I heard Ravi Shankar being interviewed on the Today programme this morning. Now in his eighties, he is making his farewell tour of Europe, although many of the concerts have been cancelled or postponed due to ill health. I first heard his music in the early 60's and, on one unforgettable occasion, heard him play in a pub.
My first introduction to Indian music had come about through my working in a record and hi fi shop in Southall, a town well known for its large Indian population. The shop, as you would expect, stocked many imported Indian records and as well as a great deal of film soundtracks(the title "Bhoot Bungla" sticks in my mind for some reason...) there was a selection of Indian classical music. By this point in my life I had realised that I had an insatiable appetite for all kinds of music and would listen to anything and everything, so I was soon checking out the Indian selections. The film music did not do it for me but one or two the classical musicians did - particularly Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar.
In the mean time I had become friends with one of our customers, one Richard Bartram, who shared my catholic tastes in music and was soon to manifest himself as 'Fingers' Bartram of the Jugular Vein (see 'Mutt and Jeff'). Richard would go on to be one of this country's finest guitar builders but at this point in time was still laying bricks for a living. His sister was working for the Co-operative Society at that time and had some sort of involvement in the Co-op's Folk Club. One day in, I think, 1966, Richard came into the shop and announced that he'd got tickets for a performance by Ravi Shankar at the Co-op's folk club, and did I want some? Rats and drains come to mind when trying to describe the speed with which I said 'yes', so one Saturday a few weeks later, accompanied by Richard's then girl friend and my then wife, we set off for the West End.
I can't recall the name of the pub now but I'm sure it wasn't the club's regular venue which was, I think, The Pindar of Wakefield in Kings Cross. I do remember that it was a very hot evening and that by the time we reached the venue we were all somewhat steamy. We bought drinks and went through into the room where the performance was to take place. A low, white-sheeted dais had been set up at one end and the rest of the room was jammed shoulder to shoulder with people. It was 'standing room only' and I guess there were about 250 people in a space that might comfortably held 90 or so.The compere for the evening was the late Bruce Dunnet , who was once described by the critic Karl Dallas as a "...Rabelaisian, lantern-jawed, foul-mouthed, stooping, commanding presence." At the start of the evening at least he was fairly restrained, although his famous cry of "Tak' yer glasses wi' ye tae the bar!" which was delivered in a broad Scots accent, rang out a couple of times before the performance started.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the introductions were made and Ravi Shankar stepped onto the dais, accompanied by the great tabla player Alla Rhaka (whose son Zakir Hussain is probably even more famous than his father, thanks to his associations with the likes of John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Van Morrison etc.) and a tamboura player whose name I forget. He addressed the audience quietly and politely, requesting that we did not drink or smoke during the performance, also that we refrain from applauding until the end of the entire performance (which would last about one and a half hours). He also requested that the windows be closed during the performance as the noise of the traffic was somewhat intrusive. The musicians then settled themselves cross-legged on the floor and commenced to play.
Despite the rapidly mounting temperature and lack of liquid refreshment the audience remained entranced for the next 90 minutes. It was a breathtaking musical and spiritual experience that seemed to transcend its environment and transport everybody to an entirely new place. At last the music wound down to a conclusion. The last notes of the tamboura died away. There was a silence that must have lasted for a full minute before the audience finally errupted into frantic applause that must have lasted a full five minutes. At last, when it had become apparent that there was to be no encore, the clapping and cheering faded to nothing and once again there was silence as the audience again dwelt upon the sheer spirituality of the experience that they had just shared. At this point Bruce Dunnet leapt to his feet and hollered "Aah. Come on Ravi, gi'e us another chune!"
Once again - if there's anyone out there that remembers the occasion then I'd love to hear from you