Ravi Shankar Manual

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
Ilkka after returning from India in 1994

Ilkka after returning from India in 1994

Right before Christmas 2012 we heard a sad piece of news. The great Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar had died at the high age of 92. This brings a memory to my mind. I once had a chance to travel around a bit in India. That was in 1994. Well, I ended up purchasing a sitar. Some days after the deal I began contemplating on how to play it – were there any similarities to the guitar or not. I was in the Goa region and started looking for a book store. After a while I went inside one and asked for a “Sitar manual”. The clerk was somewhat surprised, and judging by her expression it was not an everyday request. She asked me to wait for a moment, lit incense for our convenience and disappeared behind a back door.

After a while she came back – not alone but with a guru holding a sitar. I was amazed! He looked very much like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru of The Beatles during their Indian days. He rolled a carpet for me and asked me to sit down. Then he took his sitar and set down to a half-lotusposition [1]. Then he started playing. Neither one of us said anything. I noticed that he played with only one string, leaving the 17 other strings unattended [2]. After a while I broke the silence – just to establish conversation – asking whether this was some sort of song or if he just playing around or tuning up – improvising.

He was silent for a moment before answering. Then he told me that he had just played a morning raga [3]  – their classical music – which I later recognized as being something that corresponds to our “Finlandia hymn” here in Finland. I was later ashamed at my ignorance as a westerner of their rich musical heritage. Then, he passed the sitar over to me. This was the first time I really held the instrument. He gave a Mizrab, a finger pick for the sitar, to put onto my finger. Then he corrected my posture into a proper position. Now I was ready to pick the first note!

I had the intention of amazing him from the very beginning. Secretly, back in Finland, I had learnt how to play “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles on a single string. I picked the first note, second and started playing. I felt reassured for a while until something happened. I noticed that the fret that I needed wasn’t there. I began bending the note to the proper pitch. I got confused and quickly gave up as I noticed that Indian intervals didn’t quite correspond to ours.

This was my first lesson on the rich heritage of the musical world. There is a lot of music out there beyond our diatonic music which can nicely be played with piano and put in western score notation. Finally, I purchased the book by Ravi Shankar – “My Music, My Life” as a complete manual on how to play the sitar. From the book I also found a new approach. Two thirds of the book was simply a kind of spiritual introduction to the proper mental state for starting the long path to becoming a sitarist – 20 years, 8 hours every day and so on. Not my cup of tea I decided, the hasty western youngster  I was then 😉

The sitarist told me that he played only on the first string of the sitar as he hadn’t reached the proper level of “knowledge” yet. He also told me that Ravi Shankar – my hero, (“sankari” in Finnish) – had reached the highest level to be able to play with the whole repertoire of strings on the sitar.

Cover of Ravi Shankar Sitar Manual

Cover of Ravi Shankar Sitar Manual

Understandable pages for a Western reader

Understandable pages for a Western reader

Typical exercise page

Typical exercise page

[1] Standard sitar playing position, not always so easy for western players
[2] Sitar usually has 18 to 20 strings, where 7 of them are “playing strings” as the rest are resonating strings, or “Sympathetic strings”
[3] Raga – the melodic basis of Indian classical music on which the musicians improvise. Each raga has definite melodic qualities that distinguish it from all other ragas. It is assumed that ragas create an emotional impact on the listener

Visiting Jimi Hendrix Grave

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

I am a big fan of Jimi Hendrix & his music!

Well, it’s been a while since my last blog.

I had the chance to have a relaxing vacation in Florida & the Bahamas, and it brought this memory to my mind. The reason for this recollection is that the great, late Jimi Hendrix would have celebrated his 70th birthday on November 27th.

In the late 90’s I visited the Seattle area quite frequently. I knew that Jimi came from same district so on one occasion I decided to find out where he was buried. Those were early days for the web, so not all information was there. Instead,  I had to do some work to find his cemetery.

Finally, I located his graveyard in Renton, a little town adjacent to Seattle to the East. It was Greenwood Memorial Park, but clear route guides didn’t exist in the mid-90’s. Also, there were no map-based GPS navigator systems for drivers’ convenience.

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon when I headed there with my friend driving and myself as a human navigator. Finally, we were able to locate Sunset Boulevard in Renton. It seemed like we were heading in right direction. A couple of turns still left…

Well, we finally found a graveyard in Renton and drove our car into the middle of the cemetery. No other persons were there though. Or at least we thought so. A van parked near us and stood still for a while. I lowered my car window and decided to speak to the person in the van. I yelled “Good evening, where’s Jimi?” The person in the van was immediately electrified and responded “Oh, man, you must mean Mr. Hendrix”. I said “Yeah, that’s correct!” The person told us that we were at the wrong cemetery, but volunteered to take us to the right one. It took us some 5-10 minutes to finally get to the right cemetery, Greenwood Memorial.

Greenwood Memorial Park, Renton.

