When Ravi Shankar met James Brown — by Deborah Levine

On a cold night in Sixties, my cousin Sam and I escaped our Harvard dorms and headed out for a small neighborhood theater in Boston. I had the homesick bug; Sam cheered me up with a concert by a relatively unknown Ravi Shankar. Shankar was a musician who would eventually attract the Beatles, and the West, to his music. He was more of a cult icon in those days. I was an early entry into the All-Things-Eastern craze, having squeezed myself into a course on Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School. Even so, I had never seen Shankar perform or heard his music.

Sam knew music and knew Shankar, but I had no idea what to expect. I was immediately absorbed as Shankar came on stage and inhabited it with his unearthly presence. 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 you were alone. 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.

With a deep bow it was over. There was long applause and a dash to the bathrooms. I turned to Sam and said thanked him, said I was ready to return to campus. “I think we should stay for the next act.” I whined at that, “I’m tired and it’s a long schlep back on the bus.” “Trust me. We should going to stay,” he said softly, but firmly. And so we were still seated when the curtain opened to reveal a young James Brown with his signature hair, enthusiastic band, and boundless energy.

This ivory-tower Jewish kid from suburbia had a real education that night. Brown strutted across the stage, howled into the microphone, and went into a split that lit up that tiny old stage. The walls vibrated, the seats shook, and the crowd went wild. Hands waved, feet stomped; you just couldn’t resist joining in. We danced in our seats, laughed, cried and sang along.

What a combination! Ravi Shankar and James Brown back-to-back. Whoever planned the concert should be given an award for inventing diversity training. Two totally different cultures and musicians and two very different audiences had a meeting of the minds that night. Not that we gave up an ounce of our own mindset, or shifted favorites. We just expanded, shifted gears, and made room for each other.

I didn’t comprehend at the time that we had seen two of the most famous musical icons that night. Nor did I didn’t grasp the uniqueness of seeing them together. But in retrospect, that night with Ravi and James was an initiation into the power of music in cultural diversity, a lesson that stayed with me through four decades of a diversity and cross-cultural career. It certainly stayed with Sam. He left Harvard and became a professional musician.

The recent death of Ravi Shankar is a time to mourn a great musician. It’s also a reminder to appreciate his role as an early symbol of global diversity existing side-by-side with home-grown diversity. He brought India’s music to the West and charmed generations of adventurous youth. Shankar helped us resonate to both sitar and soul music. Thank you, Sam for that evening. And thank you, Ravi Shankar. May you rest in peace amidst the celestial harmonies that I have no doubt inspired your own, as they apparently also inspired your daughter, Norah Jones.


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