The immigration officer who processed my passport at the San Francisco airport was a Caucasian man, who looked like he was in his mid thirties. He started out talking briskly, but courteously enough, to me about the usual things: where I was from, and what the purpose of my visit was. I told him I was a big fan of American music, and was there to hear some of the great musicians play live. Rock, soul, folk, country, R&B, jazz, blues: provided they are played with heart and speak of some kind of authentic human experience, all these genres speak to me.
I told him that over these two weeks, I hoped to treat my ears the ringing soprano of the folk music legend Joan Baez, the confessional pop-poetry of Jackson Browne, the pure prayerfulness of the ethereal Emmylou Harris, the Celtic soul of the mystic Van Morrison, the southern-soul tinged alt-country of Rosanne Cash, the angst-ridden raw anguish of Conor Oberst, the cosmic rock-country hybrid of the maverick Sturgill Simpson, and a few others, if my plans worked out.
The young man in turn told me he was fond of Indian music; he mentioned Daaler Mehndi as a particular favourite. I told him our musical soundscape derives primarily from the classical music of the eastern part of India. I mentioned Ravi Shankar as a musician whose roots are in my part of the world, and one whom he might have heard of.
I told him about what a virtuoso Mr Shankar was on the sitar, about his having a big influence on the Beatles, George Harrison in particular; and his having organised a benefit concert for the cause of the yet-to-be-liberated Bangladesh in August 1971, along with Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and a bunch of others. I told him him about how, after Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Allarakha Qureshi, and Pandit Shankar, had spent some time tuning up their instruments and were greeted by applause from the confused Madison Square Garden audience, Ravi gently ribbed them, saying, “If you like the tuning so much, you should really love the music.” And I told him Ravi Shankar was jazz-pop singer Norah Jones' father.
We even talked about how Joan Baez had written and sung a haunting tune called “Bangladesh” in the early '70s, which if I hear it in the right frame of mind, still brings tears to my eyes.
At this point, I became aware that we had become a little too wrapped up in the conversation, and the people in the long queue behind me were getting somewhat restless.
The nice young man at the immigration counter had not heard of Ravi Shankar, but he was, of course, aware of Ms Jones' music. He told me the first thing he would do after getting home that evening was look up Pandit Shankar, and the Concert for Bangladesh.
Now I don't know whether, after the end of a hard day's work, the immigration officer did indeed look up the maestro from our part of the world. I'd like to think he did, though. Maybe our encounter did open up a different world of melodies and rhythms for him. I did not get the sense that he was just being polite.
May we always make the time to open our hearts and minds to each others' music.