Global Beat: Anoushka Shankar
Ravi Shankar’s daughter, and longtime student, celebrates the late sitar virtuoso’s centennial amid the current global crisis.
If circumstances hadn’t wiped live music off the map for much of 2020, then several cities would have, by now, enjoyed a series of planned Ravi Shankar Centennial Concerts conceived by and featuring the late maestro’s daughter, fellow sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, as well as a number of special guests. Hopefully, those canceled shows—originally scheduled for London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities—will eventually find their way back onto the calendar. But, according to Anoushka, “Making plans is one of the funniest things you can do right now. Everything is a question.”
Ravi Shankar would have turned 100 on April 7 of this year; he passed away in 2012, ending a remarkable run as one of the world’s most celebrated musicians—a man whose profound impact spanned cultures and genres. Shankar’s effect on George Harrison and The Beatles is well known, but he also influenced artists from the worlds of modern classical music (Philip Glass) to jazz (John Coltrane) and beyond.
“It’s insane,” Anoushka says, while describing her father’s role in shaping modern music. “But the most profound reason he had that kind of impact is the spiritual quality in his music. His music was spiritual, not religious. The soul depths that he could reach were uncharted. Ravi helped some musicians who were struggling with that—people who’d had it before and were now a bit stuck, or people who were looking to go deeper and hadn’t before. That uplifting quality is why what he did spoke to so many people. He was always moving toward something deeper. The centenary felt like an important opportunity to make a little bit of noise about him and to solidify his proper place in music history for younger people.”
Of course, Anoushka—who is also Norah Jones’ half-sister (they have different mothers)— is one of Ravi’s greatest disciples. Now 39, she began studying the sitar with her father at age 7, gave her first public performance at 13 and released her first solo album at 18.
“Growing up next to someone who was as creative as [my father] really showed me the possibilities that exist within music,” she says. “Just watching someone go into that process, and having that freedom and that connection, really showed me its depths. I learned a lot of technique, and gained a lot of knowledge, from him.”
Over the past two-plus decades, Anoushka has continually darted between divergent musical scenes. While she has continued to perform and record in the Indian classical tradition pioneered by her father, some of her most acclaimed recordings have found the sitar player applying her instrument to more experimental concepts. Breathing Under Water, her 2007 collaboration with tabla drummer and progressive musician Karsh Kale, included guests Jones, Sting and the Indian fusion group MIDIval Punditz—as well as Ravi Shankar. Traveller, released in 2011, explored the path where Indian music crosses with Spanish flamenco. And, on 2016’s Land of Gold, she used different vocalists to commentate on the refugee crisis that dominated the news.
Now, for her new EP, Love Letters, Anoushka has recorded what may be her most personal, intimate set of songs to date. The music was made following end of her sevenyear marriage to film director Joe Wright in 2018. As the mother of two young children, Anoushka gravitated toward compositions that reflected the current state of her life. The six-track collection, her first release for the Mercury KX label, utilizes several vocalists, musicians and producers— most notably the GermanTurkish singer-songwriter Alev Lenz, who serves as Anoushka’s chief collaborator and co-producer.
“Alev and I worked together before on Land of Gold,” Anoushka says. “It felt so simple, just having a mate come around—sitting down on the floor, writing on paper together, our kids playing downstairs. It was just these little hangout sessions whenever we could snatch a bit of time. There was no pressure. It wasn’t like there was a week marked out for album-making and a bunch of dudes in the studio waiting for me to come up with ideas.”
Most of the other contributors to Love Letters are women as well. “Even though breakups are universal, there are a lot of aspects of the experience that are specific to women—particularly to mothers.” Anoushka says, “I suppose in life, and creatively, I was leaning toward the women with whom I identified. And my experiences, of course, also felt relevant in the songwriting. I wanted to hear other women’s voices, thematically, enhancing and amplifying me.”
Love Letters also boasts Anoushka’s first recorded vocal on the track “Lovable.” She says, “I don’t know if I would have done that if this had been some massive album statement, like, ‘Oh, she’s a singer now.’ But just singing a little bit felt easier. It felt very safe.”
With the future of touring very much up in the air right now, including the on-hold Ravi centennial festivities, Anoushka is using this downtime to take stock of herself and her art. “I’m in that really funny phase that painters call a blank canvas, where I’ve had this strong idea for a few months now of what I want to make next,” she says. “That feels new to me. I’ve never had such clarity on what I wanted the outcome—the feeling, the mood—to be. What I wanted to achieve—to evoke in the listener—felt really clear. And yet, how do I get from point zero to that vision? I don’t have a damn note!”