Never Mind the Purists
She’s really onto something, here.
Anoushka Shankar’s previous albums, depending on who you are, are either quite beautiful expressions of Indian raga music or horrible abominations that are barely worthy of mention. (Read some of the Amazon.com reviews sometime, if you want to see the split between the two.) Not being an angry young Indian person who demands authenticity above all else, I fall mostly into the former camp. But I’ve been kind of underwhelmed so far; sure, they were nice, but Anoushka and Anourag were both a little boring, both too much in the shadow of her father, the single biggest worldwide name in raga sitar composition and performance. After all, why buy the Anoushka when the Ravi is free, or at least plentiful? (Plus, she was barely 17 when her first record came out.)
Well, here she is, at age 24, taking the fresh step, with fine and fun results. Gone are the strict raga compositions, tweaked ever-so-slightly; these are songs that use raga bases (only one is over 10 minutes!), and they are filled with as many hooks as drones. On “Sinister Grains”, her sitar sound is tarted up with effects to create a wall of weird sounds, and on a couple of tracks, Shankar doesn’t even play sitar at all, just keyboards. I’m sure the moldy-mango traditionalists will go nutfire on this one, but I think it’s all for the better.
Turns out homegirl is a synthesist at heart. Her pianist, Ricardo Miño, mixes in Cuban and South American and flamenco stylings; she takes four lines her father wrote and turns them into a grand suite called “Mahadeva” that sounds more like an A.R. Rahman film composition than anything on a “Now That’s What I Call Raga” comp; it’s clear from “Sinister Grains” that she’s been hearing Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz and the various bhangra boiz try to integrate Indian classical music with electronic and dance culture. It’s experimental, perhaps, but in an extremely ear-friendly way.
The biggest happiness here, however, is how ego-less Anoushka turns out to be. Sure, there are look-at-me workouts (the sexy “Naked”, especially, where it’s just her on sitar and synths) but she allows Miño a lot of room on tracks like “Solea”, where he plays Young Herbie Hancock to her Miles Davis. She calls in Vishwan Mohan Bhatt, one of her father’s prized pupils, to play the veena slide guitar on “Prayer in Passing”, but their interplay is more about the music than about itself. The tracks with vocals seem just as heartfelt as the ones without.
The measure of Shankar’s selflessness is how she lets the best track on the album be completely taken over by her two tabla players, Tanmoy Bose and Bikram Ghosh. They are playing on “Red Sun”, but they also collaborate on one of the most exciting exhibitions of bol vocalizing I’ve ever heard. (Bol is where a tabla player uses nonsense syllables and sounds to imitate the lightning-fast sounds of his percussion.) Over an uptempo and dance-savvy beat, they spit wordless phrases at each other, trading lines like old jazz guys hopped up on curry powder. Sometimes they become suddenly multiple through tracking; at the end, they somehow manage to sing the same impossible lines simultaneously with the suddenly-introduced rock drumbeat. It is, simply, the future of world music.
Pretty soon, people will stop having to mention the whole “she’s Ravi’s daughter” thing in every review.* Anoushka Shankar might end up being just as interesting, in her own way, as anyone else in her family. Yeah, I said it. Because, after the promise and guts shown in Rise, she’s earned it.
* And, of course, the identity of her famous half-sister. Ho-hum, unless they record together, which would be awesome.