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Anoushka Shankar: A Celebration of Joy


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Anoushka Shankar is one of the rare artists whose attitude and creativity reflects her love, respect and appreciation for all people and cultures in the world today. This is contrary to traditional teachings and beliefs, which have historically taught patriotism for one's country and culture specifically. But Anoushka Shankar is not your typical contemporary artist. Certainly growing up in the presence of Yehudi Menuhin, George Harrison and her father, Ravi Shankar—three of our greatest humanitarian artists—didn't hurt. But Shankar is a study in action, whose search for knowledge and understanding of all people and cultures never ceases and whose music reflects this very transcendent character.

As a result, Shankar recently published a multi-cultural masterpiece. It isn't art that spends time on cultural differences, which is a tendency by society today; art focuses on the common themes, emotions and feelings that reside in each one of us, regardless of culture or ethnicity.

If there is one underlying foundation that holds Traveller (Deutsche Grammophon, 2011) all together, it is the "spiritual intensity" of this very unique and brilliant artist. The spirituality of Shankar breathes life through the music at every turn, pulling us closer until we are inside the multicultural layered spectrum of sensuous colors and emotions. If there was ever a question of whether such a place exists, it has been put to rest with this recording.

Shankar has a vast sincere interest in providing respect and educating others with regard to the history of Indian classical music but also has immense interest in the people and culture of other global societies. But this isn't just your typical interest, which is important here. She delves in with her entire being, and incorporates this into who she is within the realms of the macrocosms of the world today.

And through the synthesis of this very unique artistic imagination, she is able to create music so spiritually personal, yet one also reflective of a global essence and character while providing the utmost respect to those various cultures being celebrated. And that is the paramount difference from most attempts at this approach and it is one that is rare.

All About Jazz: It is difficult enough to represent one culture artistically but representing two is almost unheard of and to also pull it off in a respectful way to both cultures and traditions. Were you worried about this and what do you think were the key elements in making it work?

Anoushka Shankar: As you say, it is a difficult thing to do and there is no way I could have done this without my amazing producer, Javier Limon. Exactly as you asked, I was afraid of trying to represent two cultures on a record, especially as one of those cultures was not one that I am from. What I did was find someone who was able to represent the Spanish culture. In a way, though it is my album, it was very much collaboration. I brought the Indian forms, the ragas, the talas and the Indian guest artists to the table and he brought in the Spanish rhythms, forms and guest artists. We initially spent a lot of time educating one another on the musical styles in order to work together in a way that was respectful of both musical traditions.

Anoushka Shankar TravellerAAJ: Have you found that your lifelong study of Indian Classical music has helped you understand Flamenco music along with its history and culture? Most people are not familiar. What are the important points of that history and culture that should be understood to better appreciate this rich form of music? For those that want to learn and understand and have a better appreciation of this art form, what should we know?

AS: There is no question that my understanding and experience as an Indian classical musician is what allowed me to get a feel for and a grasp of flamenco music, at least as much as I was able to. All of these traditional forms are, by rights, things that require a lifetime of immersion and dedication in order to be fully versed. However, at least to be able to get a general grasp of flamenco, its commonalities with Indian classical were such that I was able to apply myself in a different way than I was used to but still be able to play within the flamenco forms and rhythms. For example our rhythmic cycles are very different but the fact that both forms have cyclical rhythms meant that if I studied a particular rhythm form like a buleria or seguria, I could use my own experience with improvisation within a 12 beat Indian cycles and move the emphasis from the 1st beat to the 12th.

AAJ: You have said that you were very excited to do "Dancing in Madness" and that you had an Indian dancer in mind based upon on all of the rhythmic aspects that you wrote for this music. Can you explain how the ideas developed and what has influenced you culturally and artistically to create your own individual creative rhythmic feel and ideas? Can those various ideas be explained in both their emotional and cerebral creative aspects and elements?

AS: Musically I tend to gravitate towards two very different feels, one being incredibly gentle, romantic and lyrical and the other being really hard and full on. Sometimes within the classical form people can be surprised by that more full on side but I find it very exciting to explore how to bring that full, sometimes dark, energy into classical instrumentation. "Dancing in Madness" was one of those pieces where I really wanted to go into that darker feeling but also it was very much an intricate rhythmic piece where I was thinking of Indian dance patterns with an Indian dancer friend of mine, Mythili Prakash, with whom I had worked recently. When I learned that in Flamenco it is very common to record a dancers footwork, as part of a piece of music, I became very excited to turn the piece into a sonic duet between two dancers, as recording dancers feet for musical pieces is not commonly done in Indian.

AAJ: Your father is probably more responsible for educating American audiences about Indian classical music more so than any other musician from India. Now in some ways, you are taking it another step further by educating or enhancing awareness about the music and musicians from other societies and cultures. This was something that was very important to your father. Can you explain how he influenced your approach to expanding upon various musical universes and your plans for the future to continue this on?

AS: From a young age I spent a lot of time travelling, both on tour and living in different places, so that Global sense and connection is something I grew up with. This, together with my father teaching me to keep an open mind and open ear with regards to other musical styles and traditions, meant that it seemed only natural to explore and experiment outside of my tradition. My father was the first Indian classical artist to cross over into the west; sharing his music and engaging with Indian and Western audiences. Since then he worked with musicians from so many musical worlds, whilst still being primarily an Indian classical composer and musician and this is something that I have always been inspired by.

