There is a moment in the beginning of the Concert for Bangla Desh live album when sitar master Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians play some notes on their Indian instruments. When they stop, the audience at Madison Square Garden applauds and cheers. “Thank you,” Shankar said. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”
He and his band members then begin playing the piece called “Bangla Dhun.” At the end, the crowd cheers just as lustily as they did for the warmup.
That was 1971. Forty-one years later, and a day after Shankar’s death at the age of 92, I’m not sure that most of the western world is any more hip to the difference between tune-up and performance in Indian music than the people who filed into Madison Square Garden that August to hear the show. I wasn’t when I heard the album in the 1980s, and I am not now. (If that’s a tune-up, I’ll listen to tune-ups for hours)
People are remembering Shankar today as a maestro of Indian music, and as the man who tried to build a bridge between western and eastern styles of music, both performance and theory. He was a crossover success, in large part because the Beatles and George Harrison in particular fell for his sound at the height of their own popularity. At least dear George stuck with it after the pop music industry wrung all that it could from adding sitars and sarods to rock and roll, and the psychedelic revolution spent itself silly on sex and drugs.
Shankar’s legacy was not that he bridged unbridgeable gaps between different cultures through their musical traditions. His legacy was that he embedded Indian music in a larger western pop tradition, and that it lurks there today. Whether we understand it or appreciate it for what it is, I can’t say. I doubt it, however.