‘Land of Gold is something we humans are striving for’

Sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who has won a Grammy nomination for her album, Land of Gold, on the refugee crisis, melding poetry with instrumentals, and her father’s Concerto #2

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Published: December 8, 2016 5:32 pm
anoushka-shankar759 Anoushka Shankar; the cover of her Grammy-nominated Land of Gold

Your latest album, Land of Gold, sounds different from your other projects. There is a fluidity that connects one piece with the other. Tell me about conceptualising it and the process of recording it?

On the musical front, one of the formative ideas was to approach the album as a live work. I wanted a core sound that would translate live and also have the energy of musicians playing together and responding to each other. It’s an energy that’s irreplaceable in more ‘studio’ style albums. I took two musicians and my engineer to a friend’s farm in Tuscany. We workshopped and did some of the initial recordings. The music started in an organic environment centered around live musicians.

The phrase, ‘Land of Gold’, means different things to different people. What did it mean to you?

I was struck by the notion that, as humans, it’s our nature to think of a ‘Land of Gold’ as something we are striving for. In other words, as something we don’t yet have. It doesn’t matter how much we do have, we usually look at what is missing and think we will be happy if we have it. In the summer of 2015, I was experiencing my own ‘land of gold’, as I had just given birth to my second son and was ensconced in love and safety. Seeing millions of people fleeing the most horrific scenes of war and destruction with their children, simply trying to give them the same thing I was blessed enough to have, was shocking. We want the same things in the end, and it’s deeply unjust that, by virtue of where I was born and where I live, I can take those core needs for granted, while others may never have them.

The album is a response to the refugee crisis. Was it difficult to articulate the theme as an instrumentalist? Does the inclusion of poetry in your recent albums stem from there?

In most of my recent albums, I’ve had lyrics peppered through the music to help define and expand the themes of the music. Land of Gold was no different. We also included a poem as spoken word with two other songs, which was new for me. Though it’s abstract, or perhaps because of it, I find that instrumental music really speaks deeply to people as it allows them to project their own stories and emotions onto it.

Land of Gold seems to echo The Concert for Bangladesh, an album by your father, Pt Ravi Shankar, with George Harrison. Do you plan to do similar concerts, the proceeds of which can then go to the refugees?

I’ve been taking part in various events over the last two years concerning the refugee crisis, most notably a UN charity concert. I signed and helped gather numerous names for a published letter addressed to the UK government urging them to allow more unaccompanied minors into the country. I’ve sponsored one unaccompanied minor and enlisted help and support for his safe passage to the UK from Calais. This is all personal and goes beyond one album.

The album features Austrian percussionist Manu Delago, who is well-known for his work with hang drums. How was your association with him?

The sitar and hang just seem to resonate and shimmer together in a beautiful way. It’s transcendent and people seem to really get drawn into the intimate moments when those two instruments are in focus. Manu is the best exponent of that instrument and a great composer and percussionist. We’ve worked together for a few years as he featured on Traces of You and toured extensively with me. That groundwork enabled us to write very well together on Land of Gold.

Your last one, Home, had you finding your roots. It also had your critics, purists and the ones who wrote you off initially, give you a lot of appreciation for performing Hindustani classical music in all its glory. How did that feel?

That album was special to me and was made from such a pure space of wanting to play music in memory of my father that it wasn’t about the reviews. It was an experience that helped me deepen my connection with classical music for myself, and that was precious.

Tell me about the transition from Home to Land of Gold. You stepped away from your own experiences to look at that of others.

This process actually started with Traces of You, on which I included the piece, In Jyoti’s Name. After the Delhi gang rape in 2012, I had come out as a survivor of child sexual abuse and wrote that piece to express my outrage. We toured globally. It was a new experience to connect with world events through music. This may have opened the door in the summer of 2015, when I was feeling horrified at what our world was, and still is. I wanted to express that feeling in my music and try to join my voice with those of others who feel the same way.

Besides the tour, what is it that you are currently working on?

I’m excited to be taking on a couple of composition projects in 2017, beyond my own albums. I’ve wanted to score for film, dance and theatre for some time and am happy to be growing towards that now. I’m also continuing to champion my father’s compositions with some truly great performances of his Concerto #2 coming up in the next few months with the LA Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic.

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