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I get asked from time to time about how it all started and my own personal history with the sitar and Indian Classical music so thought I'd write an article on it for anyone interested.
Everything you wanted (or didn't) to know about how all this started!
So let me introduce myself if you're new to the site or just wandering around, I'm Lars Jacobsen and want to share how I discovered the sitar and Indian Classical music and eventually my adventures with Sitars Etc. which is now Rain City Music. Probably will be a little long but hope you find it interesting!
I came from a musical family and played since I can remember. My Grandfather was a jazz pianist by avocation and had a show in Denmark way back when on Jazz. My mother grew up singing and their house was frequented by many of the famous jazz musicians of the last century. Having come into existence in 1964 I was constantly surrounded by music of all types and started playing piano around 4 or 5 years old. Not a genious mind you but not bad I suppose, even at a young age music was always a form of meditation or repose for me and I never enjoyed performing but obliged when necessary. Am still that way!
I went on to play in school bands around the 4th grade and in the 6th grade it came to a halt as my family moved to a remote island in Indonesia in the mid 70's. Fortunately the piano came along, it was the only entertainment I had because there was no television or even radio where we lived, just a little villiage of trailers in the jungle with a small store, rec hall, swimming hole (with snakes!) and a school where there was a little room full of books donated by anyone who came by. This little room of books began my journey with musical things of the Indian kind. I discovered many of the books given to people in the airports by the Hare Krishnas which told stories of Vedic times, Narada Muni and had descriptions of instruments. I was fascinated by the stories and remember it all clearly even now.
We ended up back in the US, back in bands with school and elsewhere. I played a few brass instruments and of course the piano and electric guitar sometimes only enough to learn whatever song I liked at the time. Still kept up on all things 'Vedic' though but was still at an armchair level given that we had ended up in the middle of Arizona, not quite a melting pot of culture at that time. When I graduated from high school I got selected for a collegiate tour of Europe playing in an orchestra. Only a few kids from each state got picked and so I jumped on the chance!
I had been to Europe already unlike most of my fellow band members and so rather than see the Louvre, etc. again in my free time I would just wander around having fun or hang out with the drivers of the buses, look for cassette tapes, listen to music (Supertramp and the Scorpions were the big groups at that time).
It was in Bern Switzerland that I spotted IT....on one of my wanderings there was a young man busking on the sidewalk playing...this thing....what is it? Looked like the pictures from the books I had known. Of course it was a SITAR!! I was instantly drawn to it and spent the next 2 days hanging with him and learning anything I could. Believe it or not I had never heard the Beatles stuff prior to that other than only a few of their more popular tunes. The sitar player wasn't doing a whole lot on it but the sound was heavenly and if only I had one.....he wrote the name of the maker on a matchbook cover, it was 'Naskar' from Calcutta and I should go there and get one. Of course going to Calcutta not an option at the time for a 17 year old so I continued with the band, couldn't get the sitar out of my mind.
The tour ended in London, everyone flew back to the States. I went to Denmark to stay with my family there, my uncle was/is a professional musician there and it was decided by my parents and myself to explore my options musically, I could hang with my uncle and see. I shadowed him at gigs, TV, etc. and quickly decided that probably wasn't for me, not at least jazz. To learn several hundred jazz standards in every key seemed like an insurmountable task, I wasn't especially disciplined in regards to practice at that age either. "Lock yourself in a room for 2 years and do nothing but play" my uncle told me. Hmmmm, he also told me "Better to get a job at a hardware store" as being a professional musician has its challenges which he excelled at but with my anti-performing mindset it wouldn't have been a good idea.
While staying with my uncle and Aunt I discovered the Beatles of course, they were a generation older than me and I constantly would talk about this SITAR I had seen and oh if only I could find out more. Turns out there was a music store in Copenhagen and someone had seen a real sitar there! On the bus I went and there it was in the window!! Was it to be mine? Well....NO. Heh heh, it sort of had strings on it but no one knew anything about how to tune or if they were even correct? Also the price was sky high, it was the only sitar for sale in Denmark, they weren't very common then and no internet of course. I had brought a Steiner EVI syntesizer which I sold to try and save up for this sitar regardless of its condition but it was tough times, I had no other means of income and was not allowed to work unless I exercised my option to become a Dane which would mean renouncing my US citizenship. Wasn't happening.....I loved those people but they all spoke a language I didn't know well and my God they all took their clothes off at concerts!
One day my Aunt came with the newspaper and excitedly showed me an upcoming sitar concert in Copenhagen. I had been a little bummed out in my failure to acquire one and this was at least a bright spot for the moment. The concert was by Pandit Nikhil Banerjee with Anindo Chatterjee on tabla. Off I went that night, found the small concert hall and settled in for my first sitar concert, I was EXCITED...who wouldn't be?!!
He stared with Alap and I was in it after 5 minutes, mesmerizing but with complete clarity. It was like he was taking a journey and you were either missing it or going with him. As he progressed he would disappear being the sitar completely in tune with it, total command of the instrument. I've only seen one other player in my life that had such a command. The music was in Nikhils mind, you could almost see it and it would transfer right to the strings. He played Manj Khamaj and another Raga I can't remember but it was over 3 hours. I met him after the show and probably bored the heck out of him with my wannabe sitar sickness but he was genuinely nice and supportive. I'll never forget that night. Years later I met Anindo again in Austin and told him the story but sadly Pandit Banerjee passed away just a few years after our encounter.
My options were to join the Marines via the US embassy or go back home and find a job. The Marines weren't keen on my long hair and I wasn't exactly the type of kid they were looking for so went back to the States at 18 where I did what many 18 year olds do and try to figure out what the heck I wanted to do the rest of my life. But rather than bore you with further details since this is about my Indian music and sitar obsession lets skip to the next segment.
