Ravi Shankar,
Flute & Sitar Music of India
(Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

The colorful liner notes claim Ravi Shankar Presents: Flute & Sitar Music of India to be "not only for the Indian music enthusiast, but for all fans of great World music," which puts me in the awkward position of either accusing them of being wrong (at least partly) or of having to admit that I am really only a fan of mediocre world music. Preferring the former option, I found Flute & Sitar Music to be a mixed bag of a CD: two thirds lovely, and a third considerably otherwise.

Recorded at a session sometime during the collaboration of Ravi Shankar and flautist Vijay Raghav Rao (1945-1975), Flute & Sitar Music contains four long tracks: two melodious ragas, and a two-part suite with a folk ensemble that you may well end up skipping on repeated listens. This remastered and re-released recording is still far from perfect; sound quality on all tracks but the first is mediocre even with excellent speakers, and the first track is plagued by resonant and frequent coughing.

However, do by all means listen to this opening track, "Raga Malkauns -- Alap and Gat in Jhaptal." It's the single best reason for buying the CD. Although the raga is a classical Indian musical form that follows certain strictures, "Raga Malkauns" is not only a wonderful raga, but would be just as enjoyable to someone who thought that a raga was a type of pasta sauce. Coughing aside, it is over 30 minutes of gorgeous flute, sitar and tabla music. The silvery sounds of the sitar provide the background against which the bamboo flute, in Vijay Raghav Rao's capable hands, dances, trills and soars. About nine minutes in, a tabla played by Alla Rakha joins in to provide an intricate, varying rhythm to the rest of the raga. This raga might ultimately be a bit too interesting to serve as background music for meditation, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the next two tracks, "Suite for Two Sitars & Indian Folk Ensemble" parts 1 and 2, are much harder for the casual world music fan to listen to. Eschewing the harmonious trio of of flute, sitar and tabla in favor of a folk ensemble, the two pieces are jangly, bombastic and chaotic. The arrangements are audibly dated; with their crashing cymbals, melodramatic climaxes and faint tinniness, they would be appropriate as the soundtrack to some early technicolor film or to an Indian street fair of a few decades ago. The poor sound quality of the recording only makes things worse. And at a combined length of 25 minutes, they seem much, much longer than the half hour of the opening raga.

The final raga is a welcome return to a quieter, simpler sound, though at just under six minutes, it lacks the depth of the first track. All in all, it might be easiest to just put "Raga Malkauns" on repeat or at least program the player to skip the middle tracks. That still leaves you with about 40 minutes of classical Indian music with genuine appeal for casual listeners.

by Jennifer Mo
21 October 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.