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Q&A with Anoushka Shankar, Indian sitar player and composer

Emily Allen

Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the legendary sitarist, Ravi Shankar and sister of Norah Jones, is known for her bold experimentation of Indian classical music and progressive world music, earning her 5 Grammy®nominations. Her new album, ‘Land of Gold’ is more than experimentation; it is an experience in itself. In response to the current refugee crisis, the album embodies diversity, openness and inclusion at all levels – from the core quartet, to the artistic collaborations to the organic layers of sounds. It is definitely not one to be missed! We had the privilege of talking to her after seeing her perform at her sold-out City Winery concert and here are some key takeaways:

The best way to listen to Indian music for the first time: ‘Land of Gold is what you call a crossover album. It's not necessarily an example of traditional Indian music by any means but that can mean it's a good introduction. The good thing about an album like Land of Gold is it can root the very Indian melodies that I play on the sitar in slightly more familiar Western structures and that can help a new listener to understand the melodies a little better. If that sounds pleasurable, then I highly recommend they turn to more classical CDs to hear more.’

How she chose the theme of the album: ‘The album was written in response to the current refugee crisis, which hit sort of a tipping point last summer. In Europe it suddenly became the focal point in news and media so it was very present and I had simultaneously just given birth to my second child. While watching these heart-breaking images of people with babies in their arms trying to cross the sea, because of that vulnerable emotional state that I was in, it just sort of leaded into my music. A few songs in, I made a decision to allow that process and to allow the album to be in response to what I was seeing around me.’

The narrative journey that her music takes in ‘Land of Gold’: ‘For me it’s so important after expressing emotions like anger and outrage, and pain and sorrow to transition into a more hopeful place because I don’t know how to continue on without a sense of hope. So it starts in a very dark place and peaks; by the end it turns into a bit of light and turns into a hopeful ending - like a song called ‘Reunion’ or a lullaby called ‘Say Your Prayers’.’

The core quartet of musicians in her album and their contributions: ‘I picked the quartet that I would be touring with quite carefully. Playing a plucked string instrument, I really do think that having a counter of a wind instrument like a shehnai does work very well and then to get grounded by the upright bass is also something that really rounds up the sound.

The Hang is an instrument that I have fallen in love with over the last few years and Manu Delago was my co-writer on this album so the Hang is very prominently featured. He is also one of the best drummers in the world so having him in the band really rounds everything out in a beautiful way. Sanjeev on the shehnai plays in a way that the instrument really wails, it feels like he really helped me articulate a sense of a cry against things or a feeling of pain.’

The decision making process to include different layers of sound to her music: ‘The approach from the beginning was being open to the universe and what was going to show up. My musician friends came to Italy where I was staying at a friend’s farm and so we recorded in a barn for the first few weeks and that kind of set the tone in a way because there was no way we were going to be able to create a sanitized studio environment there and so we just let everything in.

The crickets that started chirping are on the record as the percussion sounds on ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, the goats that went by are on the record, and from there we stayed open. When it started raining in London we stuck a mic out onto it. I feel like we’re all craving that? This modern recording system has reached a type of tipping point and people are really enjoying that organic approach again in music. So it just felt like a welcome relief to go back to that really.'

Her female artistic collaborators: ‘There was a little bit of approaching the album from like a casting of a film, in the sense that people had, not just their musical contribution to offer but also what their music represented to the story. The main female collaboration in particular, MIA, is obviously an incredible artist and I love the musical input she brings but also what she represents as a refugee advocate and a refugee herself. Alev Lenz sings the title song beautifully and I love the fact that she is of Turkish and German descent and someone that lives in London and is just such a product of that diversity. What can I say about Vanessa Redgrave, her voice is mystifyingly beautiful, and she is a lifelong activist and campaigner so it just felt like being blessed by a legend.’

Her inspiration when improvising within the purely classical format: ‘In a very subtle way at times, but always at the forefront is my father because he taught me right from the beginning, so my kind of style and sound were very shaped by him. Because I literally learnt that method of improvising from him, I do reconnect with that teaching process and the way he played when I play in the classical framework. I love most of all that it’s an ancient classical tradition that is simultaneously completely fresh and in the moment because it's being improvised. Some days are better than others but I play the best within the Indian classical music when I can really be grounded and centered in myself and be really present in the moment.’

On adapting her instrument to different environments: 'I think how one presents music can really change up how people take it in. There are some people who will feel very intimidated by a concert hall because it’s not their natural environment but if they can hear the same music at a festival out in a field they can feel more relaxed and more open minded and enjoy the music and then the opposite will be true. That’s one of the reasons that I love taking my music to many different kinds of venues because I do actually enjoy seeing that the same music can translate in different places to different people.'

Anoushka will be back in NYC this November to make her debut with the New York Philharmonic alongside Zubin Mehta at the Lincoln Center.

By Shibanee Sivanayagam

Photos courtesy of Jamie James Medina