United Kingdom Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.5.2014 (CC)
Headlining this year’s Alchemy Festival, and celebrating the festival’s fifth anniversary, Anoushka Shankar was accorded the prestigious Royal Festival Hall as her venue. In previous years, the Queen Elizabeth Hall had proved all too small for her loyal followers in 2011 and 2013, and indeed the RFH was very healthily full. For Shankar, the concert was an opportunity to showcase her new album – her seventh – Traces Of You (DG 479 1051). Items from previous albums were interspersed into her recital tonight.
There was no programme (I was told that they were being given out at the doors, but what was on offer was the brochure for the whole Alchemy series). A Lotus was projected against the back of the stage, later flanked by two Om symbols. Shankar has taken her inheritance from her father, Ravi Shankar, and fused it with World music. The result is an eclectic mix, ever fascinating. Anoushka Shankar is now based in London, and five of the six members of her band come from this city. The first item was ‘Voice of the Moon’ from the 2005 album Rise, based on a South Indian rag. The acidic tone of a shenai – an Indian double-reed wind instrument similar to an oboe or a shawm – adds a lovely poignancy to the piece’s long, expressive melody.
The song ‘The Sun Won’t Set’, from Traces of You (text by Norah Jones, co-written by Shankar and Nitin Sawhney) was a real highlight. This is decidedly more occidental than oriental and is a tribute to Ravi Shankar – Ravi means sun in Sanskrit. It is a song of anticipatory grief: written in the months preceding Ravi’s death: “it was a way for me to express my unwillingness to let him go”, says Anoushka. It is shot through with a reflective heart. Ayanna Witter-Johnson was the superbly expressive vocalist; with a little more rough edge to her voice she would give Billie Holliday a run for her money (see here for Witter-Johnson’s impressive website). Another song marking a significant event, and another from Traces of You, was ‘In Jyoti’s Name’. This concerned a sexual attack in December 2012 on Jyoti Singh Pandey by a number of men that sadly led to her death. Illuminated by six headlight-yellow spot lights, this active, unarguably angry piece, featuring the shenai in its furious guise, was magnificently rendered, the underlying anger more visceral than the album.
The music moved from the nocturnal and the frustratedly furious to the siesta daylight of ‘Chasing Shadows’ (again from Traces of You). This latter piece was hyper-energetic and massively fast: on the subject of shadows, the DG recording is actually a mere shadow of the vivacity of this live account.
Based on a fifteenth century Hindustani rag, Metamorphosis also features vocals, chanted by the players on stage: the sacred ‘Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra’. The effect is unforgettable. The variety of expressive device available to Shankar is now remarkable, her incorporation of occidental elements in her music – and sometimes their overshadowing of the Indian ones – always precisely calibrated. The final standing ovation was wholly deserved. Her own virtuosity on her own instrument, the sitar, is no less remarkable. If there was one complaint, it was that we did not hear more of her. But it is clear she is on a musical voyage of discovery, energetically sampling, assimilating and co-creating with other types of World music to find her own voice. The journey, in her case, is fascinating at every moment.