by Joe Schwartz
Ravi & Anoushka Shankar
Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Tuesday, Oct. 6
The fundraisers and university planners who spent $18 million to renovate UNC's Memorial Hall four years ago probably envisioned nights like Tuesday when they made the commitment: a sold-out venue, a world-renowned artist, an event that couldn't have occurred in Chapel Hill before the hall reopened. Such was the occasion when Ravi Shankar took the stage.
The man who introduced music from the East to the Beatles and who George Harrison famously (infamously?) dubbed "the godfather of world music" performed Raga Sangeet, a style that is both improvised and highly coordinated. "Raga changes according to the time of the day and the mood," said Afroz Taj, an N.C. State Hindu and Urdu professor who introduced the show. "It's always romantic. India is a very romantic country. You can tell by the population."
The night began with a South Indian raga composition by a drummer, a flutist and two tabla players. Ravi and his daughter, Anoushka, did not appear until after intermission. Their 15-minute song proved a fitting build for the evening. The purring flute wandered curiously amid a backdrop of tablas. The musicians barely moved, plucking one reverberating string every few seconds. The drum, which only appeared halfway through the piece, quickened the beat, each individual finger adding a unique element. By piece's end, a single drummer created the range of an entire percussion section. The musicians, barefoot and wearing traditional habiliments, put both hands together and bowed, offering appreciation before the brief intermission.
Soon after, Ravi took the stage with his daughter and three others, each sitting atop an individual box and together curled around the stage. Shankar, 89, played with a passion not seen in his junior accomplices. As he and Anoushka exchanged stanzas on the sitar, he—almost effortlessly, it seemed—matched her pace. He coaxed the instrument back and forth, generating the precise sound he envisioned. The raga was composed but not static, genius because the audience could be lulled into believing that it was entirely impromptu, but only until the stark sound of open palm drum beats linked the song together, punctuating each point. The Shankars offered a call-and-response through each raga, with each song gently rolling from tuning to high-energy strumming. The drums, often resembling the sound of gulping water, kept the tune together. Later, they were joined by the musicians from the first act, adding a drum and a singer who offered a scat or beat box addition to the music. Through the night, it was clear that Ravi Shankar—his face beaming and head nodding—not only enjoys the music, but that it's a part of his core.
At night's end, an Indian woman released a small white dog onto the stage. It ran around, greeting the musicians and enjoying the limelight. It was the perfect ending to a memorable, if improbable, evening in Chapel Hill.