Anoushka Shankar chats about taking the sitar into new musical territory, collaborating with M.I.A. and the joy of discovery at festivals like WOMADelaide.
There aren’t too many surnames in the world synonymous with a single instrument. For western audiences, the sitar might still convey the spirituality and broadened outlooks ushered in by the summer of love, but Anoushka Shankar knows better than anyone that the centuries-old instrument still has plenty of room to surprise and innovate.
“At base level I think it is a beautiful instrument and I think it has got an extremely emotional and evocative sound,” she says of the sitar’s enduring appeal. “It also has references in people’s psyche of that time in popular culture — when it really first hit global recognition through my father’s work. Because of that it seems to have an indelible association with elements of spirituality that seem to affect people very deeply.”
Only seven years old when she first entered the world of music, Shankar had a front row seat to her late father Ravi Shankar’s lifelong work of spreading traditional Indian music to the world, and the profound effect it could have on audiences. While keeping an eye to those traditions, Shankar’s own career has been marked by the new musical territory she is able to explore with the instrument.
“I tried to constantly approach my playing as a new learning experience that’s honest to where I am in that moment and in my life,” she says of her flirtations with electronic sounds, flamenco and jazz over eight albums. “Therefore it keeps on evolving and changing. At the moment I am very curious about seeing the sitar step out of its cultural identity and see where that can go.”
To that end Shankar’s career has seen her collaborate widely, with her most recent album Land of Gold featuring guest appearances from Vanessa Redgrave and M.I.A. As Shankar explains, the latter came out of some refreshingly normal — and kind of adorable — circumstances.
“Funnily enough, [it came] through our kids!” she exclaims. “They used to hang out a lot and have play dates, and M.I.A. and I would end up on the floor building train tracks together.”
Over make-believe infrastructure projects, Shankar discovered common ground with the British-Sri Lankan rapper whose then-developing 2016 album AIM would tackle the growing plight of asylum seekers and displaced communities around the world. Shankar, it turns out, was exploring similar themes on Land Of Gold.
“From there we were speaking about how we were both working on music simultaneously that had to do with the refugee crisis,” she says. “I asked if she’d like to be involved.” The resulting track Jump In matches Shankar’s sparse playing with an insistent electronic beat and M.I.A.’s chopped up spoken refrain, and would eventually appear on both their albums.
WOMADelaide 2018 marks Shankar first visit to Adelaide since Land Of Gold’s release, having previously appeared at the festival alongside her father. “My first experience touring Australia was in 2007 and then 2010 when I first played at WOMAD there,” she recalls. “It was an incredible experience and I love the audiences there.
“I think festivals in general are great as people often hear music that they wouldn’t have necessarily gone to hear an entire concert of, and therefore it is a great way to reach new people,” she says.
And as Shankar continues the legacy of cross-cultural exchange begun by her father, those opportunities to help people explore beyond their comfort zones are all the more rewarding. “My experience of festivals like WOMAD speaks to that process of discovery even more, as it is so much about people coming together and really learning about each other’s cultures.”
Anoushka Shankar plays WOMADelaide on Friday March 9