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A Sitar Player On The Unique Instrument Shankar Made Famous


As you probably heard by now, the great sitar player Ravi Shankar died yesterday at the age of 92. His music arrived in most American ears thanks to George Harrison and the Beatles, whose interest triggered something of a sitar craze back in the late '60s. Harrison played the exotic instrument on a couple of tracks. The Rolling Stones followed suit on "Paint It Black." The electric sitar soon followed. But Ravi Shankar remained the unchallenged master. But what do I know? He's the only Indian-born sitar player I ever heard.

So let's hear from the sitar players in the audience. What made Ravi Shankar so good? And is the sitar really as hard to play as it looks? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. BRIAN SILVER is a sitar player of over 40 years, and he is here with us in Studio 3A. And well, as we begin our conversation, let's hear the beginning of Shankar's "Raga Jog."


CONAN: Brian Silver, as we listen to that, what is he doing that makes him so special?

BRIAN SILVER: Well, first of all, he is playing the sitar, which is a wonderfully expressive and challenging instrument. This particular recording is very meaningful to me because this was a recording that tilted my universe by about five degrees when I first heard it, checked out from the Denver Public Library in the late '50s, and sent me on my way to India. So what he is doing is playing the sitar. It is an instrument, unlike the Western string instruments, which usually play up and down the neck only; you can play up to five notes pulling the string to the side. So he's playing both notes with a special sound of the sitar up and down the frets, but he's also pulling the string to the side, which gives that fluid ornament.

CONAN: Bending the note as some blues guitarists...

SILVER: Exactly, and bending it up to five pitches or tones.

CONAN: And what makes him especially good compared to other sitar players?

SILVER: Well, the wonderful thing is there are many great sitar players. I have to go back to my origins in the 20th century. And he was one of a number of major sitar players, but he had a unique capability to engage his audience and to be what we like to think of as a musical ambassador. And so he would talk about the music and make it very dramatic, which would draw the audiences in.

CONAN: So he had great charisma as well as great technique?

SILVER: Absolutely.

CONAN: The instrument itself, is it really that hard to play?



SILVER: I mean it's easy to play simply. It's very difficult to play in a complex way. What, as I say, distinguishes it from the Western instruments is you play almost all of your notes in the upper two octaves on one string.

CONAN: Really?

SILVER: And so you have to go up from the left to the right rather than going across the fret board.

CONAN: I have the advantage of being able to see you here in the studio. When you say going up, you're going way out with your left hand.

SILVER: Right. Right. So I mean in the style of sitar that I play, and there was another tradition - the late-great Ustad Vilayat Khan, who had just four notes below the main playing string; he played almost all the notes on that main playing string, from a fourth to a double octave fourth and the other three notes below. (Unintelligible) Ravi Shankar had an octave below, so he had two more strings to play another octave on.

CONAN: And we think of - the guitar, of course, has six strings. As I understand it, the sitar has six main strings but then all those resonating strings underneath.

SILVER: Well, in Pandit Ravi Shankar's style, there were four main playing strings and 11, 12, 13 - I'm not certain what he had on his sitar - sympathetic strings, plus four more drone - three more drone strings. So you have the drone strings, which you keep the tonic going and then you play the melody on the, you know, two or the four strings.

CONAN: Let's hear that music again and tell us what you're talking about, the tonic. What are we hearing there?

SILVER: The tonic is the dough.


SILVER: That's the tonic right there if I'm singing badly. Seventh tonic. Then he hit the drum strings. You heard in the background there. Then he goes up to the third. And you hear it varying.

CONAN: And is this something that's written down? Is he's playing off sheet music?

SILVER: No, no. The exciting thing and the terrifying thing about this music is you don't have music to play from. You sit down to play. And whatever you play comes from your education and from your heart.

CONAN: So it's an improvisation every single time.

SILVER: It's improvisation. I like to use the analogy like a game of chess. Every raga - and there are hundreds of different ragas - has its own set of rules. And you have to follow the ascending or the descending patterns, the emphasized notes, the notes you don't hit, the notes you hit, in some cases, crookedly. But you have to follow the rules. But in that limitation, you're intimately free.

