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Anoushka Shankar: Music Makes the World a Better Place


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Esoteric, eclectic and prolific, the Indian sitarist and composer Anoushka Shankar has mapped out an intriguing artistic path by delivering intriguing music that has veered between the modern and the traditional. Her ambitious, progressive and multicultural musical world view has been growing exponentially from a record to record and has taken her on a path of creating music without borders. For the past 20 years, she has been crossing border after border and culture with culture, and most of the time with some truly striking results. Her musical achievements were compiled in a retrospective overview of her career titled Reflections that grasps 20 years as a solo artist and more.

Reflections encapsulates a remarkable and unprecedented career. But, unlike most artists who use compilations as a springboard for gathering their best moments and nothing more, Reflections offers more than that as obviously the criteria for selecting this music is more emotional and personal than merely a greatest hits compilation. The selections' backgrounds were detailed in the album's illustrious booklet and they reveal Shankar's past, present and the future i.e. where she came from, where she is at the moment and what she stands for as an activist, a parent, as a musician and it offers a glimpse where her muse might take her in her future explorations. During the first half of 2019, Anoushka Shankar will be touring the US and in May she will play in Paris at the Philip Glass Weekend where she will perform the music from sitarist Ravi Shankar and composer Philip Glass' album Passages (Private Music, 1990).

All About Jazz: The choice of songs on Reflections is more emotional rather which makes it more than a mere collection of greatest hits, and the liner note denote that these map different moments in your personal life. What narrative do you feel these songs reflect for you?

Anoushka Shankar: I struggled to choose how to select songs for this compilation. I didn't know whether to choose my personal favourite songs or which mood I might want to follow; for example most of my albums have songs that are very energetic and also songs that are very mellow and I could have pitched this any number of ways. I ended up choosing an emotional arc and to try and see my own journey as a composer and musician through these albums that I have made over the past 20 years. It was strange to realize it had been that long since I had started making records and I was very grateful to have the opportunity to create this compilation.

AAJ: The music covers a period of 20 years and the selections come from different periods and the playlist isn't linearly assembled. What does the compilation say about your evolution both as a musician and composer?

AS: I do worry about sounding prideful but I am grateful to see some growth as a composer and musician across these albums; in no way do I feel done with that journey and I hope I will continue to grow over the coming years if I have the opportunity to keep making albums and music. I feel like my choices have changed over the years; and often I can struggle in any given moment when making music between whether I am thinking as an instrumentalist or as a composer as often my choices might be in opposition to each other. On 'Rise' for example it was my first album as a composer and I really stepped back as a sitarist. In fact on two songs there is no sitar playing whatsoever. I think this is an area where I have found some comfort over the years and managed to strike a bit more of a balance so that I can tell a story with my instrument and other voices as well.

AAJ: Throughout your career as an artist apart from Indian classical music there is a great deal of shape shifting and a desire to mix different influences and sounds into your own music and you have collaborated with a diverse cast of people. Where did the idea and desire to mix different musics, sounds and cultures come from? What has motivated you to constantly stretch your musical boundaries?

AS: The initial idea and desire to mix different music, sounds and cultures came from a desire to represent myself and my own life experiences within the music I was making as someone who has grown up across three continents and lived a very multicultural life. As far as what's motivated me to constantly stretch my boundaries: I am interested in growth and learning as a human being and I feel very excited by and grateful for the fact that as an artist I can use my work to interact with new cultures, learn about new people, learn about myself, have catharsis and hopefully have connection with other human beings and possibly even help people through music as well.

AAJ: The record Home (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015) is your returning to classical Indian music after years of experimenting and crossing musical borders.What keeps your interest in Indian classical music alive given all of the types of music you have been exposed to?

AS: Indian classical music is completely unique and has so much to offer the world. It has a fascinating dichotomy and juxtaposition in that it is simultaneously centuries and at times millennia old but also completely of the present moment through its oral tradition and improvisatory nature. It has been an incredible life lesson for me to learn how to be rooted and yet have a sense of my own individuality, to respect traditions whilst also moving forwards in time and also to feel that balance between spirituality and entertainment within music.

AAJ: The album Land of Gold (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016) dealt with issues with refugee crisis and the misfortunes of the uprooted people. How did the subject matter affect you personally and creatively when you explored it so deeply?

AS: Making Land of Gold came about simply by having a very emotional response of rage and heartbreak at watching the refugee crisis unfold as it did. At the time I was making the album I had also recently given birth to my second son and the dire contrast between my experience of raising my children and what I was seeing people go through was what really led me to go deeply into the issue on the album.

AAJ: Since we are live in complex and controversial times, how do you feel music can contribute to making this world to be a better place in this era?

AS: I think art forms in general help people to connect to their spirits, their emotions, and to a place of empathy. Empathy, I think is one of the most important human emotions which leads to compassion and connection between people. Music in particular can be so transcendent and helps people to reconnect to their hearts, to be exposed to different cultures and therefore it plays a hugely important role in making the world a better place.

AAJ: The song "Beloved" reveals a spiritual side to your music. In what way does spirituality inspires the music you do?

