Whole Lotta Shankar Goin’ On

I have gotten into a lot of world music over the past few years. One of my favorite discoveries is the artist Ananda Shankar.

Ananda Shankar – Ananda Shankar And His Music
Ananda Shankar – Missing You/A Musical Discovery Of India
Ananda Shankar – 2001
Fall Out Records

Believe it or not, for a while I began to get really bored with music. Not only did most rock bands sound alike to my ears (as many always do – even more so now that every new band is trying to give their music an ’80’s sound. I mean, the ’80’s weren’t too good for music. Why would anyone want to sound like that? Gratutious sax solos, Yamaha DX-7’s and gated drums. Hooray! Do you feel the sarcasm? DO YOU?) but even the soul and jazz artists I was listening to were beginning to seem tedious and uninspired.

Nephew of the world famous sitar player Ravi Shankar, Ananda Shankar was a musical prodigy and learned sitar (among other instruments) at a very early age although, contrary to popular belief, he did not learn the instrument from his uncle but from Dr. Lalmani Misra in varanasi. After mastering his instrument, Ananda Shankar desired to make his music known throughout the world and realized he needed to travel to the US to achieve his goals. Immediately after arriving in Los Angeles, Shankar began jamming with rock music’s elite. By this time (roughly 1968 or so), everyone was into psychedelic rock and Shankar was no different, spending time honing his rock chops with musicians like Jimi Hendrix, whom he often jammed with. As an aside, I have to note that every musician over the age of fifty has the phrase “jammed with Jimi Hendrix” on their resume. Now, I don’t doubt plenty of musicians did jam with Hendrix and I don’t doubt Shankar did because those sessions have been well-documented. It’s just that when I listen to these claims I get a picture in my head of Hendrix just standing there, like a department store Santa, waiting until everyone of this long line of musicians comes up and plays a few minutes with him and then steps aside so another can come up and do the same thing. I mean, did Hendrix just stand there and wait for people to jam with him? Anyway, by the age of twenty-seven, Ananda Shankar had signed a deal with Reprise Records and the label released his eponymously -titled debut album in 1970. Though it has become a cult classic among those who admire fusion for the way Shankar combines elements of of hindu music with psychedelic rock (the album contains searing verisons of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” and The Doors’ “Light My Fire”) the album did not sell well and Shankar retreated back to India for some retrenching.

He re-emerged in 1975 with Ananda Shankar and His Music and blew away his fans with his mix of Indian music and stone-cold funky rave-ups. And I am not shitting you about the deep, deep funky grooves on this album! This is music that would sound right at home on the Shaft soundtrack or in the background of any Dolemite movie. Shankar had decided to eschew the harder elements of psych-rock and use Sly Stone and Geroge Clinton as inspirations for his next foray into popular music. Just a note: these reissues from Fallout come with some brief biographical liner notes, but (like most Fallout releases) their reissues mostly concentrate on the music and not the gee-gaws involved with packaging the album. Your mileage may vary as I love informative liner notes when it comes to archival reissues such as these but Fallout just never includes that stuff. I’ve wished many times Fallout would beef up their liners and such but what can you do? The music is definitely the most important part so just having this stuff released again is great on it’s own. Caveat emptor.

The next reissue from Fallout combines two albums, the first having been released in 1977 and the latter in 1978. The first of the pairing, A Musical Discovery Of India, was a project paid for the government of India while the second, Missing You, was another of Shankar’s funk-themed albums but thematically based around a personal tribute to his parents. A Musical Discovery Of India pretty much sounds like the title and is a more “serious” approach to Indian music. The album contains mostly Indian classical compositions. While definitely not funky, the album will blow your mind simply because of the pure skill displayed in Shankar’s playing. And, despite the album being based totally around Indian music with no fusion of American elements, it is very accessible. You can hear Shankar’s very soul in this music. The second album, while a concept piece about his childhood, brings Shankar’s music back towards the fusion sound of his first albums while retaining some Indian classical elements. It seems that on this album Shankar wanted to bridge the two worlds of trthe traditonal music he was hired to play on the previous record and the more modern choices he was making on his own releases. The result is pure excellence.

Fallout’s third reissue, 2001, was released in 1980 and was what the title suggests: a futuristic space-themed funk fest. While more modern in sound and approach, the album leaves the more serious Indian music of his past few albums behind and returns to the straight acid-funk Shankar had been mining earlier in his career. In other words, sitar funk to which you should be shaking your booty.Though always popular with music fans seeking something a little avant-garde with touches of jazz, funk and world music, Shankar’s career hit a fallow period and he released very little music over the next twenty years or so. During that time, many hip DJ’s began mining his albums for beats and samples and subsequently Blue Note felt the need to release a greatest hits CD on Shankar. The Blue Note album upped Shankar’s profile and he subsequently returned to recording. Sadly, he died in 1999 just before his first album of new compositions in many, many years was to be released.

This music will appeal to a very diverse music-listening and appreciating public. Not only will these albums be interesting to the Indian music fan, but listeners interested inb world music will love these discs and those interested in funk will also find a lot to like here. As I’ve mentioned, even though these albums feature Indian instrumentaion and musical ideas, Shankar was gearing his sound to be appreciated by people who love funk and R&B. These albums are very funky and the way Shankar expands what funk music can sound like and what funk music represents regarding sound and texture will astound those who have never listened to his music. These discs are not for everyone’s tastes, but I suspect those who like the aforementioned genres and have open minds regarding music will find these discs fascinating and very well worth the money spent.