Nine Decades: Volume 1 untaps what is planned to be a new stream of releases of audio and visual material from the Ravi Shankar archives. It is the inaugural release from the sitarist’s new label East Meets West Music. For decades Alan Kozlowski has been archiving Shankar’s past and with this release we get a taste of what the lockers contain. The label debut has 1967–68 as its artistic unity.
The most important morsel prised from the vaults here is a 1968 performance of Gangeshwari with Alla Rakha on tabla and Kamala Chakravarty on tanpura, recorded on the banks of the river of its title at Allahabad. It is one of several raga devisings that he obtained while ‘mucking about’ with the sa as entry port. The recording may lack hi-fidelity – ears attune and the drop-outs get forgiven – but it captures elements of his art when he and Alla Rakha were playing for dear life. This is a non-sterile environment musically and all the better for that. You can eavesdrop on Shankar exhaling and murmuring to himself as he plays the alap and jor in the great outdoors. Six or so minutes in, Alla Rakha enters and the performance rises. This is Gangeshwari with dirt under its fingernails – at some remove from Anoushka Shankar’s cover/reconstruction of her father’s composition on the 2005 triple set ShankaRagamala. The sitar has, for instance, a different vocal and tonal range to his later instruments. By the time they are, say, twenty-five minutes into the performance, the figurative feathers are flying and by the conclusion thirty minutes later they are tempestuous. From still air to levitation and earthquake to silence in fifty-five minutes makes for an exhilarating musical journey.
Four minutes of priestly Vedic chanting – ‘Duga Suktam’ and ‘Mahishasura Mardini Stotram’ – counted in by Shankar conclude the time capsule. Of at best fleeting interest are the post-concert vox pop responses (‘West Meets East’) to a 1967 solo concert – which from the accents probably took place in California, though one out-of-state lady talks about attending an Uday Shankar performance.
With CD sales, one hears, in decline, it is imperative that the custodians of this archive improve the quality of the notes and the packaging. Much of this release’s notes are little better than press release. Give more context, be more editorially stringent, be less pontificating (no matter how tempting). To home in on just one area: however good your Sanskrit may be, you know there must be a body of listeners – perhaps people whose mother tongue is German or Japanese, Tamil or English or whose faith isn’t Hinduism – for whom the Vedic chants convey little without translated lyrics or providing a synopsis and contextual explanation of their hymnody. East Meets West Music Inc. is the official recording label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation. Henceforth, it needs to go the extra mile to do justice to Panditji’s legacy. In my opinion.