George Harrison, World-Music Catalyst And Great-Souled Man; Open to the Influence Of Unfamiliar Cultures
by Philip Glass for The New York Times (Dec. 2001)
WE all naturally remember George Harrison as one of the cornerstones (but weren’t they all?) of the late-20th-century phenomenon known as the Beatles. But for some, George, who died on Nov. 29 at the age of 58, was an icon of another phenomenon, equally influential in shaping the music of today. I’m referring to the world-music culture, which, starting in the 60’s, has become an inescapable aspect of our music life. George was among the first Western musicians to recognize the importance of music traditions millenniums old, which themselves had roots in indigenous music, both popular and classical. Using his considerable influence and popularity, he was one of those few who pushed open the door that, until then, had separated the music of much of the world from the West.
His close, lifelong friendship with Ravi Shankar was the opening of this new world for George. They met in London in 1966, and shortly after he went to India for a six-week visit. He bought a sitar in Delhi, and not long after it was heard in new Beatles recordings, beginning with ”Norwegian Wood” from ”Rubber Soul,” then ”Within You Without You” from ”Sgt. Pepper” and going on from there.
I never met George. But what we shared was our encounters with Indian classical music through Ravi Shankar. My first meeting with Ravi was in 1965 in Paris and, for me, the experience was as powerful, and as important for my musical development, as it was for George. I, likewise, was drawn to India and, in fact, was in Bombay in 1966 when George was there. He was staying at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel where he had begun studying the sitar with Ravi. (I, unknown to Ravi, was staying only a few blocks away in the distinctly unprestigious, but quite comfortable, Salvation Army lodgings.) In Ravi’s autobiography, ”Raga Mala,” (with a forward by George Harrison and many additional contributions by him), he writes generously and quite touchingly of the early years of their friendship.