Twilight of a Titan: Ravi Shankar Plays Kimmel Center at 88

I don’t know how many giants of music were still mounting the concert stage at 88 years of age, but Ravi Shankar did once again last night at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Performing with his daughter, Anoushka, who is substantially younger than 88 at 27 years old, Shankar once again enthralled the audience, taking them on a journey that included ancient evening ragas and “Yankee Doodle.” 

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

Shankar is frail now. He’s helped on stage by his assistant and tanpura player, Kenji Ota and he doesn’t sit cross-legged anymore. Instead, he rests at the edge of the riser, his feet on the floor as his assistant places the sitar in his lap. It’s a modified instrument that’s smaller with a flattened back and no head stock. As he settles into position, you wonder if he’ll be able to play at all. But once the music starts, Shankar steps into another world articulating a fractal forest, full of symetrical patterns and asymetrical melodies.  As he bends into the alap, the opening, free movement of each piece, notes seem to unfold, slowly bending into microtonal curves. It’s when the gat, or rhythmic section kicks in, that you can hear the change in Shankar’s playing. He’s no longer the speed demon, scorching the frets in arabesque runs. Instead, he’s more like a road-worn blues musician, bending into notes, tossing out sketches of licks, placing points along the lines of the melody. Anoushka, on the other hand, is a speed demon, and while she took on a secondary role to her father, she stepped out on several fiery runs.

Ravi Shankar has always had a sense of humor about his music, but there’s an even greater lightness to his
Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar

performance now that I don’t recall from earlier concerts. He said he’d be dropping in folk melodies into one raga. I expected that to mean Indian folk melodies, not “Yankee Doodle,” which popped in as kind of a Philadelphia homage. I wonder if he plays “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in California or “New York, New York” in that city?

Ravi Shankar is one of the titans of modern music. Writing about his In Celebration retrospective album in CD Review, I said:

Ravi Shankar isn’t the only sitarist and he may not even be the best, but he’s left his imprint on Indian and world music the same way Charlie Parker changed jazz and Jimi Hendrix shaped the electric guitar. He brought Indian music to the world and inadvertently paved the way for minimalism and the New Age, The Edge and John Coltrane.

The Essential Ravi Shankar Through his teachings, Ravi Shankar has seeded disciples around the world, not the least of whom is his daughter Anoushka, a worthy heir apparent. You never know much time we’ll have on this planet. Shankar’s 1960s partner, tabla icon Alla Rahka, passed at age 80, and his much younger disciple, George Harrison, only made it to 58. So I’m grateful to have yet another opportunity to see this master materialize a maze of melody and rhythm one more time. 

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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