International Relations

Anoushka Shankar displays her father's innovative spirit

Unlike her snoozy superstar half-sister Norah Jones, Anoushka Shankar is very much her father's daughter. Which is saying something when your pops is the pioneering sitar player Ravi Shankar. The hippest Beatle, George Harrison, once called Ravi “the godfather of world music” for his revolutionary East-meets-West fusions, which boldly transformed American pop, jazz, and dance grooves in the '60s and '70s. His work continues to resonate in the hybrid soundtracks of the 21st century — a genre-elusive space where Anoushka has recently emerged as a leader.

On her fourth and latest recording from 2005, Rise, the follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Live at Carnegie Hall, Shankar infused ancient raga melodic forms with subtle keyboards, electronic effects, and other non-traditional instruments (both acoustic and electric). As she explained in an NPR interview at the time, she created “an album that's hopefully more accessible but still retains the actual heart of the music.” Indeed, Shankar's compositions serve as a refreshing contemporary portal for Western listeners to experience the hypnotic sounds of northern India.

This is new territory for the 25-year-old London-born sitarist, whose previous efforts focused exclusively on the classical modes first gleaned from her father when she was just 7. It seems that once she had proved herself a devoted adept of the old school — even receiving a rare award (the House of Commons Shield) from the British government for her skills as “a pre-eminent musician of the Asian Arts” — she felt confident to explore her voice as a modern composer-improviser. “I've played this beautiful classical instrument, done this ancient musical style that is a huge part of who I am,” Shankar told NPR, “but there's so much more. And it just makes sense that they should come together.”

The artist's aesthetic unions reflect the global consciousness that's de rigueur among electronic dance communities across the planet. In lesser hands, such amalgams tend to feel like little more than trendy fashion statements. But Shankar's no poseur. She has lived her entire life as a universalist who disregards convenient borders and nurtures intercultural connections, be they musical or political; she's renowned as a performer in Europe, India, and the U.S., and is involved with both PETA and international AIDS-awareness organizations, like the Naz Foundation. Yet despite all of her high-profile activities, she also knows the value of doing nothing and is happy on occasion to “check out,” as she likes to put it, disappearing for days at a time at raves in the middle of nowhere.

It takes maturity to embrace this sort of balance in one's day-to-day routine, and such personal poise is precisely what suffuses Shankar's latest music. As evident in her traditional performances, the sitarist is a formidable improviser whose fleet-fingered abandon can drop jaws and rouse standing ovations. But Shankar is far from a showoff, leaning more toward self-restraint and compelling player-to-player dynamics than flashy exhibitionism. Her songs on Rise convey a stylish, enigmatic ambience, at once serene and vibrant, spacious and powerful, an organic blend of Eastern tradition and Western innovation.

Ultimately, Shankar's success, much like her father's, comes from deeply living her music. There's no separation between how and what she plays, who she is as a person, and the life she leads. Which is why fans around the world are riveted by Shankar's songs.

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