AS: Perhaps Beloved reveals a spiritual side to my music in a slightly more overt way simply because it has lyrics. I do try to find a spiritual connection in a lot of my music, or to put it more accurately, find a spiritual connection for myself often through music. Music was really a way through which I learnt about my own personal spiritual path and is of course at the heart of who I am and what I do. On 'Beloved' I was inspired by a template of songs I grew up listening to and had seen performed in dance performances when I was a child and I wanted to write a song about the Hindu god Krishna in a way that resonated for myself.

AAJ: The song that closes Reflection "Say your Prayers" (from the Land of Gold) is a lullaby for your second child who was born during the recording of this album. How has being a parent influenced your music?

AS: Being a mother has obviously influenced who I am; has influenced my life in an incredibly dramatic and profound way and therefore has obviously influenced my music as well. In some ways I think it has changed the perception I have about what music is in my life or at least what my music career in my life because it is of course less important than my children. Being a mother has obviously changed my world view and passion for the state of the world and I do believe this comes out in my music as well.

AAJ: Your work with producer and percussionist Karsh Kale has yielded some fantastic music on Breathing Under Water (Manhattan). Please talk your friendship and working partnership with Karsh Kale that helped produce the music on this record.

AS: Karsh and I had been friends and had become close for a good year or two before we decided to start working on 'Breathing Under Water.' In fact we had many close friends by that time with whom we had each both worked intensely with, for example Gaurav Raina from the group Midival Punditz. When we worked together for the very first time, it was actually a very impulsive hotel room jam with Gaurav and a couple of other friends but I think we both found a real ease with writing together that night and that song ended up becoming 'Sea Dreamer' from the album Breathing Under Water and led to us wanting to develop the whole album together.

AAJ: Throughout your career you had an opportunity to work and learn with such luminaries starting from your father to Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta, George Harrison, Sting, Concha Buika, producers Javier Limon and Nitin Sawhney, to name but a few. How have these people influenced your views and ideas about music and how have they stretched your own understanding and boundaries?

AS: I have been incredibly blessed to interact with, work with, and learn from incredible artists right from the beginning of my career. Some of the people my father was close to and had artistic collaborations with had a profound impact on me because I saw them making music at close range from when I was young. George Harrison in particular is someone who, in particular, really influenced me as I had a lifetime of being close to him but also got to work with him more intimately on my father's album Chants of India (Angel Records, 1997) which he produced and I conducted. Working with him and my father together as a fifteen year old was hugely eye opening. Beyond that I have continued to collaborate with people who inspire me from across musical cultures and I count each collaboration as an enriching experience especially when I have had to push myself out of my own skillset in order to find a common language with others.

AAJ: Ravi Shankar is a prominent figure in your life and very early you began studying and working with him. Reflection opens with a song devoted to him sang in duet with your sister Norah Jones and you perform one of his compositions "Pacham Se Gara." How do you look back at your tenure in his group during your formative years?

AS: I began learning with my father when I was seven and touring with him as part of his ensemble from when I was thirteen. By the time I was sixteen I was opening for all his concerts and continued to be a part of his ensemble for more than a decade even after I had began my own solo career aged eighteen. As anyone might imagine, this was an incredibly intense relationship, because it was decades of learning from and collaborating with someone who was also my parent. When I look back I am blown away by how much I learnt from that experience. It's a common part of Indian classical music training to continue to be taught on stage in this manner since it is an oral tradition often that is one the best way for a disciple to learn from a guru; to be coached in the art of performing and improvising simultaneously and so those years were really precious for me learning how to be a musician but also leaning how to be a performer and how to go deep within as a musician whilst also being aware of the audience

AAJ: Why do you think there's been such an enduring interest in your father's music?

AS: Because it's unique, incredible and transcendent, and because he was one the greatest artists of the 20th Century and I think it is impossible to minimize his impact on music around the globe.

AAJ: What are the benefits and drawbacks of being associated with your father's legacy?

AS: I try not to think in terms of benefits and drawbacks in relation to my father. I have been asked my whole life about whether being his daughter was been a blessing or curse, or whether his legacy was a shadow or a boon and all those years of being asked that question has just meant that I have tried to explain that it was simply my experience of being his daughter and being his student, I have nothing else to compare it to or nothing I can change or would change. I have obviously had huge benefits, primarily through the direct experience of learning under a master and also through the exposure I got at the beginning of my career through being his daughter that equally came with some difficulties because I was very much in the public eye as a very young musician before I had really developed into an adult performer, and also meant that no matter what I may achieve in my career, some people may only think its because of who my father is. Realizing that meant that very early I tried to ignore those external experiences and just try to be clear on why I make music and what I want to do with it.

AAJ: This May, you will be performing in Paris at the Philip Glass weekend where you will be performing the music from the famed Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar collaboration Passages. (Private Music, 1990). This will be its second performance (first time it was in 2017 at the BBC Proms). What it's like to be performing this music by these two luminaries?

AS: It feels incredible getting to play this music, not just because of the two composers as the giants they are, but also because this is an album that I watched being recorded as a young child and has been one of my favourite albums my whole life. To be a part of its premier and sit in the middle of the music as it were, feeling surrounded by the orchestra, hearing this music I know so well has been absolutely wonderful and I am so excited to be getting to do it again.

AAJ: Will a live recording of you playing this music ever be released?

AS: I certainly hope so.

AAJ: What the future holds for you?

AS:I am currently working a new album, touring quite intensively, and seeking to take on more commission work so that I can be home with my kids more.


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