazzling foot stomps on 'Dancing in Madness,' and 'Ishq' captures another form of devotional insanity: the 15th century Sufi poetry of Jami, sung by Sanjeev Chimmalgoi and featuring the firm intonations of Aditya Prakash.
Yet you cannot rip yourself from your roots, and to these ears, the most splendid track on Traveller is 'Bhairavi,' an original composition by Anoushka featuring Bose on tabla and Kenji Ota on tanpura. This is the same configuration as her father's living room sessions, and the comfort and ease by which she finds her bearing on this gorgeous ten-and-a-half minute song simply cannot be expressed in words. Therein lies the splendor of this millennial sonic heritage, being expressed throughout generations by India's royal family, and now continuing through Traveller, which is dedicated by Anoushka to her first child, Zubin, and whom I have seen in photographs seated behind a set of tablas as Anoushka holds her sitar. The evolution continues.