The graveyard differed very much from European cemeteries, especially Finnish ones. For starters, it seemed that there were no grave stones until we walked deeper into the cemetery. Quickly we learned that all the memory plaques were embedded in the lawn and without proper guidance we wouldn’t have had any chance to locate Mr. Hendrix’s final resting place. Luckily, we had the van-driving friend to take us further along the lawns of the memorial park.

Jimi’s modest grave stone before the marble dome memorial place was built.

Finally, he stopped to show the modest memorial plaque in the lawn, partially covered by dirt. I wiped off the dirt and was able to read the writing:

“Forever in our hearts, James M. ‘Jimi’ Hendrix, 1942-1970.” A carved Fender Stratocaster in the stone and that was it! No big statues or anything fancy! I felt a kind of disappointment throughout my body. What on earth, the greatest electric guitarist ever lived and no-one paid more attention to his last quarter!

I left my flowers there and spent a short silent moment to feel the spirit of Hendrix come over me! ;-).

Later, having talked to the van guy we learned that he was actually a drummer who had played with Jimi before Mitch Mitchell!

The fellow also told me that the less known Microsoft philanthropist, Paul Allen, had had discussions with the Hendrix estate to build a proper Jimi Hendrix Memorial to that very same location. It came into reality about six years later, as Jimi’s body was exhumed and reburied under a marble dome memorial in another section of Greenwood Memorial Park. However, I can still feel the modest, but strong spirit of the original place where no other people than us were!

Later, I’ve had a chance to take some other of my friends to this very special place!

Jimi Hendrix grave today – Picture credit: Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jh-grave.jpg


Me and Joe Satriani’s Plectrum

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Joe Satriani’s plectrum

Back at 1996 I attended a big technology conference at New Orleans, Louisiana. We were a small delegation of Finns visiting there and after seven days of hard work it was time to head back home. At the airport I bought some guitar magazines to help me over the boredom of long journey back to Europe.

Well, luckily enough, the TWA plane from New Orleans to New York was almost empty so we were able to spread around and sit comfortably. I was talking to my friends sitting close by as an elderly lady interrupted me by asking where we were from as our language sounded quite funny. I told we were from Finland.

After a while as she passed me again, she noticed that I had some guitar magazines next to me. She told me his son is also playing guitar. I mumbled something like “guitar playing is a good hobby” or something like that. I was a bit surprised as she asked me to pass her the magazine on the top of my pile. She took it, stared the cover page for couple of seconds and then dropped a sentence I still recall clearly:

“This is my son!”

She was pointing at Joe Satriani‘s picture with her finger! “Oh my god! One of my great heroes, can this be true!”, I mumbled. Well, it was my turn to blush as I realized I had just spoke about guitar hobbyists in my previous sentence! I fell into my most humble presence saying something like “great honor to meet you, ma’am!”

Soon we started a lengthy conversation during which I told her being a big fan of Joe’s, and that I just recently struggled with my guitar on Joe’s “Surfing with the Alien” album fingering exercise. I admitted her that I never get to that level of speed & accuracy. As we started to land to JFK I asked her to bring my regards to Joe and kindly pass the wish for him to visit Finland one day as there are a lot of his fans there.

As we separated in the NYC airport the lady gave me a Joe’s plectrum from her valet as a reminder of the nice talk we had on the airplane. I’ve kept that particular Joe signed pick ever since as my Mojo!

Then, on 2004, Joe came to Finland with G3 tour and I had a chance to briefly see him in a store. He was surprised when I showed him the pick which was given to me – not himself throwing picks for fans at a gig – but her beloved mum!

I do remember that moment with warmth!



Steve Vai Guitar

Saturday, October 27th, 2012

During summer 2000 I spent some time in Atlanta, Georgia, for a big partner event. Atlanta is a great city and I had an opportunity to visit shops during my spare time. And well well, as an eager guitarist, I found myself at Guitar Center at the outskirts of downtown.

They told me that I just missed Steve Vai who visited there the previous day.

Steve Vai have been one of my great heroes after I started to play guitar again after about 15 years break. His pure talent, speed and creativity had made a big impression on me when I started to regain my skills.

Well, I was planning on buying a guitar during this particular U.S. visit and I had a particular guitar in mind that seemed to have a “calling” to me during my NYC visit a week ago. That was Ken Parker’s new age guitar “Fly” that had a fascinating new design.

So, once the clerk told me that Vai himself had tried one particular Classic Mahogany model of Parker Fly – guitar at their store I had made my decision – got to have it!

Well, after some years on G3 tour Steve visited Helsinki and together with his partner Joe Satriani had an autograph session at late-great Free Record Shop Helsinki. I took my Steve Vai Passion & Warfare notebook and rushed to record shop to meet the guy himself! After a 45 minutes of waiting I had a chance to change some words with him as I passed on the notebook to him for signing. He shook my hand as I told the story of myself buying the guitar he had touched in Atlanta! A connection established 😉

I have had an honor to listen him live many times. Last week he was again in Helsinki. Here’s a short video from the gig. Must admire!


Steve Vai picture credit: Wikipedia / RodrigoDC