I ended up in Ukiah, California still wanting a sitar of course. I don't remember exactly how but I ended up finding out about Ali Akbar college which was just 2 hours away and went down there. Finally a place that had what I was looking for! I think it was the guy that ran it before Bruce or maybe was Bruce, those were often foggy times if you know what I mean but I ended up with a Radha Krishna Sharma sitar, half decoration and no case. I was a HAPPY camper! I took a few lessons then with Peter Van Gelder who lived about an hour away and was on my way. I couldn't find a copy of "My Music, My Life" by Ravi Shankar so I drove to San Francisco where the library had a rental copy and devoured the manual portion of it which even to this day is the best manual in print once you understand how to get around on the instrument.
The years went by, music took a backseat when it had too as raising a family requires this sort of thing, thankfully I had an understanding wife and I ended up with Hemen sitar. It wasn't as easy to play as my RKS but did the job for awhile at least.
It was sometime in the later 90's I met Peter Cutchey who was to become a very good friend. Peter had this website called Buckingham music which catered to the chronically sitar obsessed. There were more places to get instruments by that time although most were cheap, Peter had good connections in India and was good at marketing as well, he knew what we all wanted because he wanted it too! It was around that time I also met Indrajit Banerjee who really became instrumental (pun intented) in unlocking things for me musically, he has an incredible ability to teach and make things understandable. My days were filled more with practice (after work) and evenings with conversations with Peter and I'd fly down to visit when I could and also go to visit Indrajit when he was in the US and take lessons.
It was around this time I also met my Guru Pandit Shivnath Mishra and his son Debu but I would like to tell that story in a different article to come soon as it deserves its own space!
One of the saddest days of my life was when Peter passed away without much warning.
Sitars Etc. happened by accident, it literally dropped into my lap. An order had been cancelled and people needed to be paid and what would be done with 20+ custom instruments, etc.? Would I be intersted in.....starting something? I had hoped to have a part in Buckingham Music and perhaps buying it but other people had become involved and other things so it just didn't happen. I had some of the same friends as Peter and so through the grapevine it started to happen. A detailed system had been in place at great effort and so to keep it from being gone forever I jumped in with both feet. Sitars Etc. came into existence and through trial and error I learned as I went along and most importantly made a rudimentary website which was fast becoming a viable outlet to get good instruments. I borrowed the money of course to get it started and for years ran it in my spare time, developing a good reputation along the way which I had worked hard for. My idea was based on my own desires in music, I would only carry what I would want to own and leave the rest. I have a strong sense of ethics which perhaps isn't great for monetary success but what if I could do this niche thing, be myself and see what could happen?
The first years went by fast, I would work 10 hours a day at a day job, then 8 at night on emails, instruments, packing, etc. This went on for years and I had a nice union job but was incredibly tired and no practice outside of instrument setups, etc. My job asked me to choose, I was so burned out and business was going ok but not steady so I decided to close Sitars Etc.
"You can't close it!" said Alex, my friend from Texas. Alex Salinas was otherwise known as 'Bharat' and he was a fellow sitar fanatic. A real gem of a human being....he wanted to take over! Well, he was the only one crazy enough to love it like I did so a new chapter in Sitars Etc. with Bharat at the helm began. He bought the little inventory I had and a nominal fee for the business, basically given to him gladly at that point, it wasn't worth anything if there wasn't that special 'someone' to run it and he was the right person.
Bharat was a instrument fiend....he also had a computer business, a total workaholic like myself. He did a good job in his own unique way. He added java script menus and literally bought anything he could get a hold up and would put it on the site. It became HUGE...everything everywhere, not always easy to find. For the few years he had the business we would talk everyday for hours sometimes and I was the confidant behind the curtain but he definitely did things the way he wanted and became well known and well loved by many including myself.
Another extremely sad day when Bharat left us too, another friend gone. My last memory of him is when he was in the hospital and asked me to help with a problem customer. So I called this guy and he was complaining that his sitar didn't arrive tuned and he demanded to return it after all how could he play? I called Bharat while he was waiting for surgery and told him and we both nearly p*ssed ourselves laughing, was a great moment and of course the customer got to return his sitar. There's just no point in even arguing, those who play will undertand.
I helped with Sitars Etc. but the family wanted to finish the inventory and not take anymore orders and again things in India were back to me. Rain City Music was born and I somehow managed to get the newer management at my job to understand..."it'll only be a few hours on the weekend'...Yeah, right. So back it was to 100 hour weeks with the job and the business and I survived...barely...as some of my friends will attest but this time it had to work. About 4 years of working and having a business went by, things were ok, I had taken the Sitars Etc. site and what was left back and went back to my own idea of what I should carry. Things had really clicked and began to happen on the India side after frequent trips whenever I could manage the time off from work. I'd get 2 weeks of vacation, run to India and come back the day before going back to work, show up sick and with jet lag....but happy.
A few years ago it happened. I woke up and went to work and it was like a light clicked on. "This is my last day working a day job" And it was...I gave up the 'security' of a 'real' job, my wife thought I was crazy and probably so did everyone else. But it was the only option, I couldn't continue and it was taking a toll on my health. I loved it too much to let it go and so took the plunge, was quite (and still is) an adjustment being much less lucrative that a cushy job but the happiness factor makes up for it. Being able to play the music you love and help others get on the right track is about the best job once could ask for and a destiny to be accepted and thankful for. Thanks for being a part of it by reading this....
To be continued or edited (or maybe not).....