It’s been a real joy to watch the market for, and the availability of, music on tape expanding in recent years. The drivers of this expansion, as already discussed at length elsewhere on this blog, tend to fall into two main camps. First, there are the labels who are acquiring licences to issue master copies of albums originally recorded on tape, including some pretty ‘big name’ artists. Then there are the indie labels who are creating their own contemporary recordings and releasing them on tape (in some cases only on tape, and in others with tape as one of multiple formats offered). Typically this latter group tends to focus on specific genres, notably classical and jazz, and tends to feature up-and-coming or less well-known artists (invariably excellent quality and well worth discovering). You’ll find a complete rundown of both in Where to buy music on tape.
Somewhere in that mix, there are also a few examples that straddle both categories – like the occasional recording by a big, mainstream artist that gets released by one of the indie contemporary labels (I’m thinking of the wonderful Thelonious Monk Live in Milan from Open Reel Records and the fabulous Pavarotti tapes from Hemiolia Records). Wading further into the various catalogues, I began to discover that there are quite a few more…
A good place to start if you want to dig some of these out is International Phonograph Inc. IPI’s Jonathan Horwich has been recording jazz musicians since the mid 1960s. His one-to-one tape copies come in two categories: there are new recordings, recorded specifically in analogue in order to create new tapes, and then there’s IPI’s library of earlier jazz recordings, made over the years by Jonathan himself or by those he associated with. In the second camp I found a real ‘hidden gem’, Ravi Shankar, in Luxembourg, 1980.
There’s a great back story to this one: in 1980 Jonathan was working on a series of recordings in Europe, including at a music festival in Luxembourg. Purely by chance, one of the festival organisers introduced him to Ravi Shankar, who asked Jonathan if he could make a recording of the performance he was about to give at a small church!
“The performance that day was stunning,” Jonathan writes. “Mr. Shankar was truly a world-class musician, considered one of the top sitar players of the 20th century. It was an honor to be in his presence. The tabla player on the recording, Allah Rakha, was also in the same class: a master. Together these two legendary musicians put on an absolutely thrilling 18 minute performance in front of a live audience.”
A one-of-a-kind recording
Jonathan also reports that afterwards, Ravi Shankar said it was the finest quality recording of his work he had heard. Now that’s what I call high praise and job satisfaction!!
Reading the tape notes, it’s obvious that this is indeed a state-of-the-art, purist, audiophile quality recording. It was done with just two spaced omnidirectional B&K 4133 microphones, feeding two Mark Levinson ML-8 microphone preamps, which in turn were feeding a Studer / Levinson ML5 master recorder running at 30ips (i.e. a Mark Levinson modified Studer A80).
Another pretty unique thing about this tape: there’s just one track on it. Yep, just one track. But it’s 18 minutes long, it’s absolutely hypnotic and it’s the kind of thing you’re likely to listen to a lot (I’ve clocked at least a dozen plays so far and I can see it remaining a regular on my Studer).
Why? Well, I can’t claim to be an aficionado of Indian music (my bad), which has a completely different construction than Western classical music and is full of intricate and subtle melodies and complex rhythms. But, drawing on some crib notes from my copy of The Anthology of Indian Music Vol. 1 (on vinyl) among other things, I’m going to try to explain why this is such a mesmerising recording and also why, if you’re a fan of Ravi Shankar, you really must hear him on tape!
Ragas, talas and drones
The track is called ‘Raga Desh’. If my understanding is correct, Hindustani (North Indian) classical music features two interwoven elements: raga and tala. Ragas are patterns of notes but they’re quite different to a Western scale or melody: in a given raga, there are fixed patterns of ascent and descent along a defined collection of notes, and each raga provides the musician with a framework within which to improvise. Tala is the rhythmic structure, a repeating pattern, on which the raga is laid. There’s also the drone, which is a note held (or repeated) throughout a passage of music. Each raga is associated with a different time of day, season, mood or special occasion. Raga Desh is a late evening raga associated with the monsoon season.
So, in any given performance there are usually these three elements: a soloist (singer or musician) playing the melody, percussion (usually tabla) and the drone (typically played on a tanpura, harmonium or electronic box).
In this recording, the great Ravi Shankar is the soloist on sitar, accompanied by Alla Rakla on tabla. There’s no mention of the drone, but the drone sound is definitely there; to be honest I’ve always assumed (rightly or wrongly) that sound came from the sitar, so perhaps it does in this case.
