Writings about Music
Next To A Mountain
Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha
Screenshot of Jimi Hendrix transfixed by Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967.
Writing about The Isley Brothers last week, I learned the story of how they hired Jimi Hendrix. This, in turn, led to me discovering an extraordinary filming of an exceptional performance Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox gave outdoors on the foothills of Haleakala in Maui.
While listening, I detected the influence of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha on Jimi's guitar playing in terms of melodic and rhythmic complexity and melisma along with particular bending of notes going beyond blues, and did some investigating. Sure enough, we have a video of Hendrix listening raptly to Shankar and Alla Rakha performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Additionally, I learned that at least one Ravi Shankar recording was part of Jimi's album collection, apparently a 1966 or 1967 gift from Brian Jones.
Jimi Hendrix in one of the absolute greatest filmed music performances and improvisations ever in any genre.
This particular album is noteworthy for featuring Malkauns, one of the ragas musically closest to blues forms along with Jog. In fact, during the time of my friendship with Ray Manzarek, another friend, upon learning we were playing Jog, suggested it be referred to as Hey Jog after the famous Hey Joe by Hendrix. Getting back to the musical substance of Jog, the swaras (tones) having a strong connection to blues, and thus jazz and rock, too, make the monumental midnight raga infinitely accessible to those unfamiliar with Indian classical music.
My guess is that Jim Hendrix had other Ravi Shankar recordings, too, perhaps even earlier than the album given to him by Brian Jones, and listened to them incessantly at some point or points, including after hearing Ravi perform live. In terms of chronology, two of the most fantastically complex improvisations Hendrix gifted us with, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), and All Along the Watchtower, came after the Monterey performance. The one recording of Shankar we have evidence Hendrix owned was likely heard prior to the recordings of Purple Haze and Foxy Lady, additional Hendrix masterpieces of composition and improvisation among others. Regardless of just how many hours Jimi listened to Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha is perhaps besides the point given how, for example, Claude Debussy was musically effected by what may have been a single performance of Indonesian gamelan music.
I had a similar perception with legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis, and when I interviewed him on the phone, Davis not only confirmed that Ravi Shankar was a major influence on his playing, but enthused how I was the first person to ever ask him about this.
My telling of this story was the only comment from over 350, including comments from prominent music writers, given a NY Times Picks for the music essay of the 1619 Project, a distinction that was unfortunately removed along with all the other comments at some point later on for unknown reasons.
Screenshot of Michael Robinson comment on the music essay for The 1619 Project; the only comment from over 350 given a NYT Picks.
During a period when I enjoyed a number of after midnight extended suppers with members of the Chambers Brothers at an all night Los Angeles restaurant, they spoke sorrowfully of their lost friends Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin, the shock and horror of how they left us still vivid.
Deriving inspiration from Indian classical music is something I cannot admire more in both Jimi Hendrix and Richard Davis, demonstrating their superior judgment and taste in terms of what "musical food" to ingest for artistic nourishment, both finding ways to assimilate elements that attracted them, expanding their existing musical state, similar to John Coltrane, and later on, myself, too. (One may also argue that the influence of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha was pervasive among myriad leading rock instrumental virtuosos of the time I've addressed with Jimi Hendrix.)
While Hendrix is one of the guitarists I admire most along with Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Pete Townsend, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, and others, Johnny Winter happens to be my absolute favorite, as shared with George Harrison.
Having mentioned Ravi Shankar, many are unaware of other Indian classical musicians of astounding genius, including Pandit Jasraj, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, L. Shankar, and Anindo Chatterjee, among others one may cite.
Lastly, perhaps needless to say, we have ALL been influenced by the phenomenal, one of a kind music of Jimi Hendrix - a brief yet indelible comet flaming across the sky lighting our collective creative consciousness.
- Michael Robinson, December 2020, Los Angeles
© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).