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Professor of Music Learned Sitar from Masters

By María Núñez

If anyone knows anything about being at the right place at the right time, it is Professor Stephen Slawek. Throughout his lifelong music career, Slawek has not only taught music and music history, but also found a way to immerse himself in it.

Slawek, who has been a professor of ethnomusicology at UT for 31 years, was always used to being a student rather than the teacher. During his undergraduate career at the University of Pennsylvania, Slawek came across a rare, yet golden, opportunity. After taking sitar lessons from a visiting professor from the Banaras Hindu University, he had the chance to travel to India to study the sitar.

Slawek got his first guitar 45 years ago, when an Indian family arranged to get him a handcrafted one. The intricacy and details of the instrument drew Slawek to the sitar.

Slawek got his first sitar 45 years ago, when an Indian family arranged to get him a handcrafted one. The intricacy and details of the instrument drew Slawek to the sitar.

Slawek discovered an interest for the sitar, an Indian classical instrument, after watching Ravi Shankar perform at the United Nations Human Rights Day in 1967. “The way the instrument is so proportional and the way the carving is so intricate just really attracted me,” Slawek says. “I was also a huge Beatles fan, so when George Harrison began to study some with Ravi Shankar, that also influenced me to want to include sitar in my rock band, as it was the thing to do back then.”

Working as a lifeguard at a local apartment complex in Pennsylvania, Slawek met an Indian family and arranged for a handmade sitar to be brought from India. After a year of waiting, Slawek received his sitar in the summer of 1969. That same day, the University of Pennsylvania Department of South Asia Regional Studies announced a new program in the performance practice of Indian classical music, and that teachers of Indian instruments would be visiting from the Banaras Hindu University to teach at the university that fall.

“That summer, I decided to start teaching myself the sitar,” Slawek says. “I bought Ravi Shankar’s book, ‘My Music My Life,’ which included a manual of how to play and hold the sitar. I progressed very quickly, but technically I didn’t know any music, I only knew exercises. However, once I started taking the classes at UPenn with Lalmani Misra, I very quickly went ahead of everyone else who hadn’t played the sitar before.”

Slawek's sitar still has the thread from the first time he performed with Ravi Shankar, more than 30 years ago.

Slawek’s sitar still has the thread from the first time he performed with Ravi Shankar, more than 30 years ago.

Slawek learned the sitar under Misra during his junior and senior years of his undergraduate degree at UPenn, where he was planning on studying pre-med. His sitar lessons, however, changed his plans. “During my senior year, I applied for medical schools and had some interviews, but I was getting deeper into Indian classical music,” Slawek says. “By the end of my third medical school interview, I had decided I was going to go to India and just dedicate my time to the sitar. I sold everything I owned.”

After doing some research, Slawek discovered that Misra’s instrument wasn’t actually a sitar, but a vichitra veena, which differed slightly. He was told that if he wanted to get better on the sitar, he’d have to go to a expert sitarist. One of those specialists happened to be world-famous Ravi Shankar. “I had always loved Ravi Shankar’s music,” Slawek says. “Just by chance, Ravi Shankar had his house in Banaras at the same time I was studying there. The violin teacher at the university where I was studying knew Ravi, so she told him about me. In March of 1976, he invited me to come meet him at his house and listen to him teach one of his more advanced students. I had a very nice time, but I didn’t ask him to teach me, which is what I should’ve done.”

After finishing his master’s degree in ethnomusicology at the Banaras Hindu University, Slawek once again packed up his bags and went to the University of Hawaii, where he had a fellowship with the East-West Center to continue his education. While there, he stumbled upon Shankar once again. “While I was in Hawaii, Ravi came to perform a concerto with the Honolulu Symphony,” Slawek says. “He saw me, remembered me, invited himself for lunch at my wife and I’s tiny apartment, and wanted to hear me play my sitar. I played for him, and he told me that if I went to Los Angeles, he would teach me.”

Photos of Shankar with Slawek hang up in Slawek's office.

Photos of Shankar with Slawek hang up in Slawek’s office.

With an opportunity like that, Slawek couldn’t say no. Slawek spent six weeks in Los Angeles, learning advanced Sitar techniques with Shankar for four hours a day, four days a week. During that time, Slawek met Sue Jones, Shankar’s companion and eventual mother of Norah Jones, Shankar’s first daughter, and also gained a special experience he would carry with him the rest of his life. “At the Vedanta Society of Hollywood, we had the traditional ceremony where we would tie a thread to each other’s wrists and play our sitars,” Slawek says. “I still have that thread.”

After his time in Los Angeles, Slawek wasn’t able to take classes with Shankar until December 1981, where he was invited to participate in a ten day sitar crash course at Shankar’s home in Banaras. When Slawek returned to the U.S. in 1983, he would only be able to see Shankar when he would play in the U.S. and occasionally invite Slawek to perform with him.

“Being on stage with Ravi are some of the highlights in my musical career,” Slawek says. “He was such a fantastic musician that you didn’t want to do anything that would get in the way. It was always being on pins and needles because you didn’t want to do something that would stop this genius from doing his best at a concert. It would build to such a climax, that it would take you to a different place. It was like being on a high off music.”

Shankar and Slawek’s connection created various unexpected experiences for Slawek. One of those experiences was meeting George Harrison, one of Slawek’s musical idols. “I was traveling on tour with Ravi Shankar in 1989, and during the intermission of the Los Angeles show, he just came up to me and said, ‘Come back here, I want you to meet someone,” Slawek says. “I went backstage, and Jeff Lynne came out, and right behind him was George Harrison. After the initial shock, it was just like talking to anybody. He was asking me about the sitar, and for about 20 minutes, we just talked about the sitar. The word ‘Beatles’ never even came up.”

Slawek’s highlights also include playing in a backup group for Monti Rock III and opening forSam the Sham and the Pharaohs. His experiences with Shankar, however, are the most special. Ravi was, at least in Indian classical music, one in several hundred years,” Shankar says. “He was like a Mozart; it all came so effortlessly to him. He had this uncanny quality of giving the perfect proportion of duration, accent and emphasis to every note. He made every note so beautiful, and did more for Indian classical music than anyone ever will.”

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