The friendship between the ‘quiet’ Beatle, George Harrison and India’s greatest cultural ambassador, Pandit Ravi Shankar, was deep, genuine and enduring, if (on the face of it) improbable.
In the early 1970s, The Beatles were simply an ex-rock and roll band. Individually though, each member of the group was riding high as a solo artist, enjoying almost as much success as sole trader as he had as a co director of the most illustrious cultural firm in the world. Paul‘s new band, Wings was churning out huge world wide hits. Ringo, for the first time was garnering fans of his own and praise for a series of bouncy, light-hearted pop hits such as Backoff Boogaloo and You’re Sixteen. John’s Imagine album was already recognised as one for the ages even though people were still sceptical of his wife Yoko Ono.
It was George who really blossomed after the break up of the world’s greatest rock and roll band, though. All Things Must Pass and its super duper smash My Sweet Lord, his hymn to Lord Krishna, pioneered a blatant strain of spiritual-pop and gave him the cash, cache and confidence to step fully into the limelight. He organised the iconic all star benefit shows to support Bengali refugees and released the proceedings as an ambitious triple disc box set, Concert for Bangladesh, something unheard of in the pop world of the time. It was a huge seller.
Harrison seems to have had the best business mind of the Fab Four too. Despite the debacle that was Apple Records, George jumped back into the record business and set up Dark Horse Records which proved to be not only profitable but sustainable. Early this year it signed a global distribution deal with the German behemoth BMG.
In 1974 Harrison got a bunch of his music mates together and hooked up with a smaller but equally stellar group of Indian musicians headed by Ravi Shankar to produce a bemusing hodge podge of an album called Shankar Family and Friends. According to Harrison’s wife, Olivia, “Around 1973, Ravi had composed music for a ballet. With the help of George, he was able to assemble a group of Indian classical musicians to record it at A&M Records in Los Angeles. George provided the Western band, and ‘Shankar Family and Friends’ became one of the first two albums released on George’s newly formed Dark Horse Records label. That was my first exposure to the group of people who would become lifetime friends. None of us knew we would be working together for the next two years. The process was full of youthful enthusiasm and venerable creativity.”
The wider global Beatles brotherhood no doubt has strong views about this album, indeed, every album ever released by any of the four members of the group. I’m not aware or really concerned about what the concensus view of this group is about this record, but I find it to be a curiousity. It is neither fish nor fowl. Neither pop nor art. Neither West nor East. And while that never really bothers me in this case, well…I’m not overly impressed.
To be more precise the first part (Track 1-5) seems not to be connected in any meaningful way with the rest of the album. The ‘pop-bhajan’ I am Missing You is one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard. As my kids would say, totally cringey! And as such, it colours the entire project with a certain hue of scepticism.
The second part, the Ravi Shankar ballet, like many of the maestro’s other works is certainly more substantial and interesting. If I listen to this album more in the future I’ll start at track 6. And probably thoroughly enjoy it.
If you want to read a comprehensive review of the album and get a complete run down of all the great musicians (David Bromberg!!!??) who played a part in producing it, for once Wikipedia is the best source.
Classify this in 1970s kitsch.
01 I Am Missing You
02 Kahan Gayelava Shyam Saloné
03 Supané Mé Ayé Preetam Sainya
04 I am Missing You (reprise)
05 Jaya Jagadish Haré
06 Dream, Nightmare & Dawn – Overture
07 Part One – Dream – Festivity & Joy
08 Part One – Dream – Love – Dance Ecstasy
09 Part Two – Nightmare – Lust (Raga Chandrakauns)
10 Part Two – Nightmare – Dispute & Violence
11 Part Two – Nightmare – Disillusionment & Frustration
12 Part Two – Nightmare – Despair & Sorrow (Raga Marwa)
13 Part Three – Dawn – Awakening
14 Part Three – Dawn – Peace & Hope (Raga Bhatiyar)