Namaste, Ravi Shankar: on sitars, Beatles, and mentors

Following an eventful trip to India, George Harrison began a lifelong meditation practice.  He also played a sitar solo on the song Norwegian Wood.  Like unto the harpsichord interlude in In My Life, it’s an iconic Beatles musical moment. The Rolling Stones then used the sitar in Paint it Black, and by the end of the ’60, sitar riffs were clichéd musical shorthand for the western counterculture. Any TV show that wanted to depict a hippie freak pasted a  beard on an actor, had him say “man” a lot and featured a few sitar plucks in the background soundtrack.

Anyway, as the story goes, George Harrison was mighty proud of incorporating the sitar into a pop song, and couldn’t wait to share it with his friend Ravi Shankar.  To paraphrase, Shankar told Harrison that it really, really sucked — he told him he ham-fistedly played the thing as if were a guitar and plopped the solo inorganically into the wrong kind of music. He didn’t do the cool things sitars are meant to do – bend tones, cascade complicated sequences of notes, or use the instrument’s sympathy strings. (Also, wow, sitars have something called sympathy strings!)

Like unto his meditation practice, George took it upon himself to learn the sitar for reals, under Shankar’s tutelage. He became a tireless champion of eastern music, and Indian musicians were featured as prominently as rock stars in concerts Harrison produced in his post-Beatles career.

This leaves me with a few random takeaways for those of us striving to become mediation and peacebuildiing professionals:

1. We need mentors, and to accept that becoming a master mediator is not about taking x number of courses or mediating y number of cases.  More experience is usually better, but it’s equally important to have your own Ravi Shankar to show you the strings throughout your career.

2.  No matter how harsh or unconstructive feedback may seem, a good response is always: “thank you.”  Harrison wisely accepted Shankar’s critique, and it changed his life and music. Of course, giving constructive feedback is an art, which I talk about here.

3. In many conflicts, the more you prepare parties for the mediation or dialogue process, the better.  I enjoy facilitating large group processes, and it’s often useful to train individuals or subgroups in the skills they’ll need to get their points across, and to listen to others.  This sometimes entails fostering greater understanding of other parties’ cultures, worldviews, and communication styles before they actually meet.

4.  Mediation is all about improvisation within structure, and we often use jazz as a metaphor.  Same deal with sitar playing.  While there are rules and structural requirements within traditional raga music, sitarists get to make up all kinds of things within these constraints, making every performance a unique gem.

More Beatles posts and drawings to come. Condolences to Ravi Shankar’s family (including daughter & songstress Norah Jones).


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