By Richie Unterberger

"I have had a dream to try to combine Western and Indian music into a new form, a music which has no particular name but is melodious and touching, and which combines the most modern electronic devices with the old traditional instrument, the sitar."

    So declared Ananda Shankar on the front cover of his self-titled 1970 Reprise LP. The urge to combine Western and Indian music, or in more general terms East and West, had swept rock music ever since George Harrison played sitar on the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" in late 1965. In the ensuing five years, innumerable major and minor rock acts tried to incorporate Indian music into their work, often using the sitar, and often within the framework of psychedelia. Some such efforts were stunning successes, like the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and much of Donovan's Sunshine Superman album; others were half-baked turkeys.

    What set Ananda Shankar aside from most such artists was that he was an Indian musician of distinguished pedigree approaching the East-West fusion from the Eastern direction, rather than the other way around. A choreographer as well as a composer, he was the son of respected Indian dancers Uday and Amala Shankar, as well as the nephew of Ravi Shankar -- who, by 1970, was the most famous sitar player throughout the world, and certainly the one most likely to be familiar to rock audiences, via his association with pupil George Harrison and his appearances at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals. After studying sitar with Lalmani Mishra in India, Ananda traveled to Los Angeles, where he hooked up with the mostly Western rock musicians who comprised his supporting cast on Ananda Shankar.

    The album was a largely instrumental effort, with the exception of a few almost decoratively ambient vocals on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the chants and spoken spiritual passages on the closing folk tune "Raghupati." Instrumental fusions of "East" and "West" with sitars, it should be noted, had been done before. British guitar session supremo Big Jim Sullivan had learned sitar and played the instrument on both original material and covers of big rock hits on his late-'60s album Sitar Beat, which also featured a young John McLaughlin on session guitar; Sullivan recorded another such album under the pseudonym Lord Sitar. Shankar, however, brought far more credibility to such a project by virtue of his ties to his uncle Ravi and his deeper schooling in actual Indian culture and music.

    Nonetheless, there was just one other Indian musician credited on Ananda Shankar, tabla player Pranesh Khan. The rest of the backing, and the production, was supplied by a crew with enormously varied and distinguished credentials. The bass work was split between Jerry Scheff, a session ace most famous for his recordings with Elvis Presley (with whom he also toured) and the Doors (on L.A. Woman), and Mark Tulin, who'd been in the original Electric Prunes lineup. Also from the original Electric Prunes lineup was singer James Lowe, though on this album he took on the duties of associate producer. Drake Levin, most renowned for his stint in Paul Revere & the Raiders, contributed guitar, as did Dick Rosmini, a folk revival veteran who played on records by Van Dyke Parks, Phil Ochs, and Jackie DeShannon. Sharing the drum duties were Mike Botts (of Bread) and Joe Pollard. Producing this ambitious undertaking was Alex Hassilev, who'd enjoyed fame during the folk boom as one of the Limeliters, and had moved far beyond the parameters of folk as the producer of unusual albums like the 1967 psychedelic astrology concept LP The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds.

    "I did the project because the idea of sitar, percussion and Moog synthesizer excited me," remembers Hassilev today. "I pitched the idea to the company and they approved it. It was made with love in my little (but very well-equipped) studio on West Knoll Drive. I was very fortunate in having the superb rhythm section of Michael Botts and Jerry Scheff, who are both outstanding and inventive musicians, and who embraced the project enthusiastically. Their ability to lay down a groove that meshed with the more fluid rhythms of the sitar and tablas was remarkable. James Lowe, who engineered, was a tremendous help, both technically and musically."

    "Alex Hassilev was an interface for the music/recording scene in L.A.," observes Lowe. "He had a cool little studio in the basement of his house in Hollywood. He also had one of the first Moogs in an anteroom. We were fooling with it when no one knew exactly how to use and record it properly. I had done my own space/moon album on it and I think Alex thought I could help on the type of record they were trying to make. Since Alex knew everyone from his Limeliter days, he was always hooking people up. I was engineering and producing sessions there after I left my band. I agreed to help out engineering and associate producing the record since I had helped Alex out engineering Limeliters and Glenn Yarbrough albums.

