Ravi Shankar Usher Hall Edinburgh 22 Aug 2011
I fulfilled a long time ambition last night, and finally got to see the great Ravi Shankar in concert. Ravi, who is now 91 years old, was George Harrison’s sitar teacher, an influence on the Beatles and countless other bands, and played at the great 60s festivals, such as Woodstock and Monterey. This rare UK concert was at the Usher Hall Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
The concert started at 8.15 and finished at around 9.45pm, with no interval. The crowd was a real mixture, comprising people of all ages and backgrounds; everyone keen to see the great man perform. Outside, waiting for the doors to open, I heard voices of many different nationalities; several loking for spare tickets, as this concert had been sold out for some time. My seat was upstairs in the Upper Circle looking down on the stage. Not a great view, but I could see the entire stage (although my neck is rather stiff this morning!). Just before 8pm the hall filled and an announcement was made that the concert would begin shortly. You could hear a pin drop in the vast Usher Hall; everyone waiting in anticipation for what promised to be a very special evening. The stage was set with Indian rugs; the instruments strewn across them and in the centre was a small podium on which Ravi would shortly sit. The scent of insence hung in the air. Just before the performance started two ladies took their seats in the front row accompanied by a cute little white dog, who also had a seat bang in the middle, right in front of the stage. I wondered if there was any connection with Ravi.
At around 8.15pm the musicians took to the stage, followed by Ravi who was looked quite frail, was walking with a stick and was helped on stage by one of his fellow musicians. The reception from the audience was immense. I don’t think I’ve every heard an audience clap as loud or as long. The musicians all took their place and Ravi introduced the first raga in a gentle voice. I’d read some recent reports that suggested that he may have lost some of his musical power in recent years. From where I was sitting his playing was first class; indeed it was astounding for a man of his years. Ravi and his fellow musicians first played two short ragas, followed by a short piece for Khrisna’s birthday. Ravi introduced each piece in a gentle voice, which was almost inaudible from my seat upstairs. The final piece was a longer raga which became a jam and showcased each member of the band. Before it started, Ravi introduced his fellow musicians, several of whom had been, or were currently, his students. This piece meandered through various meoldies and rhythms, and featured extended percussion and flute interludes from each of the musicians; always returning to Ravi and his sitar. At various points he invited his colleagues to come into the piece with a simple, gentle wave of the hand; with another wave, he would tell them to stop. The piece climaxed with some strong rhythmic sitar. And then it was over. Ravi bowed, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. The little white dog who I had seen join the concert at the beginning of the evening jumped up and joined him on stage. I later learned that the cute dog is Ravi’s pet, Suki. Ravi left, and returned again with his musicians to take a final bow. A remarkable evening. As the lady in the seat next to me said at the end “Amazing. I hope I am like that at 91”. I wouldn’t disagree with that. As I walked down the stairs and out of the hall, I sensed that we had all experienced something truly unique.