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Blair’s Golden Road Blog: On Ravi Shankar and the Dead

By Blair Jackson

It might not be obvious, but the great Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, who passed away at the age of 92 on Dec. 11, had a profound effect on the Grateful Dead, both directly and through his influence on other musicians whom the Dead respected and learned from.

Many people incorrectly believe that Shankar’s first serious contribution to Western music was when George Harrison plunked out that primitive but effective sitar part on The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in 1965. Harrison’s admitted inadequacy on the instrument (which he had found on the set of Help! earlier in the year), convinced him to search out Shankar for some actual lessons on the instrument, and led George to integrate sitar into a pair of Beatles tracks in ’66-’67—“Love You To” (on Revolver) and “Within You Without You” (on Sgt. Pepper). Harrison invited Shankar to play the famous Concert for Bangla Desh benefit in 1971, and to open for him on George’s remarkable 1974 Dark Horse tour (which I was fortunate enough to see at Madison Square Garden). George also produced a 1974 album called Shankar Family and Friends on his Dark Horse label.

There’s no question that Shankar’s association with The Beatles helped popularize Indian classical music all over the world. It’s why Shankar was invited to play at Monterey Pop in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. He was a hero in the ’60s counterculture, yet he openly frowned on the hippies’ use of drugs and their libertine mores.

But Shankar was already a popular and influential figure in America long before the first meandering acid-fueled “raga-rock” guitar solo was played. Shankar started playing concerts with some regularity in the U.S. in the mid-’50s, and in 1956 the jazz-oriented World Pacific label put out an album called Three Ragas, which was quite successful for an “ethnic” recording of Indian classical music. It wasn’t long before Shankar began collaborating with various Western musicians, from violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to jazz players such as bassist Gary Peacock and saxophonist Bud Shank (on a 1961 album called Improvisations). His music was embraced by the Beat community—many of whom turned to Eastern religions and Asian cultures for inspiration—and also the folk music world: In the early ’60s, guitarists such as John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull brought Shankar’s influence into their original instrumentals.

However, no one did more to fuse Indian music concepts with modern jazz than saxophonist John Coltrane. Inspired by Shankar (and then others), Coltrane studied the raga form, as well as the different modes, scales and the use of drone elements in Indian music. In 1961, he recorded a tune called “India” on his Live at the Village Vanguard album, and as the ’60s progressed, the influence became even stronger ("A Love Supreme" used two basses to create a drone underpinning) as Coltrane also explored Hinduism and the spiritual foundation of Indian classical music. “I collect the records [Shankar’s] made,” Coltrane told one interviewer. “I’m certain that if I recorded with him, I’d increase my possibilities ten-fold, because I’m familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his work.”

Coltrane and Shankar met for the first time in 1964, and over the next couple of years the Indian master musician taught the sax titan much about ragas and tala (rhythm) systems. In 1965, Coltrane cut an album called Om (after Hinduism’s most sacred chanted syllable), and that year he named his second son Ravi (who is an excellent sax player today). He and Shankar were supposed to meet again in late 1967 and possibly create some music together, but Coltrane died in July before that could happen.

Garcia’s folk crowd in the years before he started playing electric music was definitely familiar with Ravi Shankar, and David Nelson told me that during the first acid trip that he, Jerry and several friends took in mid-’65, they listened to a Ravi Shankar record at some point. Jerry and Phil were both serious fans of Coltrane, too, and said that the saxophonist’s early and mid-’60s Indian-influenced explorations had a huge impact on the Dead as the group became increasingly adventurous and more skilled.

Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop, 6/18/67.

With the exception of “Viola Lee Blues,” which usually contained a long jam that built methodically in a way that was reminiscent of some ragas (before going completely wild and crazy), the Dead’s music didn’t show much overt Indian influence. Hewing much closer to Indian sources in ’66 and ’67 were such songs as “The End” by The Doors, the Butterfield Blues Band’s epic “East-West” and Jefferson Airplane’s extended versions of Donovan’s “Fat Angel”— guitarist Jorma Kaukonen had studied Indian music a bit on his own and brilliantly blended elements of it into his style. With the Dead, the nods to Shankar and late-period Coltrane were more subtle, stitched into the group DNA with shimmering psychedelic thread.

After the arrival of Mickey Hart in the fall of ’67, however, the Dead consciously worked on Indian musical concepts for the first time as a band. After Phil turned Mickey onto an album that featured solo pieces by Shankar’s incomparable tabla player Alla Rakha, Mickey became obsessed with Indian music and in December 1967 arranged to meet Alla Rakha in New York City while the Dead were in town working on Anthem of the Sun and playing a few gigs.

In just one session throwing around musical ideas with Alla Rahka, Mickey learned the rudiments of Indian music’s complicated subdivisions of time, and he brought back his newfound wisdom to Dead rehearsals in January 1968. With the band suddenly investigating unconventional time signatures and rhythms, their music took off in startling new directions. “The Eleven” is one piece that came out of those rehearsals, but the group’s disciplined explorations of this new musical terrain spilled over into other songs and jams, too.

Later in ’68, Mickey hooked up with another tabla master, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, a rhythm instructor at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County (founded by sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, with whom Ghosh often toured). Ghosh provided more formal training in Indian classical traditions, and shared the stage with Mickey at least once at a Dead concert—9/20/68 at Berkeley Community Theatre. (In the mid-’70s, Mickey formed the Diga Rhythm Band with Alla Rakha’s tabla-playing son, Zakir Hussain, who has been part of innumerable Mickey Hart projects since.)

