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Sitar master makes cross-cultural fusion music in Vancouver

6 min read

Acclaimed sitar player Anoushka Shankar explores new musical realms with mini-album.

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Anoushka Shankar

When: Oct. 15, 7 p.m.

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Where: Chan Shun Concert Hall, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC

Tickets and info: Chancentre.com

Chapter 1: Forever, For Now is the latest recording from sitarist/composer Anoushka Shankar.

The mini-album is the first in a planned trilogy of releases. It continues in the tradition of earlier recordings from the nine-time, Grammy-nominated, British-American musician, who began her musical studies with her late father, sitar master Ravi Shankar. The four tracks incorporate Hindustani and Western classical stylings alongside other varied instrumentation and arrangements.

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Arooj Aftab produced the album. Shankar collaborated with Aftab on the song Udhero Na from the singer’s Vulture Prince album. Chapter 1: Forever, For Now includes contributions from producer Nils Frahm on piano, glass harmonica, harmonium and more; Gal Maestro on bass; and Magda Giannikou on accordion.

Songs range from the concise, melodic single Daydreaming (featuring Frahm) to the nearly 10-minute-long workout What Will We Remember?

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“To me everything is a concept album, as there is always some kind of idea driving the music you are making, unless you are going for something truly and completely random,” said Shankar. “I find that releasing music in this kind of format is a way to feel more like you are in the flow. I can go and have an experience with someone I’m interested in working with, put together a few songs and have the music out there when I go out on tour and then go back and do the same thing a few months later and so on.”

This way she can release each ‘chapter’ as though it was a story unto itself. Eventually, the whole book will be brought together. She says that each album will both stand alone but also be woven into a thorough narrative.

Think of the sessions as short stories that will wind up compiled down the way.

“My brain is trained by decades of making albums as a kind of 60-minute story, but it’s rarely how people listen now,” she said. “I found it freeing to encourage myself to change how I thought about it and not follow the rules. I can’t help but think about thinking of songs as part of a greater story, but it doesn’t have to be a grand opus.”

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That said, training in Indian classical music meant playing long and expansive ragas were a given, and Shankar often stretches the standard time frame in her singles. Songs such as the atmospheric Stolen Moments clock in at almost seven minutes.

“One of the welcome effects of the pandemic was the way it changed how people consumed music and could mix it up in a variety that followed no set format,” she said. “Because that whole notion of a single has been turned upside down, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a single being over six minutes long. Why not?”

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While the term ‘crossover’ or ‘fusion’ is often applied to her work, she isn’t a fan of the term. She notes that the phrase that was used in her father’s day was ‘ethnic music,’ then ‘world music,’ now ‘global or crossover.’ The appraisal isn’t only framed in a colonial mentality, but also incredibly lazy.

“It always sounded to me like a surface level assessment, ‘Look, here she has added some electronics with the sitar and that is called ‘crossover,’ ” she said. “In fact, there is a very long and deliberate process involved in creating those multiple layers and that can get overlooked once you hear those two things. You get the top layer and miss out on all of the complexity going into the total piece, and that is a shame.”

Finding new ways of expressing her sonic storytelling will continue with each additional chapter in this trilogy of mini-albums. A different producer will be involved for each session and different guest artists will also be selected.

“It was really wonderful working with Arooj, as it is a very different experience for me when I’m trusting someone else with my work,” said Shankar. “Our musical voices are different, but it was my first time working with a South Asian producer who shares a similar vision of taking her traditional music forward. I hope each chapter goes that way, as it was really rewarding.”

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The backing band for the coming tour was originally put together for a December 2022 trip to India. The members are Arun Ghosh on clarinet, drummer/composer Sarathy Korwar, Carnatic percussionist Prishanna Thevarajah and longtime bassist Tom Farmer.

Shankar says they can play anything she throws at them.

“I’m very freed as an improviser with this group because they all come from mixed musical backgrounds of Indian and jazz,” she said. “So everyone is fine with leaving the page and venturing into fun journeys together and then coming back. They can achieve the same freedom I feel in an Indian classical show with my crossover material, which is such a wonderful place to be.”

The Royal Conservatory hails it as “one of the best ensembles to tour with Shankar in her 28-year-long career.”

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