Classical instruments, master musicians
The sitar originated in medieval India. It’s been played in the subcontinent for hundreds of years but only really became widely known in the West in the 1960s, through Ravi Shankar. It has a totally distinctive ‘shimmering’ sound and, after my first listen to the tape, I was curious to find out a bit more about it… A sitar can have between 18 and 21 strings in total, 6 or 7 of which are played strings, the remainder being ‘sympathetic’ strings of a variety of different lengths which run underneath the frets. The sympathetic strings resonate in response to the played strings and are also used to set the mood of a raga at the start of a performance. The neck usually has 20 frets – though I read somewhere that some have 24 – which are moveable for fine tuning. The played strings connect into tuning pegs near the head of the sitar, while the sympathetic strings pass through small holes in the fretboard to connect with smaller tuning pegs running down the instrument’s neck. The main strings are plucked with a metal plectrum worn on the index finger and the sympathetic strings are also strummed on occasion by the little finger. If that all sound complicated, it is! The sitar is also a notoriously difficult instrument to play, and an even harder one to master.
And the tabla? Also a very difficult instrument to learn, apparently it can take years to master the different strokes. Tabla are a pair of small drums that sit side by side on the floor in front of the player. Their main role is to keep time, but they can also interact with the soloist and have short solos of their own. On the left is the larger and lower-pitched drum, known as the bayan (meaning ‘left’). The bayan is played with the heel of the left hand which is pressed into the drum to vary the pitch. On the right is the dayan (‘right’), a smaller drum which is higher in pitch and played with the fingertips of the right hand.
Here in this performance, we have an absolute master of the craft on each of the two instruments. Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012) is of course globally renowned and widely considered to be one of the top sitar players of the second half of the 20th century. He developed a style distinct from that of his contemporaries by incorporating influences from South Indian Carnatic music. Alla Rakla (1919 – 2000) often accompanied Shankar and, as Shankar introduced the West to the sitar, Rakla did the same for the tabla. Rakla achieved world renown in his own right and, like, Shankar, became a sought-after collaborator and teacher by many of Western popular music’s greats including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and the Grateful Dead. In Rakla’s obituary, The New York Times called him “the most important tabla drummer of his generation” who “used his skill to invigorate every musician who shared the stage with him.”
No wonder this recording had me at the first listen!
The tape: 18 mesmerising minutes
Somewhere, I don’t recall where, I read something about Hindu philosophy providing a spiritual context for the experience of listening to Hindustani classical music. It was along the lines of the relationship between the raga and the tala (melody and rhythm, and in this case sitar and tabla) being a mirror of the dance between the Hindu gods Shakti and Shiva. They’re probably best known (at least by those of us with limited knowledge) as gods of creation and destruction, respectively. But here, Shiva was referred to as the god of time, represented by the rhythm of the tala, while Shakti, the goddess of creation, was the melodic dance over the rhythm. So the relationship between the two was seen as symbolic of the interplay between them and their creation and recreation of the universe across time.
It’s an interesting idea and I’m going to listen out for a sense of it when I next play the tape. So far, all I know is that I find listening to this type of music quite hypnotic and extremely relaxing, almost healing. While my understanding of Indian music is admittedly extremely limited, I relish the sounds and the music makes me feel good. I’m deliberately not going to attempt to analyse in any great detail why that is musically, since my lack of knowledge of the complexities of the musical genre means that I’d be pretty presumptuous to even try!
So let me focus instead on saying a few words about the recording and why I think this is an essential listen on tape in particular.
From the start you immediately hear the space that the performance is recorded in. You know you’re at a live, public event as the sitar (left of stage) and tabla (on the right) burst into business.
It strikes me that two of the many qualities of a great tabla player are surely lightning speed and the ability to express a wide gamut of tonal colours, and in this recoding I’m hyper-aware of Alla Rakla’s mastery on both counts. Ravi Shankar’s sitar similarly offers a vast palate of sounds, from a churning drone to incendiary-like percussive plucks. Tape, like no other medium, retains the fullness of these dynamic contrasts and timbral colours, and so there’s a visceral sense of both mastery and intimacy here. You’re in the presence of greats, and that presence is so very present. Close your eyes and there they are, Shankar and Rakla sitting cross-legged in your living room. Within seconds, I find myself utterly absorbed in the moment, losing myself to hypnotically captivating music.
There may only be one track on this tape, but there’s no doubt that I’ll get plenty of value from it. It could almost become a daily ritual, a time out (or time in?), a form of meditation if you like. It’s one of those little gems that can shine like jewels in your music collection. You know those moments when you’re browsing your collection thinking, I’m in the mood for something but I’m not sure what – aha! – and there it is.
The asking price of $150 is, to me, more than reasonable. In fact, with a blank reel costing around $80, it’s frankly a steal. Then again, things could quickly add up here, since I’ve now got my eye on a bunch more of Jonathan Horwich’s ‘legacy’ recordings which include some real gems from Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, Thelonius Monk, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Joe Pass, Benny Goodman… oh boy!
Here’s the link you need for the Ravi Shankar: www.internationalphonographinc.com/ravi-shankar-in-luxembourg-1980