Several media outlets in the U.S. started their Ravi Shankar obituaries describing him as The Beatles muse and father of Norah Jones. For an older generation of Americans, Shankar was a reminder of their counter-culture days, a time when they were seeking and scouting for alternative lifestyles and musical genres. For many young Americans though, he was the musician father of the super talented Norah Jones.
Born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar, Norah’s oeuvre ranges from jazz to country music and listeners would be hard pressed to detect an Indian influence. Her success as a mainstream artist is a break – an undoing of Ravi Shankar as the man who popularised Indian music and strove for its acceptance among mainstream audiences in the west.
Ravi Shankar may have achieved some success in his mission. The Beatles, through George Harrison, managed a few sing-alongs, and the Coltranes went a little deeper. But Norah Jones cut through all that. Indian music and traditions could be heavy baggage and she stayed away from them in her music – which meant none of the overdubbed tampura that the Beatles added to Within You and Without You in their Sgt. Peppers album.
Estranged from her father for many years, Norah Jones wasn’t anybody’s daughter while growing up. Few knew her as Ravi Shankar’s daughter when her debut album Come Away With Me was released in 2002. “The music I make is so far removed from Indian classical music. I grew up in Texas,” she said in media interviews.
Norah Jones’ music could be deceptively described as lounge music – seemingly unobtrusive; the sort that would be played in airports. But the strength of the lyrics and Jones’ captivating voice would make time spent in transit lounges unforgettable and endow each otherwise listless moment with heavy meaning.
Norah Jones’ songs are confessional. She is the all-American artist, finding musical material in the darker aspects of personal life. She sings about failed love, lust and longing, while her step-sister Anoushka is truly her father’s daughter. Anoushka plays the sitar, has taken to world music, and imbibed her father’s quirks. Her music is impersonal but perfect – in technique, harmony and melody. While performing, she has the same beatific smile as Ravi Shankar. Her father is her guru.
Norah Jones may have kept her distance from Indian music but she is quite reverential about it. It’s what you learn from gurus after dedicating your whole life, she has said.
Though Ravi Shankar may not have been fulsome or expressive in public about Norah Jones, he did take quiet pride in the accomplishments of his older daughter.