Sourced from the original analog tapes and pressed at RTI, Mobile Fidelity’s numbered-edition 180g LP presents the album in restored sound that illustrates the beauty of the playing, compositions, and chemistry. This reissue makes available on vinyl a title that hasn’t been on LP since 1975. Yet it does so much more in the transparent way it showcases the textures, spiritualism, and breadth of compositions primarily recorded by Harrison, Shankar, and an array of distinguished guests at A&M Studios. The inviting aura, generous spaciousness, and well-defined tonalities on this pressing combine to take the music to transcendent heights. Then there’s the brilliant playing itself.
Memorable contributions from an A-list of American and English musicians — Ringo Starr (drums), David Bromberg (electric guitar), Billy Preston (organ), Nicky Hopkins (piano), Jim Keltner (drums), Klaus Voorman (bass), Robert Margouleff (Moog), Malcolm Cecil (Moog), Tom Scott (saxophone) included — add to the richness of a set that melds Eastern and Western traditions. These “names” mesh with a host of Indian virtuosos — Alla Rakha, Ashish Khan, Kamala Chakravarty, Hariprasad Chaurasia included — who turn Shankar Family & Friends into a journey laced with percussive, string, and vocal components that aren’t soon forgotten.
Throughout, Shankar Family & Friends remains true to its title — a mesmerizing record named to reflect the group participation approach of its creators. The idea started when Shankar told Harrison about a ballet he wrote. The Beatle, who first met Shankar in June 1966 — roughly a year after Harrison became interested in Indian music after overhearing it in a restaurant while filming Help! — immediately was convinced they needed to record it. Harrison’s staunch admiration of Shankar and serious approach to Eastern styles are reflected throughout the album.
Indeed, for Harrison, Shankar Family & Friends marks the culmination of a years-long effort to master the sitar, study Hinduism, and incorporate elements such as drones, unusual chords, and expressive picking into his own songs. The seeds of this unique collaboration can be heard in Beatles works such as “Norwegian Wood,” “Love to You,” and “Within You Without You.” Both musicians were also fresh from performing at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh shows. Yet Shankar Family & Friends remains entirely unique in each visionary artist’s history — and ultimately, led to a collaborative tour Harrison and Shankar staged across North America.
Encompassing jazz, funk, bhajan, Indian, and pop, Shankar Family & Friends is thematically split into halves. Side One reveals Shankar’s uncanny ear for melody — even when applied to Western forms. The lead-off “I Am Missing You,” the first single ever released by Dark Horse Records and reportedly the first pop composition Shankar completed, underscores his skills as a composer and global ambassador. Beautifully sung across three octaves by his sister-in-law, Lakshmi Shankar, the devotional song features multiple drummers and production that mirrors Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound approach. Harrison plays autoharp and guitar; Starr sits in on drums; Scott handles flute and soprano saxophone. It’s the inviting start of a musical adventure teeming with color, majesty, and mysticism.
A second version of the track — designated with a “(Reprise)” tag — appears minutes later. Unfolding in different ways, it follows a folk ballad structure stitched together with Indian instrumentation. Here, according to Shankar, the musicians “attempted to convey the sounds and atmosphere of Vrindavan, the ancient holy place where Krishna grew up.” Both renditions speak to the cross-continental fusion that came so naturally to Harrison and Shankar, whose oversight on the side’s other vocal tracks ensures listeners familiar with Western methods gain easy access to the hypnotic allure of his native country’s music.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Dream, Nightmare & Dawn (Music for a Ballet), the side-long piece that served as the genesis for Shankar Family & Friends. Launched with an airy overture and unfolding across three movements, the mostly wordless suite features everything from call-and-response interplay and classical lyricism to uptempo dance figures, stacked rhythms, and intoxicating grooves. Blurring the lines between contemporary and traditional, and Western and Eastern, the inspirational work is the exclamation point on a record that defined “world music” well before the term became co-opted as a catch-all genre.