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RAVI SHANKAR: SITTING ASTRIDE CULTURAL FENCE

Ravi Shankar is an expert on the subject of cultural cross-pollination. In the ‘60s, the celebrated sitarist seemed to embody Indian music for Westerners, playing ragas at posh concert halls as well as rock festivals throughout Europe and America.

“I’ve been sitting on the fence between East and West all my life,” he says with pride.

Actually, he has found his way aboard more than one fence. Witness his concerts at the Japan America Theatre on Friday and Saturday. After a traditional solo raga in the first half, four Japanese musicians (June Kuramoto, Johnny Mori, Kazu Matsui and Yumi Kawaratani) will join Shankar and friends for a second-half “East-Meets-East” jam session, which will revolve about a series of his compositions for the assembled instruments.

“I try to experiment a lot,” he says simply.

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After a grueling seven-hour rehearsal in the Santa Monica Canyon home of a friend recently, Shankar appears invigorated--and at least 10 years younger than his 65 years.

Despite its appearances, Shankar insists that the weekend program is not all that experimental.

As he quietly points out, East actually met East centuries ago: “We owe much to the Buddhist monks who traveled around the Orient transporting knowledge. I recently found out that acupuncture and the martial arts actually originated in India, and were brought to China and Japan by the monks. And it’s very possible that the music might have traveled with them.

“There are some Japanese pentatonic (five-tone) scales that closely resemble some of our ragas,” he continues. “You see, the important thing when you are being innovative is to avoid gimmicks. If something new is merely gimmicky, it dies its own death. But if it has value--if it has strength--then it stays on.

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“I’m lucky to have a good background in the old traditions of my country. Plus, as a child (accompanying his late brother, dancer Uday Shankar), I visited the West many times and absorbed a great deal.”

The task of mixing a profound respect for the centuries-old philosophies and techniques of classical Indian music with an unbounded enthusiasm for the possibilities of Western music might have proved thoroughly confusing to the average musician.

But Shankar found happiness in both arenas by simply dividing his talents. “I am a strict traditionalist as a performer,” he says. “When I sit and play a raga, I stick to the rules. I do my experimenting as a composer.”

Over the years, his experimenting has resulted in such endeavors as two “East Meets West” best-seller records with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, numerous works for sitar and orchestra and an “East Meets East” recording with Japanese musicians. He has also established himself as a film composer, (most recently, the Oscar-winning score to “Gandhi”).

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Does this sort of music making raise the dander of traditionalists back home?

“When creative people start something new,” he responds with a smile, “they face the gun. But I am not frightened to experiment. If you eat the same food every day, you become closeted.”

Working with the Japanese musicians who will join him in the jam session has been particularly rewarding for Shankar. Far from being strangers to his music, he says, they have shown a keen understanding of its intricacies. The reason?

“They are all Japanese-Americans, all residents of the Los Angeles area, in fact. So they have had an opportunity to hear all kinds of music. We’ve been rehearsing like mad, but it is going very well.”

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Performing with Shankar and the Japanese contingent will be some of the sitarist-composer’s students, friends and family members from India and the United States. The instrumentation includes voice (his sister, singer Lakshmi Shankar), flute, guitar, tablas, sitar, sarod, sahnai, santur, tamboura, koto, shakuhachi, samisen and taiko.

An appropriate visual and sonic representation of Shankar’s “Global Village” approach to music.


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