George Varga, pop music critic, U-T San Diego.
Related Story: Ravi Shankar, Sitar Virtuoso, Dies At 92
CAVANAUGH: Midday Edition continues with a tribute to Ravi Shankar. He died here in his adopted home in San Diego last night at age 92. He had undergone heart surgery only several days ago. He is being remembered today as one of the world's greatest musician, and in the west as the man who brought Indian music into popular culture. Joining me to discuss Ravi's life and work is George Varga, music critic for UT San Diego. Hi, George.
VARGA: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: A lot of reverence around the world this morning as we remember Shankar. You interviewed him over the years. What was it like to see him play the sitar?
VARGA: It was pretty mind boggling. The first time I saw him was in Frankfurt Germany where I grew up in 1974. And I frankly knew very little about Indian classical music at the time. And he had assembled an all-star Indian orchestra. And I just remember my jaw being on the floor for the entire performance. It was just beyond anything I had ever heard or encountered, live or on record before. And it was -- it was truly tr ascendant, and watching the joy on his face to be surrounded by this hand-picked ensemble of the finest musicians at the time from India. All of them were great, but he was even greater. And I saw him last year at the San Diego center for performing arts Escondido. His only concession on stage is that he walked out on stage using a cane. And rather than sitting cross-legged on the stage as he usually would, he sat on what looked like a drum ride with no drum set on it, which allowed his legs to come down straight at an angle. Then he went on to just dazzle yet again. And what really impressed me is that at the age of 91, there was no way he was resting on his Laurels. Besides the playing that his playing was stellar, at one point he took out a Hanky and wrapped it over the neck of the sitar to dampen the strings on the sitar, which was a very unusual effect, and then played a spectacular solo using that dampening effect. And at an age where you would expect other people, you know, to understandably just let their legend speak for them.
VARGA: He was looking for it.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear a little.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: George, do you know why he chose Encinitas as his home base?
VARGA: I asked him that. He move d there in 1992 and lived there for the past 20 years making an annual sabbatical to India during the winter months. And it was as simple as the fact that a friend suggested he visit Encinitas, he did, and an Indian realtor told him it's a great place I think you'd like it, and he and his wife looked at it, immediately fell in love with it. Their daughter was very young at the time. So I don't know if she had a vote in it. And it's a very serene, beautiful home, unpretentious and yet elegant, which I think is maybe a good description of his music as well.
CAVANAUGH: Shankar rose to fame, most people came to understand that this Indian master existed because of his collaboration with the Beatles. He collaborated with George Harrison and the Beatles. Here we have a clip of him talking about working with George.
NEW SPEAKER: I was immediately charmed and attracted to George because of his sincerity. And he really wanted to know so much about our music. He had heard me a number of times, my records. He even had used a sitar, I believe, which I learnt afterwards. To me, it seemed nothing very striking, but I believe it was such a rarity at that time, a new sound and new approach in a song of his. Anyway, he expressed his desire to learn properly. And I said will you give time? He said he will try his best.
CAVANAUGH: Talking about George Harrison coming to him and saying he wanted to learn how to play the sitar. Now, who else were famous musical collaborators with Shankar?
VARGA: There were a lot. But if I could politely add to what you had said, he was quite prominent before meeting George Harrison in the 1960s. In 1952, he and the classical violinist had recorded. And he made great inroads in the classical musical world in the west, meeting George Harrison which inspired a lot of songs with sitar. Without a doubt, George Harrison introduced him to the rock and pop world, but he was established in the classical music world before.
CAVANAUGH: Very important point. Thank you.
VARGA: At first, people he worked Wit was an astonishing array of people from John Coltrane, who named his son Ravi Coltrane after him, to Philip Glass. It's a list that goes on and on. John McLaughlin. But really Ravi was very clear in our interviews that his most important student was the first female student he ever had, his daughter, Anoushka.
CAVANAUGH: If people want to learn more about his music, where should they start?
VARGA: There are hundreds of albums. But thought as a frame of reference, the Monterey pop festival in 1967, and then the woodstock album only to put it in a context of how he was coming into and impacting American and then globally global pop culture. And above and beyond that, certain albums that I'm particularly fond of, if you get a live album at Carnegie hall in 2000 which I think is really excellent album. There was another one in 200 called four ragace, and his recent album which came out this year and was recorded in his living room in Encinitas last year. And it's called the living room sessions. It just earned a grammy award nomination last week. If you want to hear what he sounded like at 91 and the fact he had really lost nothing, that would be a good one. And it's the first time I ever recall a father and daughter being nominated in the same grammy category for two different albums.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Thank you so much, George.
VARGA: Thank you very much.