New pluck

Pub date March 27, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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As the daughter of an international musical legend and sister to an entertainment phenomenon, Anoushka Shankar could be weighted down with baggage. But the young sitar virtuoso shows no sign of being bent or bowed. She makes music with her father and teacher, sitar master Ravi Shankar, but shares a tattoo, on the curve of the lower back, with her famous older sister, Norah Jones, with whom she is quite close, despite Norah and Ravi’s oft-reported distance. Anoushka might even be considered a bridge, maintaining strong familial bonds with both. Still, when she performs April 1, she’ll explore territory primarily her own, outside Ravi’s classical Indian sphere and beyond Norah’s pop realm.

Though the 26-year-old Shankar often performs classical Indian music based on ragas that have been played for more than a thousand years, at this show she’ll play contemporary compositions she wrote and recorded just a couple years ago. Centered on her sitar, the music can be both ethereal and beat driven. The textures and subtle grooves have as much in common with the music of such modern Indian electronic genre mashers as MIDIval Punditz as with the traditional sounds she has traveled the world playing.

"I really wanted to see what I would make if there were no boundaries, if I were just being free," Shankar says from San Diego, where she lives when not in New Delhi or touring. "I knew there was a chance it would end up like this, but I didn’t do it on purpose."

The music on Shankar’s latest record, 2005’s Rise (Angel), includes sitar, tabla, and South Indian flute and vocals and adds Western elements such as piano, bass, drums, and electronics. It’s a larger ensemble and a much different palette than the one Shankar uses for classical concerts, so she hopes people know what they’re about to see and hear at Herbst Theatre.

"Me being a classical musician, there’s always that little risk that someone’s bought a ticket thinking they’re coming to a sitar concert," she explains. "That’s the part I feel apprehensive about." Internationally known as a sitar prodigy who has already fulfilled the early promise she demonstrated as a teenager supporting her father, Shankar is now considered the present and future of Indian classical music. According to Shankar’s Web site, her father’s good friend George Harrison said in 1997, "Ravi — to me he is the music; it just happens to be that he plays the sitar. And it’s like that with Anoushka. She has that quality … she is the music."

Shankar wrote and recorded Rise while on what she describes as a sabbatical from music. She has been playing since she was a child, when she used a sitar her father had built for her smaller hands. But after performing and recording with Ravi since her early teens, the then-24-year-old Shankar was ready for a break.

"I thought it would be more about holidaying and having fun, being a kid in a certain way that I hadn’t gotten to do before," Shankar says. "But what ended up happening as soon as I had the space was I started making music. It does make sense when I look back."

This music was her own, based on the classical modes she has absorbed but influenced by everything else in her multinational, multicultural world. Rise signaled her musical independence. "It was the first project I took on where I was producing and creating," she says. "That it ended up shifting from classical music to something a little broader was secondary to me transferring from being an instrumentalist to a composer and overall musician."

Shankar references elements that have taken on a popular life of their own in the new musical democracy. Indian beats and sounds have become a staple of electronica the world over and, in the process, have liberated traditional South Asian culture. "Talvin Singh changed things for everybody," Shankar says.

Singh’s 1997 compilation, Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (Fontana Island), put sitar, tabla, and South Asian vocals in a mix with drum ‘n’ bass, becoming a blueprint for releases such as Frequent Flyer: Bombay (Kinkysweet, 2004). But Shankar’s music has more of the depth and dynamics of jazz, relying on the Indian rhythms as its root while improvising with the traditional instruments rather than just using them for exotic color and texture the way much electronica does. She flips the recipe her contemporaries have developed, as the electronics become the aural ornamentation.

Shankar has obviously grown up with music all around her, but she’s had to consider several times whether she wanted it to be her life: first when she was 13 years old and began giving performances, and again five years later when she decided to commit to touring with her father. "Then it happened again around the time I started making Rise, where I reached the point where I was burned out a little on touring."

At that point Shankar decided she needed to reclaim the music for herself. Indian classical music has a structure that can seem foreign to Western ears. "Almost all Western music is based on harmony and counterpoint," she explains. "Ours is modal in structure, and at the heart of our music are the ragas, the melody form. We have thousands of those, and we can achieve all possible manner of variations in the music."

The variations are often improvised, inspiring comparisons to jazz in how masters such as her father have interpreted the music. "The goal is once one has studied a vast amount and become familiar with the ragas and their characters, their rules and notes, to know them well enough that you can just let go in your mind and play creatively," Shankar says.

Making and performing the music on Rise has far exceeded the modest expectations Shankar had for the project. On the recording she gracefully represents how naturally musicians now absorb then integrate influences. Closing Rise with the meditative "Ancient Love," Shankar picks her sitar through a dark, insistent beat that grows into an ominous groove propelled by wordless chants and pulsing tables. Then it all fades away. The music sounds current but feels timeless.

Shankar plans to do more records like Rise but remains committed to traditional forms. "After I finish this, I want to go back and rebuild that classical space again, because I wouldn’t want this to be at the cost of that, but if I can manage to balance both, it would be really amazing." *


Sun/1, 7 p.m., $25–$58

Herbst Theatre

401 Van Ness, SF