Anoushka Shankar’s four most recent albums, recorded with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, display distinct facets of the 35-year-old sitar virtuoso’s identity.
Traveller is a cross-cultural dialogue of Indian and flamenco sounds; Traces of You, a collaboration with half-sister Norah Jones, was released in the wake of the death of their father (legendary sitar master Ravi Shankar); Home finds the world-music star retreating to the purity of her classical Indian roots; and Land of Gold, released just this week, expresses a global citizen’s empathy, sometimes agony, over the refugee crisis. The varied elements of Land of Gold grew “from the ground up,” says Shankar, and represent a new level of artistic strength and truth.
At foundation is the quartet of sitar, double-bass (Larry Grenadier), shehnai (Sanjeev Shankar) and hang drum (Manu Delago). Varied vocal appearances include M.I.A. in an electronica-rap track; singer-songwriter Alev Lenz with lyrics and voice for the title song; and actress Vanessa Redgrave delivering a powerful reading of a new poem by Pavana Reddy about belonging and resilience.
Shankar brings her quartet to Campbell Hall next Monday, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures. I spoke with her by phone in Washington D.C. where she was launching the new album concert tour.
You are touring with Austrian percussionist Manu Delago who is a master of hang drum. Is that a sort of cousin of the Caribbean steel drum? Yeah, you could say that, in a way. It’s very similar. It’s a relatively new instrument — I think it was developed as late as the 1990s. And he’s very unique in the ways that he plays it. He’s really elevated it to another level because of his own skills as a percussionist and also as a composer.
Is there a special accord between the sitar and hang timbres? Very much so. I’ve been working with [Delago] for a few years now. We first recorded together for Traces of You, and then he toured with my band and that’s kind of grown into this collaboration where he’s my co-writer on most of the songs on the album. And I think our two instruments really speak beautifully together. They’re both very resonant, very haunting instruments, and seem to really bring each other to a new space.
Sanjeev Shankar will be playing shehnai—which is often described as an Indian oboe.
Yeah, that’s a simple way to put it. It’s a beautiful instrument. The thing about this ensemble I’m touring with is, we’re a quartet. We’ve got sitar, upright acoustic bass, shehnai and hang. But we’ve also got within that the people that are playing them. These guys are really, really amazing musicians who kind of transcend their instruments. And to me, Sanjeev sometimes reminds me of John Coltrane the way he plays the shehnai. He’s just got such a passion in the way that he plays that sits against my instrument really powerfully. And we’re all doing lots of other things on stage as well to bring this album to life.
Am I right in reading a logic of personal unfoldment through your four most recent albums? As a musician, it’s only natural that my music mirrors my life. Sometimes that happens in very personal ways, where obviously the passing of my father became a really central theme on Traces of You. And my kind of multicultural life has hugely influenced the way I look at cultures through music, like on Traveller, but on most of my records. And you’re exactly right, Home was for me a homecoming going back to the classical roots. And doing that enabled me to use that as a launching pad to jump further again on this record. And this record is personal and not personal at the same time. My experience was that of a human being viewing the world, and perhaps stepping further away from my own experiences then I had before on a record—but very much through an eye of empathy and parenthood. You know, I think becoming a parent has really changed the way that I feel impacted by what’s going on in the world around me. It makes one so much more vulnerable to things—having children. And so it just feels like I can’t hide from what I imagine other parents must be going through. That was kind of the central impetus making this album.
Your earlier album Traveller explores cross-cultural mixing. Of course, a refugee is a traveler too—but an involuntary one. I’m fascinated by that both on a micro level and on a macro level. I think cross-cultural dialogue is something that has hugely impacted the richness of the culture of our world. It’s a central current in my life, and I can’t imagine not having been able to have access to multiple cultures and being able to draw and learn from them. But that comes from such a fortunate position of being able to do that. There are so many people who are just fighting to reach one place of safety, and in so many cases unable to do even that. That contrast just feels unbearable. But it’s one thing to speak of that from [the privileged position] where we are.
The lyrics in Land of Gold and Remain the Sea are especially powerful. Are you the poet? No, I wish I was— I co-wrote with people. So Alev Lenz wrote the [cover track] lyrics over our melody, after we discussed the themes. We sat together and talked about the story I wanted to convey. But the verse form is hers, and it’s beautiful, really amazing work. The poet who wrote Remain the Sea is someone I found, believe it or not, on Instagram. [Pavana Reddy, a.k.a. Maza-Dhota] is a California native Indian-American woman whose work I had found, and it just really spoke to me. I was really looking to include wonderful female artists. And so I asked if she would write for the album.
The song Land of Gold seems to proffer parental advice for an uncertain send-off. It’s hard with this stuff. I should speak for myself, but I feel like everyone around me, we’ve all been deeply affected watching this news unfold. And at the same time I was quite mindful that in making a record that was coming from me—from a very honest place of feeling heart-broken, feeling angry, wanting to express that in my music—I also felt very sensitive that I didn’t want to in any way appropriate anyone else’s pain. So in writing songs like this, we were trying to convey what we were feeling while also being sensitive to what real people are going through; to write lyrics in a way that could touch on and hint at what we imagine is happening for people without being ‘on the nose’ about it—if that makes sense.
Is the ‘land of gold’ the idealized goal of safety and security? Every now and then we have moments of clarity in our lives. And I felt like there was a profound sense of sadness and outrage for what people are going through in this world, but also a profound sense of gratitude for the blessings in my life. And there was something about perspective that really came clear with the phrase like ‘land of gold.’ We can conjure up any number of images just with that phrase. It might be as extreme as golden palaces and riches, or some kind of fantasy dream-level perfection. But what’s actually come clear for me with Land of Gold is that I have healthy children, and I can feed them, and we have a roof over our heads, and there is nothing beyond that that could be more of a land of gold than those basics. How universal that is. That is something we all need, that we all strive for.
A line in Remain the Sea says, “Pain is what we carry on our backs; love is being silent about the weight.” But you are not remaining silent with this album, are you? I suppose silent in a poetic sense about endurance. ‘Acceptance’ is a tricky word. Acceptance about what life is bringing us in a spiritual sense is one thing; but acceptance when there’s injustice in the world is completely another. So, a line like that is a real tribute to the human spirit and what we are capable of enduring. But by no means does it mean that we don’t fight.
Another line speaks about the inner motherland from which we are separated not by space, but by forgetfulness. Classical culture is all about lineage and memory, and you are a classical musician. That’s exactly right. That’s kind of been a theme for me my whole life. I always felt like I was carrying my culture with me, and that was more valid than simply living in a particular country or dressing a certain way. Those aren’t the things that define a culture to me. What people carry, and what people bring, and what people share—those are the powerful things that enrich our lives to me.
Anoushka Shankar & Quartet, presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, will play at Campbell Hall on Monday, April 11 at 8pm. For tickets or more information, dial (805) 893-3535 or visit http://artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.