Review: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, “Collaborations”
George Harrison…the Radical Beatle? While you’re unlikely to find that description in many Beatles reference books, it’s not all that far-fetched a description. Exhibit “A” might be the new box set released by Dark Horse and Rhino just in time for the gift-giving season. While it’s arrived somewhat under the radar compared to higher-profile sets from the McCartney and Lennon camps, the music found on George Harrison’s collection of Collaborations with Ravi Shankar will sound far more radical to the average western ear than anything on Plastic Ono Band or Liverpool Sound Collage. Given Harrison’s modesty and the spiritual nature of the music contained, though, perhaps the “quiet” release is fitting. For the open-minded, however, Collaborations (Dark Horse/Rhino R2 525469) is a handsome (and heavy – in both senses of the word!) set restoring to catalogue some of Shankar’s more accessible works, as produced by Harrison. There’s nothing here to satisfy those listeners looking for the blistering rock of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or even the spiritual pop of “My Sweet Lord.” But for adventurous listeners, Collaborations draws a direct line from the Beatles’ much-recounted Indian adventures in 1968 to the themes explored in Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (itself being reissued this fall in a vinyl edition and high resolution download) and beyond. Hit the jump to explore these landmark Collaborations!
This new collection contains three CDs and one DVD spanning the period between 1974 and 1997. Although the discs are numbered in reverse chronological order, the earliest of the CDs contained is 1974’s Shankar Family and Friends. This album is also the most commercial of the group. The concept was simple: to unite Western and Indian musicians on two vinyl sides, one of songs and the other of instrumentals. Harrison enlisted many of his famous friends to contribute musically, and thus Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner and Tom Scott are all heard performing on songs composed by Shankar and produced by Harrison. The album gets off to a wonderful start with “I Am Missing You,” as sung by Lakshmi Shankar. This rare English-language song shows off Shankar’s gift for melody. The flipside is the instrumental score to an unproduced ballet, and the music is appropriately varied in tone and instrumentation over three movements entitled “Dream,” “Nightmare” and “Dawn.” Western instruments such as saxophone, bass and guitar augment the traditional Indian sound to create unusual, evocative mood pieces with a definite, hypnotic groove.
Two years later, Harrison invited Shankar and 17 Indian classical musicians to London where they recorded Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India over a five-week period. The album’s sounds are exotic, but immediately transporting. Much of the music is joyful, such as “Naderdani,” described as “a contemporary composition for voice and instruments.” Other tracks are adapted from traditional Indian folk melodies and rhythms. Shankar’s troupe embarked on a tour to promote the LP, and the performance of Music Festival from India from London’s Royal Albert Hall premieres on DVD here after a painstaking restoration process. The film is presented in both stereo and 5.1 surround mixed by Ravi and daughter Anoushka Shankar. Two bonus features are included: a short documentary about the remixing process, and a bonus audio-only track.
We then jump to 1997, for Chants of India. Harrison and Shankar joined forces in both India and England to set music to ancient Sanskrit chants. As with their previous pairings, Shankar composed the music while Harrison manned the producer’s chair. Shankar intended for this project “not to make it so difficult for hearing, for people who are not used to our music at all,” stressing that the sound would not be a “ritualistic or fundmentalistic [sic] one.” Harrison, too, felt that “a lot of people can benefit by having this kind of music in their lives, help as a balance towards a peaceful daily life.” This disc, in particular, is a fine companion to the recently re-released album The Radha Krsna Temple (Apple/EMI 50999 917672 2 6), also a collection of Sanskrit hymns produced by Harrison for his earlier label. The musical textures are varied, with unique string and percussion sounds arriving with frequency and interesting enough to hold the listener’s interest; some tracks even had my feet tapping (such as the rhythmic string quartet-enhanced “Svara Mantra”). Despite – or more likely, because of – its devotional nature, joy and a celebratory feel exudes from this disc.
Dark Horse has delivered Collaborations in a 9″ x 9″ box that opens and shuts easily thanks to a magnetic clasp. A certificate of authenticity is included, bearing the number of the limited edition copy. The albums themselves are presented stylishly in a format unlike any I’ve seen before. Each LP’s front and rear artwork is replicated in sturdy 8-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ sleeves which fit comfortably into the box. (Each album’s credits have been updated on the rear.) The CDs slide out on cardboard trays, and the discs are easily removable from the slot with little fear of scratching. Each disc bears the Dark Horse label. Audio has been remastered by Paul Hicks and Steve Rooke of the very busy team at Abbey Road Studios, while Hicks co-produced the set with Anoushka Shankar.
The accompanying 56-page hardcover book is printed on heavy stock glossy paper to beautifully show off a number of photographs, many in color. The book features a short foreword by Philip Glass and liner notes containing comments from both Shankar and the late Harrison. There’s also an essay about Indian music by Shankar, and a helpful illustrated guide to Indian instruments along with a glossary.
If I don’t personally see myself revisiting Collaborations as often as, say, All Things Must Pass, it’s certainly a project I’m happy to have on my shelf. As Indian music often informed the theme, scope and sound of Harrison’s more commercial projects, these LPs weren’t a dilettante’s sideline. These albums illuminate an important aspect of the career of George Harrison, for sure. But they also remind one of the immense musical influence of Ravi Shankar. (It can be heard in every pop and rock recording employing the sitar, from “Norwegian Wood” to Thom Bell’s Philly soul productions for the Spinners and the Stylistics!) These once hard-to-find LPs are presented with great integrity here. (One hopes the same team behind this box will tackle a remastered Complete George Harrison at Apple box, including Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound in addition to the more familiar titles; and a potential box set containing the non-Harrison releases on his Dark Horse label.) Collaborations is available in the U.S. exclusively through georgeharrison.com and Amazon.com. The box’s three core LPs have also been made available as downloads, but the context of the beautiful package immeasurably may enhance your listening experience. It certainly did mine.