Neuro Communication with Ravi Shankar
My cousin Sam and I escaped our Harvard dorms and were about to experience neuro communication as we headed out to a Ravi Shankar concert in a small neighborhood theater in Boston. I was just seventeen, you know what I mean, and it was frostbite territory standing at the bus stop in Cambridge, Mass. Freezing almost took my mind off of being homesick for my family back in New York. Overcome with loneliness, I needed an attitude adjustment and Sam insisted on some music therapy. He thought that classical sitar music from India would distract and soothe – reboot my brain. I wondered why we were the only Harvard students who ‘d come to hear this relatively unknown musician from India. But it was the sixties and Shankar hadn’t yet been labeled by The Beatles’ George Harrison as “the godfather of world music”.
I shared the emerging passion for All-Things-India by exploring yoga, mysticism, and transcendental meditation. Although I was raised in a Jewish household, I was determined to investigate the spiritual experiences emanating from India. I had wheedled my way into a course on The History of Buddhist Thought at Harvard Divinity School. There was no major in World Religions back then, and this was my way of creating the path by walking it.
My excitement over hearing a Shankar concert erased any trace of homesickness for the next few hours. I’d never seen Shankar perform or heard his music, but sensed that the experience would be healing. Music had always comforted me. Music was there for me when my family moved from the twenty-four square miles of British Bermuda to a Westbury apartment complex in Long Island, New York.
I definitely needed music. My response to leaving the island was to curl up in a ball, suck my thumb, and face the wall of our third floor walk-up apartment overlooking a parking lot. Exasperated, my parents offered to arrange music lessons if I promised not to jump into the ocean at Jones Beach and try to swim home. William Congreve wrote, Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, more than three centuries ago, so he couldn’t have been thinking of me. But I was a poster child for Congreve and immediately grabbed the offer. My first choice was trumpet lessons. What else could it be when I’d been brought up on the Baroque music of Henry Purcell at the Bermuda High School for Girls?
Unfortunately, the Westbury elementary school didn’t allow a trumpet, or any wind instrument, for students as young as me. My parents encouraged me to go with my second choice: the violin. My father had always wanted to play the violin, just like a long list of Jewish immigrants to America. Violins could easily be packed up and carried when escaping the various hordes chasing you. Bottom line, the school only charged $5.00 for the entire year of lessons, including the rental fee on the violin. Between the doable fee and Dad, violin lessons were a done deal.
I started out playing scales and nursery rhymes with my classmates, learning to read music. It seemed like forever before I graduated to real music. Determined to master the art, I listened to classical violin music every chance I got. My goal was to play Vivaldi, Mozart, and Bach by the time I was in high school. Was I ready for that level of artistry as a teenager? Probably not, but I didn’t care and insisted on trying.
While I loved performing Bach’s Double Concerto, my transition to American culture was not with classical music, but through Broadway musicals. My parents took me to see Porgy and Bess, Flower Drum Song, Oklahoma, and South Pacific. A classical music fan, my father put aside his disdain of popular music for the Jewish composers of this truly American art form. Together, he and I toe-tapped to Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Leonard Bernstein, and the Gershwin brothers. He took me to see what had been Tin Pan Alley, the Manhattan streets where Jewish composers and publishers of popular music once flourished.
Seeing the Guys and Dolls on the big screen starring Marlon Brando energized me even more. Performing the play’s music in a state-wide student orchestra put my fascination with musicals on steroids. I was like a mad scientist discovering dark matter and I soon outstripped my father in knowledge of Jewish music trivia. I made a bet with him over the play’s composer, Frank Loesser, and won. Music delivered a rare moment of besting him in anything and I prized that as much as the record of Guys and Dolls that was my winnings. I hugged the record triumphantly and danced off to my bedroom to play it over and over again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him hug my mother, celebrating the Americanization of their daughter.
As much as he indulged my passion for music, Dad would never have come with us to hear Shankar. His taste in music had boundaries, mine did not. He saw music as education and entertainment. I saw it as a means to travel to diverse universes. Once I’d entered another world through music, it seemed like a no-brainer to enter other cultures the same way. Whether instrumental or with lyrics, backed by an orchestra or a dance company, music was a cosmic adventure. Every culture on the planet has created music and I wanted to experience it all.
The spiritual experience of Shankar began as we walked onto the stage. He inhabited it with his presence as he sat down next to his sitar. Shankar was a revelation in this little, run-down theater with lousy lighting and so-so acoustics. He and his drummer played melody after melody. The endless harmonies drifted over the audience which was so quiet, you felt the solitude of your soul. On and on the meditative sitar music sounded, washing over us like waves.
No one moved; there was no shuffling or rustling, not even a cough. We were enchanted by the music, by the hypnotic and exotic notes and harmonic phrases. Shankar himself looked as if he were on a different plane, sitting in his colorful silks and calmly, but passionately, producing his heavenly music. It seemed as if the audience had blended into a single consciousness, awareness, and other-worldly mood. Time passed, but it was anybody’s guess how much time. I doubt anyone cared to keep track. You could feel the audience’s mystical connection with the divine. In the stillness, I knew that I’d pass my Buddhism course and excel as the only female Jewish undergraduate in the Harvard Divinity School class.