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Fifty Year Friday: Hindustani Classical Music

 

In 1955, with funding support from the Ford Foundation, Yehudi Menuhin hosted the first Indian Classical Music Festival in the United States, The Indian Festival at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Yehudi reached out to Ravi Shankar, who he had met in 1952, to participate, but due to a personal situation, Shankar reluctantly declined and recommended, Ali Akbar Khan, one of finest sarod musicians in India, and Shankar’s brother-in-law. Though Menuhin was not familiar with either Ali Akbar Khan or even the sarod at the time, he took Shankar’s advice and invited Mr. Khan to come to the festival.

Ali Akbar was not so keen on taking the trip to the states. He was not sure how American audiences would react.  For the past several years he had been expanding interest in the sarod and instrumental music in general in Western India and had been making good progress. He performed live to receptive audiences in Bombay, worked on films and was making 78 recordings.  Thankfully, his friends encouraged him to go and per Khan, “My friends pushed me, more or less, through customs and on to the plane.”

The Modern Museum of Art concert was for April 19, with a recording session scheduled the day before in the Guest House of the museum. This would be the first time that Khan would be able to record more than a 78-length snippet of music, and he was pleased with the final results, the first long playing record of Indian Classical Music.

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Soon there we other full length albums produced in the U.S., U.K. and in India of both Hindustani Classical Music and Carnatic Classical Music, or, to over-generalize, classical music of Northern and Southern India.  Western classical musicians and composers, jazz artists, and rock musicians all had access to this music and many were intrigued, interested, inspired, or influenced by such music.

So by 1967, there are a number of fine albums released.

Call of the Valley

The best selling of these albums, and one that found its way into the listening rotation of George Harrison, Paul McCartney, David Crosby, Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn  is “Call of the Valley with Hariprasad ChaurasiaBrij Bhushan Kabra, and Shivkumar Sharma, and Manikrao Popatkar.

In a sense, this is a conceptual album, with the premise of a given day in the life of Kashmir shepherd as represented by the time of day that is associated with the ragas. (Ragas are classified according to time of day they are suited to, such as daybreak, early morning, late morning, afternoon and early night, late night and midnight ragas.)  The choice of instruments and general approach and style further push the boundaries of classical Hindustani music.  The combination of santoor (similar to a hammered dulcimer), guitar, bansuri (a wooden transverse flute) and tabla are more within a westerner’s listening experience than sitar, tabla, and a droning tambura.  Hariprasad Chaurasia’s magical, engaging melodic lines (on bansuri) along with the overall virtuosity and musicality of the ensemble make this an album that demands not only an initial listening but repeated exploration.

Track listing 

  1. Ahir Bhairav/Nat Bhairav
  2. Rag Piloo
  3. Bhoop
  4. Rag Des
  5. Rag Pahadi

Note that the CD contains the following bonus tracks not provided on original LP:

  1. Ghara-Dadra
  2. Dhun-Mishra Kirwani
  3. Bageshwari

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Another release that made a notable commercial impact in the U.S. and the U.K., holding the number one spot on Billboards Best Selling Classical LP’s list for eighteen weeks in 1967, is the Ravi Shankar/Yehudi Menuhin partnership “West Meets East”

On Side One we get the collaboration between the Western violinist, Yehudi Menuhin and the Bengali-born, Hindustani sitarist, Ravi Shankar, Shankar providing the western-notated music for Menuhin to perform from. In the sixties and early seventies Ravi Shankar became a household name in the U.S. for his appearance at Woodstock and his co-organization with George Harrison of the two benefit concerts for Bangladesh at Madison Square Gardens. Shankar also received an Academy Award for the Best Original Music Score for his work on the 1982 movie Gandhi

Side Two is a performance of one of Enescu’s violin sonatas. Menuhin had studied violin with the famed Romanian composer, conductor, and violinist, and Menuhin performs the work with his sister, Hephzibah Menuhin, on piano.  In general, Enescu music deserves more attention, and this sonata is just another excellent work by this talented artist.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All selections by Ravi Shankar except where noted.

Side one

  1. “Prabhati” – 4:08
  2. “Raga Puriya Kalyan” – 11:45
  3. “Swara Kakali (based on Raga Tilang)” – 8:46

Side two

  1. Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25” (George Enescu) – 24:08

Personnel

In 1967, EMI starting releasing an eleven volume, “Music in India” series.  The first of this, is a duet between revered sitarist Vilayat Khan and Bismallah Khan on shehnai, which, traditionally, is more appropriate at weddings and festivals than in classical music.  However, Bismallah Khan, through his own mastery of the instrument and of Hindustani classical music,  elevates the shehnai to an instrument deserving its place and recognition in Hindustani classical music.  The combination of sitar and shehnai is a great choice for the first volume of this series as perhaps easier for western ears to embrace a duet between such diverse instruments than an album of just the sitar. As usual with such duets (named jugalbandi which is translated as “entwined twins) there is tabla accompaniment, performed on this album by Shanta Prasad.

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Another important LP from this Music of India series, is volume six with the remarkably skilled Nikhil Banerjee on sitar.  This is not a duet like volume one, but more of a solo performance with accompaniment provided by Kanai Dutt on Tabla and Viram  Jasani on Tanpura (which provides the basic, foundational drone.)

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Sundaram Balachander  melds his background in Carnatic music with his deep understanding and mastery of Hindustani music to provide a rich, personal voice that borrows from Carnatic vocal traditions. The veena is a particularly intoxicating instrument to listen to, and this is a great recording for showcasing this instrument. Prior to this album, Nonesuch had released an LP of his music in 1965 with mridangam accompaniment.

Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan - ECLP 2351 - front

Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, is yet another stellar sitar artist, and this 1967 album is nothing short of amazing, particularly side two, a single 18 minute plus raga, with its colorful and exploratory passages. This will be the most difficult recording to find of the ones listed in this post, but is the most representative of traditional Hindustani Classical Music.  If you cannot track down a recording, you can find a version currently on youtube:

khan 1

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