George Harrison / Ravi Shankar – Collaborations Box Set (Rhino) - CD review - Imagine if Taylor Swift suddenly embraced Gregorian chants and began putting it in her music. That’s how odd the friendship between Harrison and Shankar was originally perceived. Harrison, lead guitarist for the biggest band in the universe, was first exposed to Indian music through his buddy David Crosby, and began experimenting with the sitar
, while Shankar, already a leading force in the Indian Classical music scene, was so sheltered from Western culture, that he had never heard Beatles’ music prior to meeting Harrison. Their partnership would prove extremely influential; within a short time, Indian influences were cropping up in the strangest places, even in bubblegum pop like “Cry Like a Baby” from the Box Tops in 1968. As a result, Shankar became a rock star, performing at Monterey and Woodstock to rousing applause.
Although both names adorn the Collaborations box set, it is Shankar that dominates these recordings; Harrison acts as producer and occasional acoustic guitarist; and his name certainly helped sales as well. The limited edition, individually numbered box consists of 3 CDs and one DVD, with all of albums long out of print. The set begins with “Chants of India,” a collection of meditative prayers from ancient Indian chants, which not terribly long ago, were restricted to word of mouth; it was once forbidden to write them down. They are not sung in English, so Western ears will find it foreign. However, even not being able to decipher the lyrics, these tracks still have a calming effect. The chants were originally sung with no instrumentation; it was Shankar’s idea to add Indian music underneath.
Disc two is “Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India,” which is a studio session and features more traditional classical Indian instrumentation. Most have vocals, but the instrumental “Chaturang” is nine minutes of bliss.
The last CD is “Shankar Family and Friends” from 1974, and it acts as an excellent introduction to Indian music, covering many styles. In fact, several of the tracks have a distinct Western nature, as in the first song, “I Am Missing You,” which boasts a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and English lyrics by Lakshmi Shankar. The song also features both Harrison on guitar, and Beatle bud Ringo Starr on drums. Another standout is “Love – Dance Ecstasy,” with its rock drums and funky bass, it sounds like Weather Report-style jazz fusion.
The DVD “Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India – Live at the Royal Albert Hall” is an opportunity to see the master and his great group of musicians at work. Shankar actually conducts the band for most the concert, but does play a breathtaking sitar solo on “Vilambit Gat, Drut Gat and Jhala Raga,” which stretches to almost 20 minutes. Another highlight is the amazing Shivkumar Sharma on santoor, who was a star in his own right. The only unfortunate part is that a portion of the film has been lost, so several songs have footage from other songs in their place.
Collaborations comes with a 56-page, hard-bound book containing photos and a history of the friendship between Shankar and Harrison. This set provides an excellent introduction to Indian music; it also will please fans of Shankar’s sitar playing and those Harrison fans wanting to learn more about his mentor. –Tony Peters