In 1971, George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the US for a benefit concert for Bangladesh. Shankar took to the stage and performed his first number. The US crowd responded with enthusiastic applause. Shankar took up the mic and acknowledged the fans. “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more.”
Western pop audiences have adored Indian classical music for some 60 years at this point—but is it really adoration if it’s so thoroughly steeped in ignorance? If you can’t tell the tune-up from the performance, are you really enjoying the music? Indian classical traditions are complicated, venerable, and overlap little with Western notions of rhythm and melody.
The Beatles and many Westerners after them have been entranced by the strangeness and intricacy of Shankar’s performances. But it’s virtually impossible without a lot more knowledge than most listeners—or than I—have to move from that entrancement to an evaluative context. Picking an Indian classical CD to put on a best-of list puts you in the position of all those fans applauding the warm-up. Maybe you’re honoring greatness.
Or maybe you’re showing that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Or maybe both. Best of lists are always exercises in ignorance as much as exercises in connoisseurship; every album you pick is an admission that you don’t know about those other albums over there.
My selection of Ali Akbar Khan’s Morning and Evening Ragas may be as random as the notes Shankar picked out while preparing for the real performance, but the randomness is still (as the audience believed) fairly wonderful. Khan was the second most famous Indian classical musician of his day; he recorded the first album of Indian classical music in the US in 1955.
He played the sarod (an instrument similar to the sitar) and composed and performed classical ragas. Morning and Evening Ragas from 1966 is a typical entry in his catalog; it consists of two 20-minute performances featuring Khan, Mahapurush Misra on the tabla (a percussion instrument), and Anila Sinha on the tamboura (a lute that provides drone accompaniment).
Both the morning raga (Raga Goojjari Todi) and the evening raga (Raga Misra Mand) begin at a leisurely, drifting pace, which sounds like Khan is (ahem) tuning up. As the ragas progress, the speed increases. Khan’s sarod playing has a harsh, percussive quality, which combined with the tabla playing gives the music fierce propulsion, even as the drones and sustained quality of the notes sound dreamy and exotic to Western ears.
It’s like drifting off on a gentle breeze while being struck repeatedly about the head—misty mountain prog. The liner notes explain that the morning raga is more traditional, austere, and cold, with sheets of notes that sound like a Bach keyboard composition, creating fleet, rigid structures of sound.
The evening raga incorporates a Bengali folk tune which gives it a more lyrical romantic tone; even in the fast sections, the sarod winds around the racing table like it’s rising out of the maelstrom to search for a lost love. The last five minutes of the album are a driving strum with sustained notes and plucked voicings chiming in and out of phase.
It’s exhilarating and dazzling, not least because it teeters on the edge of a melody and method that makes sense to Western ears, even as the beats and technique resist expected resolutions and cadences. I do adore this record. But does it make sense to pick it out of all the available Indian classical music?
I could have chosen Concert for Bangladesh, or Khan’s first album—something of historical importance or fame. But I like this one better, both viscerally and for what it says to choose it. Like the folks cheering Shankar as he tuned up, I don’t necessarily know enough to appreciate Indian classical music. But even so, loving it isn’t wrong.