LISTEN: Smithsonian Folkways Re-releases Anthology of Indian Classical Music

This Mick Jagger-approved album includes Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan’s first recordings released in the West


In 2009, Smithsonian Folkways assumed stewardship of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, a pioneering series of more than 100 field recordings from around the world. First out of the vault is the Anthology of Indian Classical Music, a tribute to the ethnomusicologist Alain Daniélou, an expert on Hinduism who founded the UNESCO project in 1961. This three-CD set includes performances by virtuosos Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, recordings made in villages, as well as a track ("Sandehamunu") that Mick Jagger recently named as one of his world-music favorites. All these sounds offer “windows to a completely different worldview,” says Folkways associate director Atesh Sonneborn.

We spoke with Sonneborn about the making of this landmark record—and what makes it special.

Who was Alain Daniélou, and how did he go about making this recording?

Most of the recordings that went into this tribute, which was re-released after Daniélou's death, were made between 1950 and 1955. Daniélou was a singer and a dancer, went to South Asia with a friend and fell deeply in love with the arts and philosophy of India, particularly the underlying metaphysics of Shaivism. In his book, Gods of Love and Ecstasy, he connected Shiva and Dionysus as being essentially the same, springing from the same ground. He was disappointed in what he saw of modernity growing up in France and just drank in, in great draughts, this culture that he was now immersed in. He found his way to people like Rabindranath Tagore and was introduced to the circle of people who were promoting Indian identity beyond colonialism.

Daniélou went on to get involved with UNESCO to make this monumental collection, which grew to well over 100 albums of music recorded from all over the world, at the village level, in field contexts, working with many people who had lots of deep expertise and passion. I think the keyword about Daniélou is his passion for life and the arts.

Daniélou had great taste—[discovering] not only [Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan] as exemplars of Indian classical music, but also Indian village-level folk music. The great South Asian classical traditions and folk traditions all came in Daniélou’s purview. He was sociable, outgoing. People responded to him, and the standard way of finding great music is asking around.

How did this music become popular in the West?

France has been a very important gateway for nonwestern musics to make their way into western awareness. UNESCO's headquarters is in Paris, and there’s a significant community of producers and concertgoers in Paris and all over France who would have embraced this. Germany and England all had substantive audiences for South Asian music already. By the time this came out, there was also a circuit in North America, at least in Canada and the U.S.

In the early 1960s, I was a kid, and some of these UNESCO titles made their way into my house because of family interest. My parents had some interest in music from all over the place, and there was a great radio station in Chicago that introduced various world musics. These things were like windows to a completely different world view than I was able to observe or experience at the time. Daniélou had already brought Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan to the West in the early 1950s and introduced them to English, French and American audiences. This was a really important gateway for the beginning of interest beyond the work that Moe Asch was already doing [at Folkways], which was making its way into schools and libraries, into a more public appreciation.

Where can you hear the influence of Indian classical music in Western music?

A modern example would be something like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. There's also the whole Bollywood phenomenon in worldwide pop music and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in '70s and '80s jazz.

What are some highlights of this album?

Track 209, “Tirmana,” starts out with a fine illustration of how one musician communicates to others about rhythm in South Asian music. Track 306, “Varnam,” is quite approachable for a Western ear, and perhaps a better illustration than the Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan example.

What appeals to me about this album is it’s a great reflection of Daniélou’s curiosity, his voracious hunger for knowledge. "Tip of the iceberg” would not be a bad phrase to describe this particular album. There’s a lot more coming from the UNESCO collection.

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