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Nitin Sawhney caught up with Anoushka Shankar and her producer Javier Limón in May 2011
No one embodies the spirit of innovation and experimentation more evidently than Anoushka Shankar. With her deep-seated understanding of Indian classical form and the rich heritage of her father’s innovative genius, Anoushka is constantly pushing boundaries on every level. In Traveller – her debut album on Deutsche Grammophon – she finds her way into the nuances of modern flamenco through the vivid lens of Hindustani technique. In essence, Traveller charts the spiritual link across time and space of two highly evolved forms of musical expression, from their ancient gestation to their modern zenith. This is an album of innovation and rebirth – a perfect culmination of old and new. How appropriate then that the driving force behind this album was the birth of Anoushka’s first child.
“It was a love of the music that inspired me to make this flamenco album and bring together these two traditions”, says Anoushka Shankar. “I’ve always loved flamenco and had a fascination for it. There’s always been that pull towards something I find very similar in flamenco to what I cherish in Indian classical music: a kind of uninhibited musicality in expression, whether it’s a solo voice, a sitar or a guitar. Of course there were common roots and technical similarities to explore, and when you start to play with those, you can really delve down in very delicious ways. However the desire came from simply being an admirer of the music, and wanting to learn about it through making music.”
Flamenco has its roots in India. Many of the great modern exponents of this fiery tradition are keen to emphasize and rediscover that connection. Dancers from Joaquín Cortés to Sandra La Espuelita have, at the beginning of their shows, stated that cultural origin very clearly. Guitar masters Pepe Habichuela and Paco de Lucía, the latter notably in his work with John McLaughlin, have brought strong references to that cultural history into their compositions. The modern, popular Spanish band Ojos de Brujo and the lesser known Indialucía ebulliently celebrate flamenco’s Eastern heritage.
Asked what drew him particularly to Indian classical music and Anoushka Shankar’s style of playing, Javier Limón explains: “When Anoushka plays pure Indian music, for us she’s playing pure flamenco – for all the Gypsies, for Paco [de Lucía] and me, for all of us. When she plays Indian we sometimes say: ‘Hey, you play flamenco very well, this is flamenco.’ And she always answers: ‘No, no, no, this was Indian, pure Indian.’ The frontier is not clear because many centuries ago, maybe eight, the Gypsies came from Rajasthan and brought a lot from there to the flamenco style, to flamenco music. They created what we know today as flamenco with the Christians and Jews in Spain and with the Arabs. That’s why there are a lot of things in common that make our musical forms brothers. Flamenco is very young, about 200 years old. For me, flamenco is like the little brother of Indian music.”
Little is known about the real history of that connection. It is largely supposed that flamenco has its roots in the exodus of “Untouchables” from the Punjab around 800–900 AD. These people became the Gypsies/Romanies of lore, traversing Asia and the Middle East, eventually settling in Europe. Today Rajasthani Gypsies can be seen using ancient castanets to embellish their songs about nomadic existence and spiritual devotion. It is through these songs that the origin of flamenco can be clearly identified. A defining element of flamenco music is undeniably the singing, cante. In fact, flamenco initially consisted purely of cante, with handclapping – palmas sordas – or knuckle rapping providing percussive accompaniment. The guitar, a variation of the Arabic ’ūd, was gradually incorporated in the 19th century.
In most academic research or exploration of flamenco, little is made of the technical connections with Indian classical traditions. For musicians and dancers, however, it is easy to trace the origins of flamenco even further back to the Natya Shastra, an Indian treatise on the arts and spirituality believed to have been written between 200 BC and 200 AD. It is here that theories were first expounded on how dance, theatre and music should have a common language for communication and collaboration. This is still quite evident in the strong rhythmic bond between kathak dancers and tabla players in north India and between bharata-nātyam dancers and mridangam virtuosos in the south. What is even more fascinating is how echoes of the Natya Shastra can still be discovered in the intricate footwork of flamenco dancers and reciprocated in the equally complex polyrhythms of the cajón and guitar. Nowhere outside India and Spain is this powerful rhythmic connection between dancer and musician so evident.
Recently there has been a mutual excitement for dancers and musicians from India and Spain rediscovering their ancient ties and common oral source. Indian classical dancer Rajika Puri has described the technical challenges of that recoupling when working with flamenco dancers and musicians: “Next thing I knew, my body began to execute the strong sharp lines of bharata-nātyam adavus. My feet began to stamp with the force of the south Indian dance form, as I learnt to end, not on our sam – which would be their beat 12 – but on beat 10!”
In the Hindustani tradition, sam is the climactic point of a cycle, normally emphasized by the first beat. This perception of sam landing on the first beat of a cycle differs from the flamenco 12-beat form bulería, in that the feeling of sam is switched to the 12th beat – a technique perpetuated by Paco de Lucía to create a constant sense of flow. Thus, even now, flamenco can be considered a dynamic extension of the Indian classical form, constantly evolving to embrace new ideas across the Diaspora.
“In conceiving this album I was focused on the forms of Indian classical music and flamenco, but also on finding themes and emotions”, remarks Anoushka Shankar. “Naturally all the pieces have different inspirations and origins. Some of them, like Inside Me, were melodies that Javier wrote and came to me with after our initial meeting. I had written out a list of some of the more simple rāgas that I could just give a do-re-mi for, and then he chose some of those and stretched himself to write within a single scale. Some songs, like Casi uno, came about spontaneously, and in others, like Si no puedo verla, I deliberately searched out lyrics by the great Sufi poet Amir Khusrau to connect the song to India. But my favourite moments would happen when we discovered things together. Boy Meets Girl, written with Pepe Habichuela, is an example of what can happen with a project like this. While Javier was teaching me the chord progression of a granaína [one of the classical flamenco cante], I began to play in rāga Manj Khamāj. We realized that in that particular scale, I could plan to end on the appropriate notes needed for the granaína but still play the Indian rāga purely. So the song exists in two ancient forms simultaneously.”
“It was beautiful”, enthuses Javier Limón, reflecting on the making of this album. “Anoushka changed my life: now I have a different concept of the music. When she played granaína, it was like hearing a flamenco singer, not a flamenco guitar: that’s the amazing thing. I think that guitar players are going to learn a lot from her. How she expresses the melodies makes me cry.”