I once had a chance to play a sitar for a few minutes. To a guitar player, a sitar feels like a crazy contraption, a transformed beast. There are strings and frets, but the frets are curved, arching up high from the neck so that the strings can be bent not up or down, as with a guitar, but in and out, leading to a warped, spacy effect. Then there is a second set of strings under the raised strings, which are never touched at all. These are the sympathetic strings, which drone in sympathy with the melody. There is no such thing on a guitar. No wonder sitar masters like Ravi Shankar inspired so much awe when they entered the popular music scene in the 1960s.
Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92. During one peak of his amazing long career, he collaborated on several projects and concerts with George Harrison of the Beatles, who saw in the subtle, spidery complexity of the sitar’s sound a new way to advance the art of pop/rock lead guitar. Promoted to sudden celebrity status by Harrison and others, Ravi Shankar used his fame in the west to serve as as a cultural ambassador for India, for Bengali culture, and for Hindu traditions. He was invited to perform at the most epic rock concerts of his age, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, Shankar and Harrison created together the Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale charity rock concert, which featured Leon Russell, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Here’s his opening number from that concert (as always, when playing for western audiences, Shankar would have to begin by explaining that the sounds the band just played had not been the first song; it is customary for classical Indian musicians to tune up onstage, often producing a hypnotic cacaphony that sounds like strange music).
The invention of the charity rock concert was one of the “sympathetic strings” that will continue to sound after Shankar’s death: a big concert for Hurricane Sandy relief is being held in Madison Square Garden tonight. This is the same venue where the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh took place. Another sympathetic string is Ravi Shankar’s family, including his singer-songwriter daughter, Norah Jones.