Diversity comes in many diverse forms

On Friday, August 15th 1969 Ravi Shankar played at the Woodstock Festival. He performed at ten o'clock in the evening just hours after Richie Havens had opened the Festival, with Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez following him. Raviji's appearance was not without its problems: his set was terminated after 35 minutes by the rain that turned Max Yasgur's farm into a mud bath and he later complained the audience were all stoned and the size of the crowd made communication impossible. But these problems not withstanding, a celebrated musician from a great classical traditions had shared a stage with Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Grateful Dead, and The Who.

Two years later Ravi Shankar recorded his Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra for EMI with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, and went on to record with other leading musicians from the Western classical tradition including Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yehudi Menuhin. He was treated by EMI as another classical artist, and worked with the label's top producers, including Christopher Bishop whose artist roster included Sir Adrian Boult and Riccard Muti, John Mordler whose credits include Maria Callas albums, and Robert Kinloch Anderson who produced many of Sir John Barbirolli's great recordings.

Ravi Shankar's role working with the cream of Western classical musicians also sat comfortably alongside his collaborations with George Harrison which blossomed into a sequence of albums starting with the 1974 Shankar Family and Friends. After his Woodstock experience Raviji bit the hand that fed him by abandoning the lucrative festival circuit and becoming an outspoken critic of drug abuse. His campaigning found expression in 1989 through the remarkable and woefully neglected 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch'. As the theatre piece unfolds, the central character Ghanashyam, an acclaimed Kathak dance teacher, becomes addicted to the highly potent strain of cannabis called ganja; his career is ruined and eventually he dies, as does his wife and fellow teacher Lalita.

The 1960s and 70s were the golden days of free thinking musical diversity before the digitally-enabled mania for personalisation and specialisation created the conveniently marginal pigeon hole of World Music. Ravi Shankar's stellar music making reflected his diverse mindset. Diversity of ethnicity and gender are vitally important, and it is gratifying that considerable progress has been made in classical music on those fronts. But diverse mindsets are what really matter; without them ethnic and gender diversity become no more than box ticking exercises, and I venture to suggest that is what is happening in classical music today. Let us take the example of the Kanneh-Masons who are the classical industry's diversity poster children.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are undoubtedly very talented musicians who deserve a high profile. But to achieve that profile they are both managed by super-agent IMG Artists, both enjoy the patronage of the BBC which controls the biggest classical festival in the world and five leading orchestras, and both are signed to Decca which is part of the Universal Music Group, a corporation controlling 31% of the annual global recorded music sales of $18.8 billion. Which does not leave much scope for what really matters - diverse mindsets. Because the cardinal rule in today's classical industry is that if you want to succeed, don't bite the hand that feeds you. Even if that hand is attached to the establishment body that has perpetuated the gross inequalities of ethnicity, gender, remuneration and merit still blighting classical music.

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Pliable said…
While writing this I listened to Ravi Shankar's Concert for Peace recorded at a live performance in the Royal Albert Hall in 1993 with Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Partho Sarathy (sarod). This is undoubtedly one of the great recordings of all time, with the live concert environment adding a priceless spontaneity and risk-taking. Seek out the difficult to find Moment Records double CD to audition, or, second best, find a stream or download.

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