Ravi Shankar & Norah Jones: How the ‘Godfather of World Music’ and His Pop Star Daughter Broke Their Estrangement

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Ravi Shankar's path from Indian raga upstart to being a well-known star in the world of western music was already unlikely enough, even before it got the oddest possible denouement—when it was revealed that he had sired one of America's primary pop sweethearts, Norah Jones.

Not since it came out that singer Tim McGraw's biological father was baseball player Tug McGraw had there been quite such a mutual-celebrity "biodad" surprise. The fact that Shankar and Jones had been estranged for most of her life—and that she was deeply reluctant to discuss her famous father in interviews—only added to the intrigue.

There had been thawings at various points in the relationship, though, and Jones was able to call Shankar "Dad" when she released a statement Wednesday, following the news that he had died Tuesday at age 92: "My Dad's music touched millions of people. He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere."

But the fact that the statement referred to her love for him in musical terms may have been an indication that the ice had only melted so far between Shankar and a daughter who didn't even know who her father was until she was 10.

In an interview last April, Jones said that she'd finally gotten over the hurdle of discussing her sitarist father. "I'm fine with talking about it now because I feel like I don't have anything to prove any more," she told the Independent. "People think of me separately from him now, and that's great. I love my dad and we have a very good relationship now."

Jones' mother, Sue Jones, had had only a brief relationship with Shankar, when she was a concert promoter in New York, and there was little benefit for either in discussing the family ties, since it didn't fit Shankar's spiritual image to have the press speaking of him as an absentee dad, nor did Norah need or want the tabloid angle to distract from her acclaimed chops, even if it was clear nepotism had zip to do with her signing or near-instantaneous rise to 10-million-selling Grammy girl.

"We only started our relationship when I was 18, even though I saw him when I was little," she said. "And also, I'd lived my whole life without having to be known as the daughter of somebody… I didn't think it was fair to my music to label me as the daughter of ... Maybe I'm genetically more inclined to music — but the music I make is so far removed from Indian classical music. I grew up in Texas!"

Anoushka Shankar, Ravi's daughter by his second wife Sukanya, recalled the day Norah first reached out to them via phone, a few years before her breakout success with "Come Away With Me."

"A soft-spoken girl on the other end of the phone asked to speak to Mr. Ravi Shankar," Anoushka told the Daily Mail. "When she said who she was I was stunned because by then I had totally given up on the idea that we would ever have any contact with her."

The two sisters had an easier time of making up for lost time than Norah did with her dad. ""She and I have a beautiful relationship," Anoushka said 10 years ago. "I finally have the sister I always wanted. She is incredible... It's wonderful to see someone like her with that kind of substance and integrity getting success."

At the same time, said the senior Shankar, "Norah was my first daughter and I missed out on eight years of her life so it is wonderful to have her back. (She and Anoushka) have so much in common it is mind-boggling, really—in their looks, in their behavior, in the way they are so quick-witted. They are so fantastic together."

Jones' primary reason for not discussing Shankar, even after the "period of estrangement" was over, was sensitivity to her mother's feelings, she told the Independent this year. "That was actually the main reason I couldn't really get into it. Because there's both sides to consider. Then there's my side, which is completely different from those two."

Several years ago, Jones spent a month with her father and his family in Delhi, and they even did a slight bit of music together—albeit nothing she had any intention of making public. The Hindi song he taught her "was fun," she said, "but I don't know that I would want to record it. I don't speak Hindi. That music is so sacred in a way. People have gurus and give up their whole lives to study this music, so I'm not gonna just waltz in and start recording it. But it was a nice experience for us, as a father and daughter who have never really played music in that way."

Norah and Anoushka did work together, on the record—writing a track for Breathing Under Water, an album Anoushka released in 2007. For these two, having different mothers and extremely different relationships with their father wasn't an impediment to taking their late-found sisterhood all the way to a less nervous musical culmination than the one Norah and Ravi attempted.

Anoushka continued to be her father's foremost on-stage collaborator. Their final appearance together was Nov. 4 at Long Beach's Terrace Theatre. The senior Shankar was described by attendees as being brought onto the stage after intermission in a wheelchair and appearing "infirm," yet becoming "a completely different person" once he started playing, "infused with energy—literally as if someone flipped an 'on' switch."

The American counterculture had its on switch flipped by Shankar in the late '60s and '70s. First there was his reported four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, right around the time George Harrison was crediting him for bringing the sitar to his attention—and into the Beatles' music.

But for most westerners, the awareness reached its peak in 1971 with the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit turned album and movie. When he opened the show, what was a rock-loving, raga-ignorant audience to do? George Harrison had ensured that both live audiences and moviegoers would have to wait through Shankar's 16-minute "Bangla Duhn" before getting to Dylan or any ex-Beatles, even if album buyers had the chance to simply skip Side 1.

But even if you professed to love Indian music, there was a chance you might still be getting it wrong. As Shankar wryly told the audience at Madison Square Garden after a round of applause, "Thank you—if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more."

If it took a while to take, many western pop fans were able to re-tune their ears to a different set of scales, and Shankar was soon enough headlining on his own as the most popular Indian musician to cross over to these shores. And settle upon them: He had been living in La Jolla, California for years when he died Tuesday, following heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday in San Diego.

Whereas Dave Brubeck died the day before getting his final Grammy nomination, Shankar lived long enough to learn of his nomination, having been put up last week for his 2011 release The Living Room Sessions, Part 1, in the Best World Music Album category. He won in that same category 12 years ago with Full Circle — Carnegie Hall 2000, although his first Grammy was all the way back in 1967, for East Meets West. The term "world music" was decades away from coming into popularity then, so that first win came in the now defunct Best Chamber Music Performance category.

He also got a call last week informing him that, regardless of his nomination for the recent album, he would definitely be getting a Grammy in February 2012—the lifetime achievement award.

If the Grammys named an award after a performer, surely the world music award would be named in honor of Shankar, since, as Harrison famously maintained, his friend and collaborator was "the godfather of world music," making even 12-bar-blues lovers an offer their tickled minds could not refuse.