Anoushka Shankar Finds Her Gypsy Soul
At last! With ‘Traveller,’ Anoushka Shankar has finally released an album worthy of her immense talent
The first time I heard Anoushka Shankar play live, I was completely mesmerized. She was a very young woman then, touring with her father, but even in her earliest performances, she communicated a unique ability to fuse what she’d learned from a lifetime of disciplined study with a broader palette of sounds that owed as much to Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin as it did to the Indian classical music she’d grown up with.
Right from the beginning of her performing career, it was obvious that Anoushka had a very special talent. Like her father, she has the gift of being able to improvise around a musical theme to draw out nuances of emotion and colour that few others would have had the sensitivity to be aware of. She can play like a temple on fire one minute and then stop on a dime to coax images of raindrops slowly dropping into a pond the next. At the age of thirty, Shankar is one of the world’s greatest living performers, yet up until now her recorded output has not reflected the breadth of her talent.
To be fair, the world has changed a lot since her father first broke out onto the international scene in the mid-sixties. At that time, Indian classical music was still considered an exotic form, and the elder Shankar’s mission to introduce the world at large to sitar music was perhaps sufficient in itself to guarantee him an audience and a place in history. Of course, Ravi Shankar has gone far beyond the parameters of simply playing classical music and even at the age of 91, he remains an innovator and peerless musician who continues to make recordings that fall way outside the perceived confines of the raga paradigms.
Anoushka must have realized early on that if she wanted to distinguish herself, she, too, would have to break the mould and create music that reflected her training, but at the same time went beyond it. To that end, in addition to the three albums of Indian classical music she has recorded, Shankar has also created two CDs of original music, ‘Rise’ (2005) and ‘Breathing Under Water.’ (2007) While both albums, especially ‘Breathing Under Water’ which is a collaboration with the British electronica giant, Karsh Kale, have some wonderful moments on them, neither of them sounds fully realized or complete. Neither of them reflect the seemingly effortless confidence that Anoushka exudes on stage and no matter how many times I return to them, they continue to sound watered down and to obfuscate rather than showcase her talent.
Thankfully, all of that has changed on ‘Traveller,’ her debut on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Built around the concept that Indian classical music and Andalusian flamenco share common musical roots, Shankar and her producer, the renowned Latin guitarist, Javier Limon have recorded a record that allows her immense talent to shine.
It is thrilling to hear Anoushka dive into flamenco grooves on her sitar, subtly switching back and forth in her phrasing to highlight the points at which the two styles of music intersect. Listening to her riff off of Limon’s guitar on ‘Inside Me’, the first cut on the disc, or Pedro Ricard Mino’s expansive keyboards on ‘Buleria Con Ricardo’, it’s immediately obvious that Anoushka plays a lot better when she surrounds herself with musicians who challenge her.
In concert, her father or the sublime Tanmoy Bose – who threatens to become the world’s best tabla player – have always provided this encouragement and tension, but up until now her playing in the studio has never sounded this fully realized.
A musicologist could have a field day with cuts like ‘Boy Meets Girl’, a duet between Anoushka and Pepe Habichuela, the renowned flamenco guitarist from Spain. There is a PHD thesis just waiting to be written about the heartbreakingly beautiful conversation between strings the two share with us here. Or, one could write instead about how Shankar and Limon use Indian and Flamenco vocalists interchangeably on some of the cuts, further stressing the commonalities between the two musical forms. Whether it’s Shubda Mudgal channeling ancient songs of love or devotion or Concha Buika singing fado tinged blues, the effect is the same as listeners are drawn into the depths of emotion, faith and disappointment that each style of music evokes.
‘Traveller’ is the album everyone has been waiting for from Anoushka Shankar. It cashes in on all of her training, listening and playing up until now to finally express the joy, fluidity and confidence that audiences have enjoyed for years when she’s playing onstage. The material is so strong, and the musical performances are so thrilling that one can only hope that ‘Traveller’ will give Anoushka Shankar the attention and critical acclaim that she so richly deserves.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com