Review: Anoushka Shankar evokes haunting crossover soundscapes at Dubai Opera
Anoushka Shankar is a music marketing head’s dream. Her latest album, Land of Gold, is a timely response to the humanitarian disaster of the global refugee crisis.
She has a striking visage and photographs rather well – essential for press coverage and concert ads. And, of course, as daughter of world music’s first superstar (fellow sitarist Ravi Shankar), she holds a surname recognisable to millions on six continents.
These may be the very reasons Dubai Opera’s team had in mind when they announced Shankar as their first major world music booking. And the strong turn out and lively response at October 15’s concert suggest they were on the money.
Playing exclusively new material, those hoping to hear the hypnotic Hindustani classical music which made her father famous – and to which Shankar devoted her first decade on stage – might have left disappointed.
“We keep moving in and out of morning ragas, evening ragas, and non-ragas – crossover,” said Shankar, sheepishly pronouncing the term like the dirty word it is to so many purists.
Alongside Shankar’s sitar, Land of Gold is marked by two distinct voices – the sheer searing sound of Indian woodwind instrument the shehnai, piercingly played by former Ravi “disciple” Sanjeev Shankar, and the atmospheric drone of modern tuned percussion instrument the hang, played by Austrian co-writer Manu Delago. Both key collaborators accompanied Shankar onstage, joined only by Tom Farmer – normally a jazz player with UK trailblazers Empirical – who steps in to supplant the recorded music’s electronic and orchestral backbone with just a keyboard and his trusty acoustic bass (on which he is granted a single solo).
Live, Land of Gold’s moody, meditative soundscapes are conjured in a two-two formation, with Farmer and Delago (who doubles on percussion) supplying the harmonic and rhythmic backbone, the two Shankar’s trading increasingly lyrical lead lines over shifting chamber textures. The music is at turns fragile and angry, haunting and discontent.
The use of technology is joyfully conspicuous – in one breakdown Farmer steps on a distinctly nasty fuzz pedal, vamping a fierce, jagged bass riff amid splicing strobes. In Dissolving Boundaries, recorded news reports cycle ominously above the music. Shankar even jumps briefly on the looping bandwagon, artfully building layers of her sitar on top of one another.
If there is one criticism of Shankar’s latest project, it is that her instrument occasionally feels inappropriate to the task at hand. Properly played, a sitar can only ever work in a single key, built around a system of tuned droning root notes, so these song-like pieces often restrict Shankar to picking out a naked melody line. On the title track, Shankar is forced to simply play the missing vocal line, unadorned, and a little uninteresting.
Yet this instrumental shoe-horning creates some interesting juxtapositions, at times signalling the simpler world of rock n’ roll. The way Shankar often necessarily drones a high note amid shifting chords recalls the piano work of Radiohead. The use of repetitive rhythmic riffing in a single key, building to a thrashing climax, recalls the primal bite of funk rock or heavy metal.
These climaxes are the ecstatic highlights, none more so than upset set closer Reunion, which breaks midway into an extended throbbing raga workout finally laying Shankar’s incredible virtuosity bare. The feeling was bittersweet; this blazing extrapolation was a phenomenal visceral thrill, but left one wishing we had seen more of Shankar the sitarist, rather than Shankar the conceptualist composer.