First Thought, Best Thought?
We tend to see figures like Ravi Shankar—the sitar master from India who is often called the first "world music" superstar—as on a life journey with music, constantly sharpening skills in pursuit of unattainable mastery. That may be a romantic notion. What if Shankar hit the grand slam on his first attempt at reaching a Western audience, way back in 1956? What if all the experience he acquired subsequently turned out to be not really necessary? What if, in his refinement of the intricate systems that underpin the Indian raga, he lost something more elusive than technical command—a sensibility that allowed him to get beyond notes and the intricate counting sequences in order to communicate in beams of pure energy?
This, Shankar's first long-playing recording, invites such questions. For while his later output is plenty awe-inspiring, there are sparks of almost para-normal divine inspiration pulsing through this music. You can hear that intensity in the thrashing chords of the twenty-eight-minute opener "Raga Jog," and in the morning devotional "Raga Ahir Bhairav," which Shankar explores in double-time and later triple-time bursts. The improvisations are humble yet audacious; they uphold the pattern and, at the same time, seek release from it. They're notable for incredibly precise feats of sitar pitch-bending, extravagant slurred swoops that extend half an octave or more, and are played with such microtonal control they might fry the synapses of anyone who ever tried to make a guitar "talk."
Although Shankar went on to make many breathtaking albums—including the well-known At the Monterey International Pop Festival and the George Harrison–produced Chants of India, which offers imaginative musical settings of Sanskrit chants from ancient Hindu scriptures—Three Ragas remains something special. In the liner notes to the remastered edition, Shankar acknowledges as much: "When I hear this I feel the spirit of freshness and the vigor of youth in it."
Genre: World, India
Released: 1956, World Pacific (Reissued 2000, Angel)
Key Tracks: "Raga Jog," "Raga Ahir Bhairav"
Catalog Choice: At the Monterey International Pop Festival; Chants of India
Next Stop: Nikhil Banerjee: Afternoon Ragas, Rotterdam 1970
Book Pages: 692–693