AAJ: The title, Traveller, seems to apply to all facets of your life and seems to describe your artistic and musical development as it unfolds over time. Additionally, most people in the west are not very familiar with the tremendous depth, thought and spirituality behind Indian music. Does this travel seem like an opportunity for you to educate others or is it more of a sense of responsibility? Can you describe this journey and what it means to you?

AS: Making music is always something that can be called a spiritual experience. People have different definitions of the word spiritual and those definitions then alienate us from understanding each other. At least for me, anything that brings you into your own deepest core or puts you in touch with your creative side is something that can be called spiritual. For me as a musician, music is definitely where I am most able to experience that feeling but it also comes in yoga or even cooking. In India there is a sense of all of these things being connected by a spiritual thread and therefore music and other art forms are revered on par with more religious deities. That approach to music can sometimes be quite foreign for people from other cultures but even though it may be explained differently, they may be experiencing this without realizing. I think it is a feeling that people connect to without knowing about it.

Anouska Shankar-Karsh Kale Breathing Under WaterAAJ: You have called your composition, "Inside Me," a real celebration of being pregnant. A celebration of a life force inside of you. Was there a spiritual element that grew from the more technical aspects of the music and is it something you can explain? AS: It was an amazing and unique experience, having a place to express all that I was feeling at the time and as my pregnancy progressed, it was exciting to feel my baby reacting to the music I was making.

AAJ: You have said that you are most proud of the composition; "Boy Meets Girl" because you felt the musicians hit something very special with that song. That both traditions were represented and respected, Flamenco and an older form of Indian Raga. Can you explain why that is so important to you? What would you like the listeners to understand?

AS: On this track I worked with revered flamenco guitarist, Pepe Habichuela, and it was one of the moments during the making of the record where there was an almost natural cohesion of the two styles. I was attempting to represent a Spanish vocalist's exploration of a pure flamenco granaina on the sitar and discovered that I was also able to play a pure raga at the same time. I was proud that we were able to both stay true to the two classical traditions, whilst creating a harmonious sound.

AAJ: George Harrison was like an uncle to you and I think your father was his guru and mentor. Did you get the opportunity to discuss music with him and can you describe what you took away from your relationship with him and what was special about him to you personally?

AS: My relationship with him was really unique because my father's relationship with him was so unique. He was my father's student but they were also the best of friends. Because of this he was like an uncle to me but the fact that we were both my father's students made us friends.

Not only did he influence me greatly in terms of music, exposing me to a lot of great music and musicians. He also acted as an adviser to me, in the sense that, coming from a background of such fame and success, he was one of the only people in my family's life that was more cautioning to me. I was so used to people telling me what I should do, so it was great to have someone make me question whether I really should or wanted to do certain things.

It was whilst working together that I saw a side of Uncle George that I really admired. We worked together on my father's album, Chants of India (Angel, 1997), I conducted and he composed. I was exposed to his great work ethic, arrangement skills and the amazing sense of humor he had while working. These were really important things for a fifteen year old to see.

AAJ: Improvisation seems to be one of the most integral aspects of Indian music and also the ingredient that makes the music timeless. I believe that Indian music also has the earliest known history of improvisation. It's just my perception but improvisation seems to be important to you in performance. Can you explain your own personal relationship with improvisation and what it means to you and what is it about music that allows it to touch the deepest part of our soul?

AS: Improvisation is definitely hugely important when playing Indian classical music and having learned from my father, who improvises almost 90% of the time, it is something I love. As you say it is what makes a very ancient music timeless because even though you are playing a form that is centuries old, what you are playing is being created in that moment.

Improvisation is a beautiful feeling because it really brings you to a place where you feel completely lost and at one with the music you are playing. It forces your head to get out of the way and I think that when an artist is in that place that is something that a listener can respond to on an emotional level.

AAJ: Incredibly, the history of Indian music is 4,000 years old. And in a very short period of time, the world has changed tremendously and seems to have lost its vision when it comes to the depth of understanding and appreciation of creativity. Outside of Native American's, the west has never had this as part of its culture. Do you fear for the great history and teachings of Indian music and culture?

AS: I have split feeling and I don't think I know the answer. On one side Indian classical music has existed so long that I don't doubt it will continue. It has always evolved and will not become stagnant, which can lead to things dying out. Yet on the other side, in this incredibly packaged and commercialized world it becomes harder and harder for things outside of mainstream to survive, especially with the rate and pace at which things change these days.

Selected Discography

Anoushka Shankar, Traveller (Deutsche Grammophon, 2011)

Anoushka Shankar/Karsh Kale, Breathing Under Water (Manhattan, 2007)

Anoushka Shankar, Rise (Angel, 2005)

Anoushka Shankar, Live at Carnegie Hall (Angel, 2001)

Anoushka Shankar, Anourag (Angel 2000)

Anoushka Shankar, Anoushka (Angel, 1998)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Madli-Liis Parts

Page 2: Richard Wayne

Page 3: Harper Smith, Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

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