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New Sounds: L. Shankar

Portrait of Lakshminarayana Shankar, also known as L Shankar, performing on stage at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois, September 1, 2003. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

This column originally appeared in the August 1985 issue of SPIN.

From the relative safety of his apartment in Manhattan’s theater district, violinist/composer Shankar is recounting some of his harrowing experiences in his native India. “In 1982, I was supposed to tour there with Shakti (the group he founded with John McLaughlin in 19761. I was already in India with all the lawyers and promoters when John called and said he had hurt his hand and couldn’t make it. Well, they didn’t believe me—they thought we were trying to back out, and I was practically under house arrest for a month!”

Shankar now performs more often in North America and Europe than in Asia; not only is it safer, but he’s in demand in the West. His inventive, exotic violin solos have been used by Frank Zappa, Phil Collins, Talking Heads, Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland, Peter Gabriel, George Harrison, and Van Morrison. Since 1980, he has pursued a solo career, centered on his one-of-a-kind, 10-string, double-necked electric violin. His first release with that instrument was 1981’s Who’s To Know?, an album of Indian classical music. Vision, released in 1984, featured two well-known jazz musicians, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. “The 10-string violin really helped me on Vision,” Shankar says, “because when I had the regular single violin, I could only play leads or solos. But I can use the double violin for accompaniment, because it can play chords and creates so many different sounds.” Earlier this year, Shankar released Song For Everyone, again with Garbarek, who serves as the main soloist, with Shankar and a pair of percussionists providing background.

For many, Shankar’s name is a source of confusion. He is not related to Ravi Shankar, the famous north Indian sitarist. In fact, Shankar is not even his family name; it’s his given name. “When I was touring under the name of L. Shankar, people were corning up with all these names that the L stood for,” he recalls. “Leo, Louis—in Germany they were saying Ludwig Shankar! So I dropped the L. Now it’s just Shankar.” In southern India, the father’s name is usually given first, often simply as an initial, followed by one’s given name. The L, by the way, stands for the common and easily pronounced name of Lakshminarayana.

Shankar’s band has changed its name as well. Two years ago, it was known as Sadhu, after Shankar’s pet rabbit. When the rabbit died, he changed the band’s name to The Epidemics. The lineup includes the gifted bass player Percy Jones (who has played with Brand X and Brian Eno) and singer Caroline Morgan, who co-founded the group with Shankar. “We both share the lead singing,” he says, “because I’ve always loved the male/ female vocal combination.” The group also includes keyboards, guitar, live and electronic percussion, and occasionally even the tamboura, an ancient Indian drone instrument.

Shankar’s small but comfortable apartment houses a synthesizer, the tamboura, and also, but just barely, a cat of truly planetary proportions and a white rabbit (Sadhu the Second). The double violin is never out of Shankar’s sight—and for good reason: it is the only one of its kind. “I really should have a second one made,” he says.

The first was a result of his work with different instruments. “On Touch Me There, I overdubbed a lot of different instruments. And in concert, I’d play viola, cello, and bass. That gets very difficult. So I tried to design one instrument that I could use for all the others and play in any situation. Necessity was the mother of this invention, I guess.”

In 1980, he completed the model and had it built. The lower neck covers the bass and cello range; the upper neck is violin and viola. The body is curved so all 10 strings can be played at once. There are two volume controls and a stereophonic pickup, resulting in a remarkably clear sound.

Shankar’s music is rich and melodic. On paper, the instrumentation for Vision looks completely outlandish: sax, trumpet, and electronic violin. But on disc the sound is extraordinary. The double violin produces sweeping orchestral effects that would be the envy of many synthesizer players, and the solos are fluid and to the point. Song For Everyone features tight ensemble playing, a dazzling display of percussion, and some of the catchiest tunes Shankar has written. The Epidemics would seem to be a logical extension of Song For Everyone, except that the songs are intended as simple pop tunes. The lyrics are in the “What would I do without you” vein. But when Percy Jones starts pulling out his unique flanging, almost vocal effects and Shankar takes off on one of his slurring, alien-sounding solos, you wish for a whole album like that.

“I’ve tried to combine different traditions,” Shankar says. “Musical styles are like colors in painting: there are so many things you can do with them.” But whether he’s playing rock, jazz, Indian music, or Western classical music, Shankar considers a piece’s structure the most important thing. “Sometimes someone will really master an instrument and just play solos, but if there’s no structure, there’s nowhere to go. That’s why jazz-rock died so quickly, within 10 years. I think the only group still going now is Weather Report, which has stayed around because Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul are so fantastic—they play real music, not just technique. In my music there are improvisations, and even within the composition the players have their own variations; but for me, the structure is the important thing.”

For all that, Shankar is a brilliant improviser, the result of 14 years of study in India, where he began singing at age 2 and gave his first violin concert when he was 7. Shankar left India in 1969, when he was 18. Although his father, V.V. Lakshminarayana, is one of India’s most celebrated violinists, Shankar’s family wanted him to become an engineer. “Subramaniam [his brother] was already a doctor,” he recalls, “and they were really pushing me to be an engineer, even though I’d played a lot of concerts already. I was sick of college, and then they sent me to study physics! So I was trying to get out.” Shankar was offered a teaching post at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. From there, his move into Western music came rather quickly.

While Shankar and Subramaniam have made successful careers in the West, a third violin playing brother, L. Vaidyanathan, chose not to leave India and still works there, giving concerts and writing film scores. But Shankar has not forgotten his native tradition. “I recently played a concert with my father,” Shankar says, “and he loved the double violin; we actually switched instruments for a while. I use it in India, too. People love it there; they call it LSD—L. Shankar’s Double violin.”

Shankar’s next solo album, MRCS, will probably appear next year. Already recorded, it features Shankar playing keyboards and drum machine. Following that, Shankar plans to do another album of Indian classical music with his father. After his experiences with Shakti—which included canceled tours as well as the debacle in India in 1982—Shankar has learned, perhaps the hard way, to handle his own affairs. He is now his own manager.