Ravi Shankar enriched music in so many ways. One could even argue that he was the original “world music” artist—a genius in his own tradition, but also always looking to expand the boundaries of music by sharing his knowledge and engaging with musicians from other cultures. For a lot of us rock ’n’ roll kids, perhaps the most enduring image of Shankar (and Alla Rakha) comes from the film Monterey Pop. The virtuosos start their raga slowly and then confidently build up speed, complexity and intensity until they hit a blindingly fast crescendo that leaves the crowd of hippies breathless and amazed.

Nearly half a century later it is still completely mind-blowing.


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Joined: Nov 1 2017
One of the greatest musicians

One of the greatest musicians from India who introduced Indian classical music to the west. RIP. His two daughters are supremely talented too(although Norah didn't have his influence growing up).

Joined: Apr 2 2008
Ravi Shankar

Hi Blair

I just wanted to add something to the debate since the music of the subcontinent has been a passion for most of my life. You write, "After Phil turned Mickey onto an album that featured solo pieces by Shankar’s incomparable tabla player Alla Rakha, Mickey became obsessed with Indian music and in December 1967 arranged to meet Alla Rakha in New York City..."

I interviewed most members of the Grateful Dead during the band's lifetime. Parallel with those interviews I was interviewing musicians from both the Hindustani and Karnatic art music traditions as well as figures in other realms of Indo-Pakistani music. I knew Pandit Ravi Shankar very well. I knew Alla Rakhaji pretty well - and he was the first major Indian musician I ever interviewed, in Tooting, southwest London, since you ask.

The story that came down to me from various core sources is that it was Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten who were the first to turn on to Indian rhythmicality. It was an era in which World Pacific and Nonesuch Explorer releases were turning many ears. Mine included.

For the record, the album was Drums Of North And South India (WP 1437 mono, WPS 21437 stereo, 1966). It is an album that eludes me to the present day. World Pacific LPs cost an arm and a leg in Britain; I never tracked it down in the States.

Stay bright

Ken Hunt

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Jerry's ashes in the Ganges

Has nothing to do with Ravi Shankar, certainly nothing as startstruck and fobbishly cloying in mannerism as that of copy-catting the Hindu "master". There simply was not that kind of relationship between Shankar and Garcia and even if there were this particularly is not Jerry's style.

No, one has to believe that Garcia was caught up is a rather larger admiration for Hinduism as a whole, in the sense that he believed that there was more than one lifetime and the submerging of one's ashes in the Ganges is more in line with the holy qualities ascribed to higher rebirth among the Hindus who go this route.

The fact that not all his ashes went into the Ganges is further proof that Jerry was not 100% into this....

Joined: Oct 1 2007
two bass players...

are on India (!) which was recorded in '61 at the Vanguard, but not released until '63 on Impressions. Strangely it is sometimes said that the effect Coltrane was after, in using 2 bass players on this track, was an African drum choir..... There are other occasions where Coltrane used 2 bass players.

Joined: Feb 3 2011
"A Love Supreme"

While John Coltrane did, on occasion, use two bassists, the original 1964 release of the album featured The John Coltrane Quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Jimmy Garrison (bass). The version with two bassists was not released until the deluxe, 2-CD reissue of "A Love Supreme" in 2002, with two alternate takes of the opening movement "Acknowledgment" (which also included saxophonist Archie Shepp). That said, "A Love Supreme" would be on my proverbial desert island list, side-by-side with "Live/Dead." /s/ Marty

sailbystars's picture
Joined: Oct 27 2010
if bloodlines alone count for something..
marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

may have been the album I listened to more than any other at the time. It was, and is, a stunner.

Big_river's picture
Joined: May 17 2009
appreciate the master

I've found very few connections between the work of Pandit Ravi Shankar and the Grateful Dead. The Dead did descend from the Beats, who listened to Shankar's recordings on their path to spiritual enlightment. The Dead and Shankar both played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Tom Scott (who later played sax on "Estimated Prophet") played flute on the 1967 "Charly" soundtrack, recorded by Shankar for World Pacific Records.

Mickey Hart had a long relationship with Zakir Hussain, the son of Alla Rakah, who played tabla for Shankar. Shankar, Alla Rakah and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan all ran schools of music in California during the 1960's and '70's. Shankar was disciple to Khan's father Allauddin Khan. One-time guitarist for the Other Ones, Steve Kimock, lived near Ali Akbar Khan's school in Marin County and absorbed the microtonal notes of traditional Indian instruments that drifted to his cabin door. Both Hart and Shankar won Grammys for World Music recordings.

Shankar more directly influenced the Byrds and the Beatles--most notably George Harrison. Harrison also "re-produced" a soundtrack for Howard Worth's 1971 film "Raga." (SWAO 3384) In the film Shankar makes a journey back to India after becoming disillusioned by the distortion of his culture, as all things Indian became fashionable in the West. Shankar eventually disdained the hippie movement.

Ravi Shankar was an early ambassador of World Music, but is from an earlier age. Traditional Indian culture and Hindu religion, Indian classical music and its discipline--and tonality--only make tenuous connections to the music and culture of the Grateful Dead, Given, some of Jerry Garcia's ashes were commended to the Ganges River. Shankar's influence is more indirect, in the way a master is emulated and appreciated.

segan63's picture
Joined: Nov 1 2010

The raga rock breakdown leading up to 7:10 in East-West reminds me of some Charlie Mingus(Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting) that I have been listening to lately. Then the "smooth-as-silk" transition has a similar sensibility to when Mind Left Body would come out of the depths of Dark Star...

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Yeah, Segan...

"East West" was super influential in the Bay Area.... That moment after the big raga-rock crescendo when it goes into that smooth-as-silk, drifting figure (at 7:10) is one of my all-time favorite moments... "E-W" was also one of the first long tracks on an album by a 60s band... Very hip for '66, to say the least...


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