CONAN: And we think of, you know, classical music. These are long pieces, correct?

SILVER: Well, they - in the old days when they had the gramophone come to India, you had three-minute ragas.


SILVER: Some of which are masterpieces because the masters could put all they had into those three minutes. The longest raga I've ever heard was about two and a half hours.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from sitar players: What made Ravi Shankar so good, and how hard is that instrument to play after all? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Lawrence(ph) is calling us from Charlotte.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Hey, thanks for taking my call. I actually had the opportunity to hear Ravi Shankar early on in the '60s and then again just the last couple years. And it did - he didn't change a bit. In fact, he got better over the years in comparison with Andres Segovia, whom I also saw early on and then later, who was starting to kind of lose his chops.

CONAN: The great guitar player, of course, the Spanish guitar player.

LAWRENCE: Of course. But I didn't play sitar. After I saw him the last time, I bought a sitar from his technician of the years who lives here in Charlotte. And playing the sitar itself is easy. The hard part is, as the commentator said, was mastering the scales. And there are 72 different scales. And then, you know, variants and the grace notes and that kind of stuff. So it's a pleasure to play and improvise on, but learning the rhythms and the scales are somewhat difficult.

CONAN: Well, Lawrence, you tend to keep at it?

LAWRENCE: Oh, absolutely. I just bought a set of tablas, too, so I'm going to keep working in trying to, you know, master at least one raga in the rest of my life. So - but it's a great music. He has done a tremendous job. And his daughter Anoushka is really fantastic as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll skip his evaluation of Andres Segovia. But Ravi Shankar, was he playing as well at the end as he was all those years ago?

SILVER: Well, since it's in the evolving music, of course, as he got older - all musicians, as they get older, sacrifice some technique for expression. Interestingly enough, in Charlotte, I think I know his sitar technician, Tony - a friend of ours. But he kept playing, which was the courage of it. I mean, some people retire. But he chose to keep playing. He, in the end, played a modified sitar, which suited his physical capabilities.

CONAN: So is it a young man's game?

SILVER: It's a lifetime game.

CONAN: Like tennis, I suspect. You may not be able to play the same game that you did when you were 20 but you can play very well.

SILVER: Right. Because it's improvised you - every time you play, it's a different experience.

CONAN: Did you meet Ravi Shankar?

SILVER: Oh, many times, yeah.

CONAN: And what kind of man was he?

SILVER: Well, charismatic, sense of humor and energetic. And he was so in love with the music, which is, I think, part of the reason that this music became more popular than any other non-Western form of classical music. Now, Indonesian music is around, Chinese music is around, Japanese music is around, but the sitar and the ragas of Indian music really took the country by storm in the late '60s, thanks, to some extent, to George Harrison and The Beatles.

CONAN: Now, here's an email from Max(ph) in Kansas - in Cincinnati: I had the great privilege of learning under the indirect tutelage of a sitar player, Shahid Parvez Khan, considerably praised around the world. I learned for a few months at an Indian classical music academy and can say it certainly is a difficult instrument to play. It takes constant daily dedication. My practice almost solely consisted of playing what in the West would be a major-scale, up-and-down called sargam.

Even for those, who had been students for years, we're still working on playing the simple scale for considerable chunks of time each day just to gain more speed and produce a clearer sound. I still have my sitar, and though I no longer play it, my brief time learning it was special and a profound experience I'll never forget.

SILVER: Well, he mentioned Shahid Parvez, who's a superb master of the sitar, one of the great living sitar players right now. And again, it is a challenge to try to master things. By the way, I do have to thank my first full-time student, David Whetstone in Minnesota, for getting me on this show. And he...

CONAN: We're reaching out to find the sitar player best to talk about Ravi Shankar and an indirect route to you.

SILVER: Exactly. It bounces back to Washington. But yes. And then I had the opportunity to interview him a couple of times and was always an exciting and delightful man to meet.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is Joe(ph). Joe is on the line from Cincinnati.

JOE: Hi there. Great show. I love it.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOE: I'm just wondering what kind of strings they use on the sitar. I play a guitar myself. Does he have nylon strings, plain strings, they use gut strings?

