"Talvin Singh changed things for everybody," Shankar says.
Singh's 1997 compilation, Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (Fontana Island), put sitar, tabla, and South Asian vocals in a mix with drum 'n' bass, becoming a blueprint for releases such as Frequent Flyer: Bombay (Kinkysweet, 2004). But Shankar's music has more of the depth and dynamics of jazz, relying on the Indian rhythms as its root while improvising with the traditional instruments rather than just using them for exotic color and texture the way much electronica does. She flips the recipe her contemporaries have developed, as the electronics become the aural ornamentation.
Shankar has obviously grown up with music all around her, but she's had to consider several times whether she wanted it to be her life: first when she was 13 years old and began giving performances, and again five years later when she decided to commit to touring with her father. "Then it happened again around the time I started making Rise, where I reached the point where I was burned out a little on touring."
At that point Shankar decided she needed to reclaim the music for herself. Indian classical music has a structure that can seem foreign to Western ears. "Almost all Western music is based on harmony and counterpoint," she explains. "Ours is modal in structure, and at the heart of our music are the ragas, the melody form. We have thousands of those, and we can achieve all possible manner of variations in the music."
The variations are often improvised, inspiring comparisons to jazz in how masters such as her father have interpreted the music. "The goal is once one has studied a vast amount and become familiar with the ragas and their characters, their rules and notes, to know them well enough that you can just let go in your mind and play creatively," Shankar says.
Making and performing the music on Rise has far exceeded the modest expectations Shankar had for the project. On the recording she gracefully represents how naturally musicians now absorb then integrate influences. Closing Rise with the meditative "Ancient Love," Shankar picks her sitar through a dark, insistent beat that grows into an ominous groove propelled by wordless chants and pulsing tables. Then it all fades away. The music sounds current but feels timeless.
Shankar plans to do more records like Rise but remains committed to traditional forms. "After I finish this, I want to go back and rebuild that classical space again, because I wouldn't want this to be at the cost of that, but if I can manage to balance both, it would be really amazing." *
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