The sitar superstar creates a canny new hybrid form.
Anoushka Shankar has been marking out a difficult and fascinating path for herself. She started out as a sitar traditionalist, proving that she had all the chops and technical rigor of her father, the legendary Ravi Shankar. This brought her international fame even before she signed her first record contract (famously, at age 16).
But she has branched out in the last few years. Her 2005 album Rise was full of exciting, pop-inflected songs that were still rooted in sitar and Hindi folk styles. 2008's Breathing Under Water was a successful (if sedate) collaboration with drummer/electronicist Karsh Kale; it also marked the first time Shankar had collaborated on disc with her half-sister Norah Jones.
Traveller finally arrived here this year after debuting internationally in 2011. This album is a surprising -- but extremely successful -- detour for Anoushka Shankar, as it sees her taking on a form one would never have expected: flamenco.
Of course, as we come to find out, this should have made perfect sense. Flamenco is also extremely technical music, and is probably quite close to raga form somewhere back in the centuries. But at first, it is okay to be skeptical. She'll win you over.
The opener here, "Inside Me", could pass for a hundred things, but flamenco might not be any of them. It's sprightly, bubbly, but not necessarily Spanish in any recognizable way. But the next track, "Buleria con Ricardo," is the gauntlet-thrower, with dramatic piano from Pedro Ricardo Miño, complicated hand-clapping, and twists and turns that sound very flamenco...until you focus on Shankar's sitar fills, and realize that the piece could perhaps have been a legitimate raga.
Or take the five-minute duel of "Boy Meets Girl", consisting solely of Shankar playing with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela. Their musical traditions meld, break apart, come back together, merge and slide across any boundaries that might once have been there. Both are not just great at playing lots of pretty notes -- they are masters of musical space as well, creating lots of room (and respect) for each other.
Shankar continues to explore the connections between ragas and flamenco songs throughout the disc -- and when there aren't any, she and her cohorts invent some. On "Si No Puedo Verla", she and Javier Limón translate a 14th-century Sufi poem into Spanish and turn flamenco vocalist Duquende loose on it, bringing some Romany grit and wisdom to the table. On "Casi Uno", Shankar and Limón co-write a lament and turn it over to the incomparable voice of Concha Buika. This singer from Equatorial Guinea might be the best flamenco singer of her generation, and this track does nothing to suggest otherwise.
There are so many riches here: Sanjeev Chimmalgi's Indian vocals in pure flamenco style on "Ishq"; Sandra Carrasco and her beautiful voice going way over the top on "Kanya"; percussion masters Piraña (Spanish) and Tanmoy Bose and Kenji Ota (Indian) throughout; and so on. What holds it all together is Anoushka Shankar, proving that she might be the single most important figure in whatever "world music" is today.