Record #358: Ali Akbar Khan – Two Ragas for Sarod (1967)

Man, the sixties were weird, right? I’m trying to think through pop music history to find a more left-field cultural obsession than the sudden popularity of Indian raga in the later half of the 1960s, and I’m coming up short (maybe the bubble of whisper-quiet singer-songwriters in the mid 2000s, a-la Iron & Wine and his disciples?).

The ubiquity of raga in the ‘60s is perhaps best demonstrated in the discarded record collection I picked this out of: abandoned in a trunk on the side of the road between Emmylou Harris and Barry Manillow records (there was some Grateful Dead in there too). But you get the picture–everyone was listening to raga. It was so popular that it infiltrated even the most vanilla of record collections (to be fair, they also had a Pharoah Sanders record. I have a feeling it may have actually been a mixture of a parent and child’s collections). 

It’s not unexplainable though–in the (pseudo?) spiritual awakening of the hippie movement, scores of bands were already looking to India for philosophy and musical inspiration. And I’m talking the major players: The Byrds, Rolling Stones, and of course the Beatles, who spent months in India under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Even before the visit, George Harrison (who had a proper revival experience in India) added Indian flavors to his work without much diluting (see: “Within You Without You”). So naturally, in the same way that I started listening to Sunny Day Real Estate because all of my favorite bands cited them as an influence, many music fans in the 1960s went right to the source.

And to unaccustomed Western ears, the source can be a little strong. This album features two instrumental pieces, each an entire side in length, performed only on sarod (an instrument I just heard about today—it’s like a small sitar) and the tamla (Indian hand percussion). Both start out slowly and quietly in meditative drones, building and accelerating through their runtimes to almost manic conclusions (pity that tamla players hands). The later sections are writhe with rhythm changes and shifting strong beats, slowly building in tempo until you’re not sure there’s anywhere left to build to. And when it reaches a breaking point, it crashes to conclusion, leaving nothing but a few seconds of the drone strings ringing out. The album is both contemplative and exciting, but if I’m going to listen to it more regularly, I’m going to need a lot more incense.

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