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Anoushka Shankar: A Sitar Player In Andalusia

Apr 18, 2012
Originally published on April 19, 2012 7:41 am

Anoushka Shankar is the daughter and protege of the renowned Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, who is credited with introducing Indian classical music to Western audiences. Now, Anoushka Shankar carries on this tradition in more ways than one. On her new album, Traveller, she goes back in time to make the connections between India and Spain.

The younger Shankar took the stage at an industrial Berlin nightclub late one Tuesday night. It's not where one might expect to find the sitar, but she loves clubs and she loves electronic music. On previous albums, Shankar has often pushed her classical training into slithering digital soundscapes.

"I do think evolution is an important aspect of keeping a tradition alive," Shankar says. "If it freezes and remains very static in its form, it dies, and so a natural evolution has to occur."

Flamenco's Roots In India

On her latest album, the 30-year-old Shankar moves her sitar out of urban lounges and into the winding alleys of Andalusia, in search of the musical and historical ties between India and Spain.

"There's a very primal, emotional response I feel when I hear flamenco," Shankar says. "It's quite in the belly in a way."

There's a reason she feels that connection. Flamenco traces its roots to the music of India, in the traveling communities that moved across South Asia and the Middle East, settling in Europe.

"We tend to overprivilege this time as unique," says Sonia Seeman, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Texas. "That was a period of dramatic exchanges. The 15th century was a period in Europe when great prestige was given to travelers. Pilgrims were considered sacred guests, but they were given safe passage, and also food and places to stay."

'That Little Space Of Longing'

And, of course, they brought their music. As a result, there are technical links between Spanish and Indian music: the use of certain rhythmic cycles; the complex interplay of vocals and strings; and, as Anoushka Shankar says, something deeper.

"It is that kind of space, that little space of longing, whether it is in something like romantic or divine love, something that is not quite in your grasp — a very powerful place to explore as an artist," Shankar says. "It can be a joy. It has this pang that is something that kind of brings alive what you are playing and what the listener connects to."

Shankar is careful to call Traveller not just an album, but a musical project. These are original compositions, worked out during months of experimentation in Madrid — and still being worked out in concert performances. Some of these experiments are more successful than others and, as Shankar says, her favorite is not a blending at all, but a simple back-and-forth duet between her and flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela.

"We were having a hard time trying to figure out what to do together, and we were wanting to play something very beautiful, and we kept running into this wall of having to break the other's form," Shankar says. "And, after much experimentation, we found an old form called the granaina, and we discovered a particular raga that I could play very freely and in only this particular key. It would match the granaina form, and so he was able to play a purely granaina form while I was able to play a pure raga form, and yet together it sounds like a very synergized and cohesive piece of music. I found it very beautiful that those two traditions could be very symbiotic."

Carrying On Traditions

Anoushka Shankar's father brought Indian music to the West through his collaborations with classical and jazz musicians — and, of course, his association with The Beatles. But Shankar says she's wary of sharing her own experiments with her 92-year-old father.

"He could even just twitch a smile and frown, and it's totally going to send me running," she says. "I'm going to think it's not good enough."

Both Anoushka and Ravi Shankar are carrying on a centuries-old tradition in their own way.

"I do feel a commitment to this art form and to my father's teachings, and the older I am getting, the more I am feeling it," Shankar says. "I have been given something really, really special and really unique, and it is not just in and of itself having learned from my father, who is the greatest exponent of this musical style. But it is an oral tradition that is only generally passed on in that manner, and so without the people who continue to ... learn it and perform it, it dies. And so, in that sense, I feel a great sense of wanting to share the music with people and push it forward."

That movement of music across nations and time is what Anoushka Shankar's latest album is all about.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Anoushka Shankar is the daughter and protege of the renowned Indian sitar player, Ravi Shankar. She's carrying on his tradition of taking Indian classical music to the West, but with her own twist. On her latest album, she travels back in time to make the connections between India and Spain.

NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Anoushka Shankar took the stage at an industrial Berlin nightclub late one Tuesday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Not where one expects to find the sitar. But Anoushka Shankar loves clubs, and she loves electronic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: On previous albums, she's often pushed her classical training into slithering digital soundscapes.

ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: I do think evolution is an important aspect to a tradition remaining alive. I think if it freezes and remains very static in its form, then it might not necessarily continue to remain relevant to people in ensuing generations. And so, a natural evolution has to occur.

QURESHI: On her latest album, the 30-year-old Shankar moves her Sitar out of urban lounges and into the winding alleys of Andalusia, in search of the musical and historical ties between India and Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHANKAR: There's a very primal, emotional response that I think I feel when I hear flamenco. It's quite in the belly, in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: There's a reason she feels that connection. Flamenco traces its roots to the music of India, in the traveling communities who moved across South Asia and the Middle East, settling in Europe.

Sonia Seeman is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Texas.

SONIA SEEMAN: We tend to over-privilege this period as being unique in terms of globalization, but that was a period of incredibly dramatic exchanges. There were groups arriving in Spain in about 1425. And, you know, the 15th century was a period in Europe in which great prestige was given to travelers. Pilgrims, in particular, were considered to be sacred guests and were often given not only safe passage but food and places to stay.

QURESHI: And, of course, they brought their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: As a result, there are technical links between Spanish and Indian music: the use of certain rhythmic cycles, the complex interplay of vocals and strings. And as Anoushka Shankar explains, something deeper.

SHANKAR: It is that kind of space, that little space of longing, whether it is in something like romantic love, or whether it's in something like divine love. You know, that kind of search for something that's not quite in your grasp. It's a very powerful place to explore as an artist, because it's not necessarily sad. It can be a joy and, at the same time, it's got this pang that is something that kind of brings alive what you're playing. And it's something that the listener then connects to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Anoushka Shankar is careful to call "Traveler," not just an album, but a musical project. These are original compositions, worked out during months of experimentation in Madrid and still being worked out in concert performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Some of these experiments are more successful than others. And as Shankar says, her favorite piece is not a blending at all, just a simple back and forth duet between her and flamenco guitarist, Pepe Habichuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHANKAR: We were having a hard time trying to figure out what to do together. And we were going through lots of different forms of both Indian music and flamenco music. And we kept running into that eventual wall of one of us having to break the other form, in order to play, freely, what we wanted to play. And after much experimentation, we found a very old form called a granaina, in flamenco.

And we tried it in a few different scales and discovered that there was one particular raga, called manch ko manch(ph), that I could play very freely. And so, he was able to play a purely a granaina form while I was able to play a pure a raga manch ko manch. And yet, together it sounds like a very cohesive piece of music. And I think that's really beautiful to me, to see the two traditions could actually be so symbiotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Anoushka Shankar's father brought Indian music to the West through his collaborations with classical and jazz musicians and, of course, through his associations with the Beatles. But Anoushka Shankar says she is a little wary of sharing her own experiments with her 92-year-old father.

SHANKAR: He could even just twitch a smile and make a slight frown, and that's going to totally going to send me running into, you know, circles of oh, I need to change it, it's not good enough.

QURESHI: But both Anoushka and Ravi Shankar are each carrying on a centuries-old tradition in their own way.

SHANKAR: I do feel a commitment to this art form and to my father's teaching, and I think the older I get I'm feeling that more and more strongly. It's not just in of itself having learned from my father, who is the greatest living exponent of this musical style, but it's also the fact that it is an oral tradition that is, only, generally, passed on in that manner.

And so, without the people who continue to perform it and continue to share it, it dies. And so, in that sense, as well, I feel a great sense of wanting to share the music with people and wanting to push it forward.

QURESHI: And that movement of music, across nations and time, is what Anoushka Shankar's latest album is all about.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: You can hear songs from "Traveler" at NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.