Anoushka Shankar Traces Of You on 180G LP
Seventh Album from Daughter of Ravi Shankar featuring 3 New Songs with Sister Norah Jones
It’s hard to think of any other music-making device which has such an air of both the archaic and the transcendent as the sitar, the traditional stringed instrument central to the Hindustani classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Probably invented in the 13th century, but with roots shared with the far more ancient “veena,” the sitar is a visual work of art in itself. For years its sound was unknown in the West, until Ravi Shankar opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Through his pioneering tours, ground-breaking compositions for orchestras and artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, and role as teacher and mentor to George Harrison, John Coltrane and Philip Glass, he brought his music and culture to audiences of disparate ages and genres across the globe. More than just one of the great artistic figures of the 20th century, he was a musical philosopher whose sitar brought people together and whose spirituality transcended cultural and political differences. That the sitar has since become a fixture in the musical worldview of open-minded listeners is solely due to Ravi Shankar.
Anoushka Shankar is now both conserving her father’s musical philosophy and extending it into new sound spaces and contexts. The 32-year old artist not only served her apprenticeship in Indian classical music under Ravi Shankar and performed on stage with him for nearly twenty years, but also benefited from a curious and open-minded upbringing across three continents, and has always pushed the cultural dialogue her father began even further in her own music. She released her first album, Anoushka, in 1998, when she was just 17, and since then has worked with musicians as varied as Sting, Herbie Hancock, Jethro Tull, Concha Buika, Mstislav Rostropovich and Thievery Corporation. For the past decade and a half, this spirited, visionary and clear-sighted musician has subtly and successfully incorporated traditional Indian sounds into a musical panorama dominated by contemporary styles, bringing the spiritual roots of her music to younger generations.
Shankar’s seventh album, Traces of You, marks a significant step along her pathway as a musician and woman. With the aim of bringing together a variety of cultural experiences and attitudes as organically as possible, she worked with London-based British-Indian producer Nitin Sawhney, particularly noted for fusing Eastern influences with electronica and, more generally, a non-didactic interweaving of Western and Eastern soundscapes for which London, Anoushka’s home and place of birth, provides the optimal environs. However, Traces of You goes beyond resolving music-related dilemmas. The direction of the initial – and solely musical – exploration was inspired by the idea that everything in the universe leaves an indelible mark, or a subtle “trace,” on everything else it comes into contact with, and Anoushka drew on her relationships and multicultural lifestyle to trace a journey of love, change and loss. As it happened, life itself would leave traces on the album’s production. Having lost her father during the process of recording, it was inevitable that her loss became the central focus of the songwriting. However, the music is ultimately hopeful rather than mournful, as whilst losing her father Anoushka was also occupied with raising Zubin, her young son.
Intense joy, pain and sadness intermingled and Traces of You became Anoushka’s catharsis through a difficult period, leading ultimately to the greater emotion behind all the others: love. Three forms of love, love for her father, her husband, and her son, proved to be the ultimate inspiration for some of the deepest music Anoushka has yet written. She worked on Traces of You for over a year, conceiving it as a unified concept, an unending circle, from the first track to the last. “I approached the album as a whole,” she explains, “as opposed to a series of songs. A lot of it happened unconsciously. Life took a journey of its own and the music followed that form. The sitar leads the listener through the album like a narrator.”
With this in mind, it is certainly notable that although the individual tracks are considerably shorter than traditional raga performances, a strong narrative strand is threaded through not only the three songs for which her half-sister Norah Jones provides vocals, but the ten instrumental tracks as well. Shankar’s central theme is that of the cycle of life – from her perspective as a daughter, mother and wife. “Life goes on. Things end and things begin and our endings are not the ending because life goes on beyond us, and we go on beyond this life. It’s bigger than I can ever imagine and there’s a flow that connects everything, even when you can’t really understand it in the moment. A lot of the most painful things I’ve ever been through have led to some of the most beautiful things that have ever happened. I was quite aware of that kind of metamorphosis when making this record. There was a lot of pain, a lot of joy, a lot of beauty, a lot of sadness, and sometimes they were all completely mixed up together.”
Despite all its manifest multiculturalism, Traces of You is far more than just another crossover album. It’s not about seeing how far it’s possible to go in amalgamating familiar sound textures, but asking how accurately music can capture myriad states of mind and experiences within a reality characterized by such a range of different cultures, ethnicities, traditions and life stories. This album has something to say not only about Anoushka Shankar, but about every listener willing to engage with its individually heterogeneous, but collectively incredibly cohesive tracks. Taken as a whole, the thirteen chapters of her narrative reveal numerous overtones and undertones woven throughout the length of the album, conveying a message about the impermanent nature of the world.
Traces of You is also a collaborative work. Nitin Sawhney was involved in all aspects of the album from the creative processes of writing, arranging, programming and playing, right up to the final production stages. Shankar had worked with Sawhney twice previously, and knew that she could completely trust in his intuitive understanding of the soundscapes she envisioned. The immense suppleness of tracks such as “Flight,” “Maya” and “Lasya“ stems from the almost unlimited possibilities of the Hang, a relatively new instrument that looks something like a cross between a steel drum and a flying saucer. Austrian Hang player Manu Delago understands perfectly how to blend his instrument with the sitar, as well as with Ian Burdge’s gentle cello and Sawhney’s virtuosic guitar and piano work and sophisticated electronic sounds.
The use of a great variety of Indian percussion, in the hands of Anoushka’s regular collaborators Tanmoy Bose and Pirashanna Thevarajah, also creates numerous volatile bridges between worlds. On the three tracks on which Norah Jones appears with Shankar, the two artists’ very different timbres blend together amazingly well; neither musician has to make concessions to the other. The songs are well-suited to the sophisticated intensity of Jones’s smoky vocals, and Shankar’s clever use of Indian rhythmic accompaniment creates surprising textures around the sisters’ performances, especially on the impressive album opener “The Sun Won’t Set,” a brilliant confluence of life experiences on three continents. Like her father, Anoushka Shankar displays an enormous talent for effortlessly integrating even the most contrasting of musical components into her sound universe.
She takes the same approach when it comes to all the songs on the album, from the minimalism-inspired “Metamorphosis” to the electronica-tinged “Maya,” and from the Americana-steeped songs that Norah Jones sings to the sitar-driven, raga-based compositions “Monsoon” and “In Jyoti’s Name,” which serve as a potent reminder of Shankar’s classical Indian roots. Even though the baroque-sounding gem “Indian Summer,” with its hypnotic blend of the sitar and Sawhney’s piano, initially appears to be at odds with the aforementioned songs, it is just this integration of contrasting styles that brings the album full circle.
On Traces of You, an unusually insightful artist tells a hauntingly individual and thus very poignant story about matters that concern every single one of us: the eternal interplay of loss and hope, of transience and new beginnings. It is filled with sensuality, but also makes an impassioned plea for us all to realise that despite our widely varying social, cultural, religious and geographical circumstances, our fundamental human experiences are broadly similar. Traces of You creates an uplifting soundscape that shimmers with the contagious power of hope.
Anoushka Shankar Traces Of You Track Listing:
1. The Sun Won't Set
3. Indian Summer
8. In Jyoti's Name
10. Traces Of You
11. River Pulse
12. Chasing Shadows