By Blair Jackson
It might not be obvious, but the great Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, who passed away at the age of 92 on Dec. 11, had a profound effect on the Grateful Dead, both directly and through his influence on other musicians whom the Dead respected and learned from.
Many people incorrectly believe that Shankar’s first serious contribution to Western music was when George Harrison plunked out that primitive but effective sitar part on The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in 1965. Harrison’s admitted inadequacy on the instrument (which he had found on the set of Help! earlier in the year), convinced him to search out Shankar for some actual lessons on the instrument, and led George to integrate sitar into a pair of Beatles tracks in ’66-’67—“Love You To” (on Revolver) and “Within You Without You” (on Sgt. Pepper). Harrison invited Shankar to play the famous Concert for Bangla Desh benefit in 1971, and to open for him on George’s remarkable 1974 Dark Horse tour (which I was fortunate enough to see at Madison Square Garden). George also produced a 1974 album called Shankar Family and Friends on his Dark Horse label.
There’s no question that Shankar’s association with The Beatles helped popularize Indian classical music all over the world. It’s why Shankar was invited to play at Monterey Pop in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. He was a hero in the ’60s counterculture, yet he openly frowned on the hippies’ use of drugs and their libertine mores.
But Shankar was already a popular and influential figure in America long before the first meandering acid-fueled “raga-rock” guitar solo was played. Shankar started playing concerts with some regularity in the U.S. in the mid-’50s, and in 1956 the jazz-oriented World Pacific label put out an album called Three Ragas, which was quite successful for an “ethnic” recording of Indian classical music. It wasn’t long before Shankar began collaborating with various Western musicians, from violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to jazz players such as bassist Gary Peacock and saxophonist Bud Shank (on a 1961 album called Improvisations). His music was embraced by the Beat community—many of whom turned to Eastern religions and Asian cultures for inspiration—and also the folk music world: In the early ’60s, guitarists such as John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull brought Shankar’s influence into their original instrumentals.
However, no one did more to fuse Indian music concepts with modern jazz than saxophonist John Coltrane. Inspired by Shankar (and then others), Coltrane studied the raga form, as well as the different modes, scales and the use of drone elements in Indian music. In 1961, he recorded a tune called “India” on his Live at the Village Vanguard album, and as the ’60s progressed, the influence became even stronger ("A Love Supreme" used two basses to create a drone underpinning) as Coltrane also explored Hinduism and the spiritual foundation of Indian classical music. “I collect the records [Shankar’s] made,” Coltrane told one interviewer. “I’m certain that if I recorded with him, I’d increase my possibilities ten-fold, because I’m familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his work.”
Coltrane and Shankar met for the first time in 1964, and over the next couple of years the Indian master musician taught the sax titan much about ragas and tala (rhythm) systems. In 1965, Coltrane cut an album called Om (after Hinduism’s most sacred chanted syllable), and that year he named his second son Ravi (who is an excellent sax player today). He and Shankar were supposed to meet again in late 1967 and possibly create some music together, but Coltrane died in July before that could happen.
Garcia’s folk crowd in the years before he started playing electric music was definitely familiar with Ravi Shankar, and David Nelson told me that during the first acid trip that he, Jerry and several friends took in mid-’65, they listened to a Ravi Shankar record at some point. Jerry and Phil were both serious fans of Coltrane, too, and said that the saxophonist’s early and mid-’60s Indian-influenced explorations had a huge impact on the Dead as the group became increasingly adventurous and more skilled.
Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop, 6/18/67.
With the exception of “Viola Lee Blues,” which usually contained a long jam that built methodically in a way that was reminiscent of some ragas (before going completely wild and crazy), the Dead’s music didn’t show much overt Indian influence. Hewing much closer to Indian sources in ’66 and ’67 were such songs as “The End” by The Doors, the Butterfield Blues Band’s epic “East-West” and Jefferson Airplane’s extended versions of Donovan’s “Fat Angel”— guitarist Jorma Kaukonen had studied Indian music a bit on his own and brilliantly blended elements of it into his style. With the Dead, the nods to Shankar and late-period Coltrane were more subtle, stitched into the group DNA with shimmering psychedelic thread.
After the arrival of Mickey Hart in the fall of ’67, however, the Dead consciously worked on Indian musical concepts for the first time as a band. After Phil turned Mickey onto an album that featured solo pieces by Shankar’s incomparable tabla player Alla Rakha, Mickey became obsessed with Indian music and in December 1967 arranged to meet Alla Rakha in New York City while the Dead were in town working on Anthem of the Sun and playing a few gigs.
In just one session throwing around musical ideas with Alla Rahka, Mickey learned the rudiments of Indian music’s complicated subdivisions of time, and he brought back his newfound wisdom to Dead rehearsals in January 1968. With the band suddenly investigating unconventional time signatures and rhythms, their music took off in startling new directions. “The Eleven” is one piece that came out of those rehearsals, but the group’s disciplined explorations of this new musical terrain spilled over into other songs and jams, too.
Later in ’68, Mickey hooked up with another tabla master, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, a rhythm instructor at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County (founded by sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, with whom Ghosh often toured). Ghosh provided more formal training in Indian classical traditions, and shared the stage with Mickey at least once at a Dead concert—9/20/68 at Berkeley Community Theatre. (In the mid-’70s, Mickey formed the Diga Rhythm Band with Alla Rakha’s tabla-playing son, Zakir Hussain, who has been part of innumerable Mickey Hart projects since.)
Ravi Shankar enriched music in so many ways. One could even argue that he was the original “world music” artist—a genius in his own tradition, but also always looking to expand the boundaries of music by sharing his knowledge and engaging with musicians from other cultures. For a lot of us rock ’n’ roll kids, perhaps the most enduring image of Shankar (and Alla Rakha) comes from the film Monterey Pop. The virtuosos start their raga slowly and then confidently build up speed, complexity and intensity until they hit a blindingly fast crescendo that leaves the crowd of hippies breathless and amazed.
Nearly half a century later it is still completely mind-blowing.