Anoushka Shankar

Review and picture by Garry Corbett

Symphony Hall, Birmingham UK

The sitar in popular music has a chequered history. The 1960s of course raised its profile somewhat with the adoption of the instrument by a certain band and in particular by George Harrison who helped to raise the profile of both the instrument and one of its foremost masters. Jazz adopted the sitar too of course with Indo Jazz Fusions, a mixed bag which was largely successful. Miles too incorporated the tabla and sitar in the ’70s into the sessions which produced Big Fun, On the Corner and some of his more out-there live recordings. Does anyone recall Ananda Shankar covering the Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash?

We seem to live in many respects in interesting times. Contemporary music of course reflects the times in which its created and there has never been a time in history when so much diverse music from all around the globe has been so readily available to us. In the ’70s we had Fusion, today we have World Music.

Anoushka Shankar (Photo © Garry Corbett)

Anoushka Shankar (Photo © Garry Corbett)

I’d previously only seen Anoushka Shankar playing with her father in a classical raga concert. I have followed her career and she has developed into the epitome of the searching experimental World musician over a series of albums incorporating the blending of various styles and forms including very successfully Flamenco.

Her most recent album, Land of Gold, was inspired in the writing stage by recent world events which touched the artists’ sensibilities. Most notably the continuing refugee crisis which surely must have touched us all via our TV screens last summer with the body count of the innocent increasing each day on the beaches where some of us take our holidays. Land of Gold didn’t overtly preach but did reinforce and articulate some of our feelings while at the same time producing some beautiful music.

Shankar’s concert at Symphony Hall concentrated solely on this music. Unlike the album there were no featured vocalists to deliver the message but the message was subtly delivered by a quartet which featured Shankar’s sitar, the stripped-down drum kit and, more prominently, hang of Manu Delago, bass and keyboards from Tom Farmer, and shehnai master Sanjeev Shankar.

Highlights of the evening were many from the first notes of that magical sitar across the vastness of the silent Symphony Hall. Interestingly for me the one album track that pleases least seemed to make much more sense within the context of the concert and the physical nature of its playing: Jump In (Cross the Line) with M.I.A. on vocals and production on Land of Gold. The version performed here used triggered samples from Tom Farmer’s keyboard with the band giving the music much more context and sheer oomph than on the recording.

Tom Farmer, a man familiar to jazz fans as the bass player from Empirical used the same technique on a later tune, Dissolving Boundaries, which used specific news broadcast samples relating to the refugee crisis. Lacking the album’s vocals, Land of Gold saw the sitar taking the vocal line and Delago’s sumptuous hang creating an ethereal haze.

The man is a true master of this strange modern instrument which looks like a collection of woks surrounding him on stage. At times he produces a steel pan sound and in another section, the hang turned upside down, the listeners could find themselves searching in vain for the tabla player secreted somewhere in a dark corner of the stage. He is the Jaco Pastorious of the hang and co writer of tonight’s music.

Crossing The Rubicon was for me a real highlight. “Once you begin the journey you can’t go back,” said Shankar by way of introduction before we were off on that journey. Here the entry of the shehnai into the musical drama had a chilling, keening, voice-like effect as it soared over the almost militaristic drum beat.

The final number, Reunion, had an almost jaunty optimistic feel with the music dancing us to its conclusion.

Duke Ellington’s famous quote was brought to mind: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed.” A successful evening of music from Anoushka and band.

Categories: Live review

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