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29th May, 2017

George Harrison: The Beatles and Indian Music

On Friday 9th June, the Philharmonic has a concert with the lengthy title George Harrison, the Story of the Beatles and Indian Music. The concert came about because of an email I received in May 2015 from the son of one of the Indian musicians who played on Within You, Without You. Utkarsha Joshi, told me that his father, Anna, had played dilruba on the session and that neither he nor the other musicians had ever been credited with playing. My next door neighbour, John Ball, happens to be a tabla player and I asked him to check for me who were the Indian musicians on Sgt. Pepper, he came back with the news that ‘nobody knows’ but he was sure that someone would. We began a detective story, not just to identify those musicians but to collect their stories. Since first making contact with the two surviving musicians, Natvar Soni (tabla) and Buddhadev Kansara (tamboura), they have now decided to come to Liverpool and play at the concert!



Indian classical music became hugely significant to George Harrison because it connected him to Indian spiritual values. By early 1965, George Harrison was in deep need of self-explanation - simultaneously he was one of the most famous people in the world, but in his own band he was still very much the junior partner as far as singing and song-writing were concerned. He couldn’t ‘move’ in any direction, except inside himself, and that’s where he went. George had acquired the handle, ‘The Quiet Beatle’ but perhaps he could best be thought of as the ‘Silenced Beatle’, such was John and Paul’s domination of the band. George’s bringing his sitar to the recording session for Norwegian Wood became the transformative moment in the lives of the Beatles because it was a symbol that resources existed, in Indian thought, to explain the, by then, crazy life of being a Beatle.



George encountered Indian thought in the Bahamas while making Help! And remarkably enough then encountered Indian classical music in the form of a sitar used in a scene from Help! In the summer of 1965, George was introduced by David Crosby of the Byrds to the music of Ravi Shankar, one year later he would ask Shankar if he could be his pupil. Alongside these events, his (unasked for) introduction to LSD convinced George that spiritual transcendence was a possibility if he could only find a pathway to it. From taking LSD with the Byrds through to the return from Rishikesh in the Summer of 1968, all four Beatles were gripped by the idea of ‘transcendence’ – getting above and beyond, getting away from ‘the mania’ as George put it, and finding out not so much who they were but who they had become and how to live that way.



George took his sitar to Abbey Road and broke a string. George Martin rang the one Indian music contact he had, Ayana Angadi who ran the Asian Music Circle. One of Ayana’s daughter answered the phone and the family heard her ask, ‘Ringo who?’ A rush to the phone, followed by a rush to Abbey Road. The Angadis were the first Indians George had met and so taken was he by them that he spent every weekend at the Angadi’s house in Finchley being introduced to Indian instruments and Indian classical music. Suddenly George was the source of inspiration, the ‘Silenced Beatle’ became, temporarily, the ‘Listened to’ Beatle. Sitar, tabla and tamboura made their way onto Revolver; drones seemed to reflect the experience of acid, Indian spiritual works inspired new lyrical concepts.

George Harrison, the Story of the Beatles and Indian Music introduces you to the Indian musicians with whom George Harrison played on Within You, Without You – a song about journeys of discovery that came about through many other journeys of discovery. To find out more and to buy tickets click here.

Mike Jones

Dr. Mike Jones is programme Director and senior Music Studies lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

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