George Harrison preferred Indian music to any other form of music, even rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, George had a profound experience hearing Elvis Presley and Fats Domino for the first time. However, hearing the sounds of Indian music for the first time had an even more significant effect on him.
George felt strange about his first encounter with music. He felt like it was “calling him back to a place he already knew.”
George Harrison heard Indian music for the first time on the set of ‘Help!’ of The Beatles!
In 1965, George heard Indian music for the first time on the set of The Beatles’ second film. Help! In one scene, The Beatles go to an Indian restaurant and a band plays.
According to Joshua M. Greene’s Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George HarrisonGeorge came across a sitar on set and “couldn’t stop looking”.
“He picked it up and was intrigued by its unusual shape and dozens of wires. He hit it, overwhelmed by its unusual sound,” Greene wrote.
In 1992, George told Timothy White (per George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Meetings), “When we were waiting to shoot the scene, I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a funny sound.’ But in a way that was just kind of a random thing.
“It wasn’t a very memorable thing; it was just something during a day of shooting, it didn’t stick in my mind until the thing that happened next, which was about smoking or taking LSD, and … I don’t want to say it.”
Days later, in London, George couldn’t get his mind off the funny sound of the sitar, so he bought one. The band was looking to improve their new single, “Norwegian Wood”. So George improvised some sitar into the song and it worked.
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George felt he had heard Indian music before
George’s friend David Crosby, of The Byrds, and later Crosby, Stills & Nash, recommended the music of Ravi Shankar. So the Beatle bought some of Shankar’s albums. Shankar’s music mesmerized George and made him a little curious. He felt as if he had heard the music before.
“One of Shankar’s most popular albums in 1965 was Raga, which featured duets with childhood friend and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan,” Greene wrote. The opening track, ‘Raga Palas Kafi’ began with a tambura drone. Five long stainless steel strings plucked in slow, hypnotic repetition sent single notes resonating deep within the hollow base of the instrument.
“Against this neutral, contemplative background, Shankar played a series of longing, bent, dreamy notes, more suggestions than sonic statements. The edges of the music ebbed and flowed like waves crashing on a beach, tempting listeners to jump into deeper waters. Describing the moment years later, George said the music felt familiar, not intellectually but emotionally, as if calling him to a place he already knew.
George explained to White how he felt hearing Indian music for the first time.
He said, “Somewhere down the line there was a point where I heard Ravi Shankar’s name, and then I heard it again, and then the third time I heard it I thought, ‘Wow, this is like a funny coincidence, this name Ravi Shankar.’
“And I talked about it with Dave Crosby from the Byrds. AND it I mentioned the name… I went and bought a record; I put it on and it just felt like it hit a certain spot that I can’t explain. My intellect didn’t really know what was going on, but it just hit a place that felt very familiar.
“The only way I could describe it was that my intellect didn’t know what was going on musically, and yet this other part of me identified with it. I mean, I’m not sure, maybe I had heard it. We used to have shortwave radio, you know, when I was growing up, and all evening long the radio would be on, and my mother would always tune it to all kinds of weird stuff—whatever you could get on it.
“So maybe I heard it from Algeria or somewhere, or maybe I heard it in another life! [Laughs.] Who knows? It was something that just called to me, and I just heard it and felt very familiar with it.”
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The former Beatle’s mother played him Indian music in utero, according to Greene
George’s guesses about where he might have heard Indian music before 1965 are somewhat accurate, at least according to Greene.
Technically, George first heard Indian music while his mother was pregnant with him. Greene wrote that she played Radio India, hoping the mystical sounds of Eastern music would calm her raging unborn baby.
The ex-Beatle’s assumption that he may have heard the music in a previous life is also interesting. After listening to Indian music, George met Shankar, and the sitar legend gave him the tools to succeed on the instrument and in spiritual matters. He gave the rock star religious texts and took him to the Himalayas. Soon, George learned about reincarnation.
Perhaps George remembered Indian music from a previous life and then reconnected with it briefly while in the womb and later in the band Help! Of course, hearing the sitar on set would feel weird, like getting a severe case of Deja Vu.
One thing is sure; It’s scary that Indian music seems so familiar to George, as if he’s always known about it. Is it a creepy coincidence, or was George meant to hear the music? Only George knows now.
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