CONAN: What kind of string is on a sitar?

SILVER: That's a wonderful, precise question. Basically, the closest thing I can say is harpsichord wire or piano wire. When they played the sitar - even though it's allegedly several hundred years old, as far as I could tell, it's not more than 150 years old, and every sitar I've seen uses steel strings. If you're playing a deep - the deepest bass string that Ravi Shankar played - I'm not certain because I don't play that style - might have been a wound string. But otherwise, it's piano wire. It's 11 thousandths, 10 thousandths, 12 thousandths and brass wire for the lower string or lower strings.

JOE: Great. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Joe. And we were hearing about a technician. Do you need a technician to maintain your sitar?

SILVER: Well, yes. I mean, when I first learned, starting back in 1964, a year before George Harrison, I must say...


SILVER: ...when I came back, I had to maintain the instrument myself and I learned by watching the craftsman. It's mainly filing the bridge. The distinctive sound of a sitar is the twang, or as one of my students once said, sort of the dental drill effect. And that's because the string comes off the bridge at an angle as opposed to a guitar bridge where it's a straight string on the bridge which gives it that distinctive high-overtone sound. Well, you have to file the bridge so that on every note on the 22 frets or the notes pulled to the side has to have basically the same sound quality.

So you have to file that yourself. But you get old and you get a little lazy and if Tony Karasek is down there in North Carolina and comes to Washington and can do - redo the bridge for you, we appreciate that.

CONAN: And obviously the accompanying instrument most often associated with the sitar is tabla, a kind of drum.

Exactly. The tabla is a pair of drums. I mean, we're sitting here in a studio where nobody can see, but the right-hand drum, very uniquely, is tuned to the tonic that either the vocalists is singing or the instrument is - instrumentalist is playing, and the left-hand drum is kind of loose and by a variance of boom, boom. The heel of the left hand, unless you're a left-handed player...

Left-handed player, yes.

SILVER: ...gives a different pitch, and a deep bass effect. And that is the common accompanying instrument for the sitar.

CONAN: We're talking with sitar player Brian Q. Silver about the great Ravi Shankar who died yesterday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we were listening earlier to parts of Shankar's "Raga Jog." Let's go back..

SILVER: They pronounce it "Raga Jog."

CONAN: Jog, oh...

SILVER: It's spelled jog, but it's pronounced jog.

CONAN: Jog. Well, thank you for correcting me. This I wanted to play because I think we're going to get some rhythmic changes here. Tell us what's going on.


SILVER: Right now, actually, he's still playing solo sitar, but he's playing a section called jala, where you hit the melodic strings in fast interaction with the upper-drawn strings. So the - technically, we call it ching-ching so you hear this. Now, those are the sympathetic strings which he just played with his little finger of his right hand. Now he's getting into the rhythmic composition known as the gut. And since the tabla player has been sitting there very patiently for a long time, he does a fancy solo.

And coming down to the first beat: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 1. And I changed the pitch there because on those four beats, the left-hand drum isn't played.

CONAN: Let's listen.


SILVER: Eleven, 12, 13...

CONAN: And forgive me, that sounds like a little jazz rift there.

SILVER: ...14, 15, 16, 1. Again, it's improvised. The comparison with jazz is apt in some ways because it is improvised. As jazz, in different styles, is governed by certain harmonic rules, in Indian music, the improvisation is governed by rules of scale and as you heard of rhythm.

CONAN: You mentioned another sitar player. Who right now would be in Ravi Shankar's class?

SILVER: That's a rough question. Who's the best cellist in the world? I mean, there are many, many fine musicians. Of the senior musicians (unintelligible), who happens to be my wife's teacher but is one of the senior sitarists, is there. Shahid Parvez is fantastic. He is extraordinary. There are a number of fine sitarists, and I could go on and on.

CONAN: Well, Brian Q. Silver, thank you so much for lending us your expertise today.

SILVER: Well, I'm very honored to say whatever I can in praise of the late Ravi Shankar, who was the man who basically established world music.

CONAN: Brian Q. Silver has played sitar for more than 40 years. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, we'll talk about the ongoing drought and shallow waters on the Mississippi. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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