With a feral voice

Singing powerhouse

With a feral voice

I  first heard of Susheela Raman from my Nigerian friend who was raving about an adaptation of a famous Ethiopian number by the “Indian with the curly locks.” That song was ‘Love Trap’, which Raman had sung in collaboration with Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Trap, it certainly was.

For, once you listen to Raman’s echoing vocals that effortlessly speak of heaving oceans and breathless nights, it is hard to turn away. You are compelled to go on a journey with her into the deep. Watch her merge seamlessly into the Sufist traditions of the classic ‘Mast Nazron’ qawwali with the Mian Miri Qawwals in London or call out to Lord Murugan in chaste Tamil while jazz musicians keep pace with her energy in ‘Ennapan’, and you instinctively know there is something primeval about her passion.

To call her a powerhouse on stage would be an understatement. While on stage, Susheela is feral — there is no other word for it. Even on YouTube videos, the intensity is palpable; and the energy pulsating.  Raman was in Bengaluru recently as part of the ‘Echoes of Earth’ festival that brought together around 40 international artistes over two days to celebrate music and sustainability. The festival saw an amalgamation of rock, jazz, classical, electronic and fusion music, and Susheela’s concert was one of the chief highlights. A few days before the concert, Susheela spoke to Deccan Herald about her Tamil origins, her passions, and her future projects. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us a bit about your earliest musical influences. What is your fondest musical memory?
My parents were originally from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu but moved to the UK in the mid-60s. They were completely immersed into Carnatic music — my father still has a good singing voice. But growing up in the UK and Australia, my origins were always going to be mixed. I remember growing up listening to bhajans as well as musicals on UK television. I can still do a good Doris Day imitation!

Tamil Bhakti music seems to be the nerve centre of your creations. Do you attribute the ‘ecstatic’ element of your music to this core?
I may be going against the grain by saying this, but the ‘problem’ with spiritual music is its inevitable stringing with identity politics, overheated, dumbed-down nationalism and power-hungry gurus who peddle religion to compensate for their own emptiness. It is great if my music conveys a feeling of ecstasy, but I don’t think it is derived out of the Bhakti music tradition. My nerve centre is something stranger and more abstract. I do not identify with any one genre or style, and neither do I stick to one. I write songs in English, but having grown up with music from the sub-continent, I easily move between them.

As somebody who has done it all, where do you stand on experimental music?
Music is social and creative. I am a mixture, so my music is a mixture. As long as we are alive, we are all unfinished business, and the same is true for music. As far as experimental music is concerned, rules are made to be broken! Music is not objective — it is not a grammar exam. Ultimately, the test is in how uplifting it is.

Give us a glimpse of your creative process.
You find words, melodies, chords, rhythms...they can arrive in any order or all at the same time, which is the best, but quite rare. I don’t think in terms of ‘influences’. It’s not really a conscious thing... you just do the music you like. Influences express themselves in ways that are not obvious.

Which collaborations with musicians have you enjoyed the most?
A collaboration is working when everyone smiles and feels the joy of the moment. Then you have a feeling of surprise, recognition and a sense that you are really living your life doing what you love, and discovering new possibilities. I have worked with some amazing musicians, but for now I would say that the two who really have greatness at their fingertips would be Tony Allen, the Nigerian drummer, and Manos Achalinotopoulos, the Greek clarinet player who has been on a few of my records. The greatest singer I have worked with would have to be Muazzam Ali Khan.

‘Queen Between’ was your most ambitious venture yet. How was it working with so many different musicians and musical styles?
I am very happy that we brought together some amazing qawwals and Rajasthani musicians on that album. We were playing songs in English and using scales from contemporary western composers like Messiaen and playing a strange kind of alternative rock music. And to think we were sitting in a tiny room with Rizwan Muazzam in Faisalabad in Pakistan with the music on full blast! Many barriers melted that day.

What are you working on at present?
I have just been recording in Indonesia with some amazing musicians. Gamelan music is so beautiful to work with.

Meanwhile, I have just released an EP with versions of two Beatles songs from their ‘Revolver’ album to mark its 50th anniversary. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Love You To’: they were two songs that really showed the Indian experience that the Beatles were going through. It was very interesting to revisit them 50 years later. They were in Abbey Road dreaming about India, and at the same time, my dad was on a plane heading from Madras to London. Two-way traffic, you might say!

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