    "I met and worked with more music people at Alex's house than I can remember. From Johnny Mathis to Ry Cooder to Hoyt Axton and Van Dyke Parks, Andy Summers to Seals and Crofts...etc. This was an excellent chance for me to meet and work with some 'folk-based' people since I had just known rock idiots till then. We had our own 'wrecking crew' at Alex's place for recording. I brought a few people on for the recording, but we always had the hot studio players hanging around, so it was just easy to ask Elvis's bass player if he wanted to lay down some boom. Most of these guys could sight read and understand a chart, so it always moved very quickly."

    Judging from both the songwriting credits and the liberal splashes of otherworldly Moog synthesizer effects, it seems that the most important session musician could have been the relatively unheralded keyboardist Paul Lewinson. Lewinson had far less session experience than most of the other players on the album, though he had been on Hoyt Axton's 1969 LP My Griffin Is Gone. Yet it was he who shared songwriting credits with Ananda Shankar on the original material that comprised four of the record's eight tracks (the others being covers of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the Doors "Light My Fire," and the traditional and folk selections "Dance Indra" and "Raghupati"). Alex Hassilev, incidentally, was no stranger to working with the Moog himself: The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds had been one of the first albums to feature the instrument, played on that recording by Paul Beaver.

    "It was my idea to include the use of the Moog synthesizer (which I had purchased and learned to play), and which I had used successfully on The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds album for Elektra," confirms Hassilev. "Paul Lewinson had become sufficiently proficient on it to play it on the album. His arrangements were self-effacing but very appropriate, I thought, and the Moog sounds he created were outstanding."

    Adds Lowe, "Paul ran with this project. [He] was close to Ananda and it was near to his heart spiritually. Ananda and his friends were very respectful people and very sincere. Paul hooked it all together, chose the songs, and worked with Ananda in the rehearsals. He also did all the Moog work, which was a bitch because it just would drift pitch-wise while you were trying to make a chord."

    The covers of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Light My Fire" (the latter of which itself had borrowed liberally from Eastern motifs in its original hit version) were the most obvious attempts to reach out to the rock audience. It could even be said that hints of Tommy James's massive late-'60s hit "Crystal Blue Persuasion" could be heard rattling around one of the Shankar-Lewinson collaborations, "Mamata," and the bittersweet "Snow Flower" was perhaps the most psychedelically-inclined of the originals, overlaid with buzzing and fluttering electronics. Yet arguably the best performances on Ananda Shankar were those that emphasized the Indian side of the equation, like the blissed-out "Metamorphosis" (which managed to fit in some funky drum breaks before accelerating into a mini-raveup) and the 13-minute "Sagar" -- the latter, according to Shankar's notes, the only selection on the LP played in the Indian classical style. Its ostentatious spoken intro aside, "Raghupati" was also a highlight, its infectious chants and relatively chunky, rocking beat making it perhaps the most accessible of the pieces; as Lowe recalls, "we had ten of Ananda's friends come in and sit in a semi-circle and do the chanting and playing."

    Lowe offers this evaluation of the albums as a whole: "The idea of fusing Indian music with synth was pretty noble. For Ananda to break away from the traditional use of the sitar was brave, as I saw it. No one had done that in this way yet. George Harrison had introduced the rock world to the sitar and Ananda's family tree a few years earlier, and I think Ananda made a good account of himself. I thought at the time it would have been interesting to let the players wander a bit more together through the music. But there was a condition of having to hook the Moog in there and also have some songs the two cultures could relate to, like 'Light My Fire' and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash.'"

    Did Ananda Shankar's dream of combining Western and Indian music into a new form take the world by storm? Not at the time, but Ananda Shankar established a solid reputation among collectors over the next few decades, as well as being hailed as a forerunner of the world music fusions that attained global popularity from the 1980s onward. Although he never had another release that gained as high as profile in the United States, he worked prolifically in India over the next three decades on numerous film television, and dance projects. Although his final album, 2000's Walking On, got more exposure in the West than anything else he'd done bar perhaps Ananda  Shankar, the musician himself wasn't around to see it, having died in Calcutta of a cardiac arrest at the age of 56 on March 26, 1999.

    As for the Ananda Shankar album, Alex Hassilev summarizes, "I had no thought that it would be a giant seller, so I was pleasantly surprised when it sold a fair number of copies in Europe some years back. I'm delighted than others have seen fit to reissue it. May a new generation discover and enjoy it." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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