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Anoushka Shankar

June 30, 2014
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REMEMBER THE catch-all nomenclature “world music”? Similarly, if your idea of Indian music is reserved to cheesy trance CDs designed to put you in a Goa state of mind, or George Harrison’s 1968 sitar symphony “Within You Without You,” well, it’s time to join the 21st century. Perhaps the greatest sitar player in the world under the age of 35, and known to be the first to internally mic the sitar in concert, Anoushka Shankar is a pioneer bridging the worlds of classical, pop, and electronic music. Like her father, Ravi Shankar, who indirectly popularized Eastern religions and Eastern thought in the West (not to mention your new yoga mat), Anoushka Shankar similarly challenges preconceptions about contemporary Indian music on her seventh album, Traces of You (Deutsche Grammophon).

Joined by her half sister Norah Jones on three tracks, and producer (and blazing flamenco guitarist) Nitin Sawhney throughout, Shankar creates a whirling amalgam of styles and sounds on Traces of You, music she is happy to call “crossover.”

“In a context like this, where we are going into so many different sounds and worlds of music it can become a pastiche,” Shankar explains from her label’s offices in Manhattan. “So to have really strong emotional content in every song was important to create a story that people can follow. That helps them buy into sounds that don’t necessarily go together normally; because they are following the emotional journey more than listening with their technical brain.”

From the Western pop-meets-Indian sitar drone of the tracks with Jones, to blazing and evocative Indian classical pieces performed on sitar, piano, guitar, tabla, Ghatham, Udu, Mridangam, and Tanpura, to liberal improvisations stoked by Sawhney’s programmed rhythms and a unique new instrument, The Hang, Traces of You was a challenge to realize, both musically and technically. Recorded at The Dairy in London, Big Fish Recording in Encinitas, California, Brooklyn Recording in Brooklyn, New York, and The Village Studio in New Delhi, the album’s challenges began with finding the best way to record Shankar’s sitar.

“The sitar is not standard when it comes to miking,” Shankar explains. “In a traditional setting the sitar is played with the tanpura and the tabla so it really stands alone in its range of sound. It’s a very distinctive, resonant sound, but it’s also a very quiet instrument. When you put it against a drum kit or piano, or other instruments that blanket a lot of space, it can be really hard to make the sitar cut through. In the studio, to make sure the sitar was front and center yet not dominating, was challenging. Nitin and I spent a lot of time just playing with the piano and guitar and seeing how the sitar sounded with different instruments to make sure we were happy with the sound.”

Jones’ engineer, Matt Marinelli, shared the nitty-gritty details of recording Anoushka’s sitar at Brooklyn Recording, where the vocalist’s three songs were tracked.

“Sitar poses a specific set of challenges because the sound is a rich combination of tones emanating from multiple locations on the instrument,” Marinelli explains. “A combination of close miking and room miking was required. I relied on the close mics for the body and resonance of the sitar, while the more distant mics captured the air and shimmer of the sympathetic strings, and captured the overall sound of the instrument that developed in the room at some distance from the source. Since close mics on the sitar have the potential to be harsh and pick up unwanted finger noise, I used a ribbon mic [Samara MF65 or Royer 121 Ribbon mic into a Grace Design 201] in this position, coupled with the Purple Audio Biz Mk preamp because it has the clean gain necessary without being sterile or lifeless.” Other mics were small-diaphragm condensers in a stereo configuration: “I placed a pair of Schoeps CMC6 microphones with cardiod MK4 capsules (into Neve 31102 Channel Amplifiers) several feet in front of and slightly above the sitar, arranged as a near-coincident pair. The Schoeps are extremely-well-detailed mics with plenty of air and they blend well with the darker, more midrange-forward sound of the close ribbon mic.”

Standard or traditional sitar miking includes one mic aimed at the bridge, positioned about a foot away, and another single mic, an equal distance overhead. At least that’s what Shankar prefers. But even an Indian classical star of royal lineage can’t always get what she wants.

“At one of the studios, we recorded with five mics on the sitar,” Shankar recalled. “That drives me nuts! I like to play really softly in the studio because then my tone comes through sweetly. I can play softly and mic it very close and capture the whole body of the instrument. But the second I begin playing faster pieces, I end up playing a lot louder. Then it’s good to have five mics so we can play with what we have. On a song like ‘Indian Summer’ or ‘Monsoon,’ where I play faster, we used only the room or distant mics because the resonance can become too much otherwise. Whereas on ‘Flight,’ where I play very delicately, we used all mics in the mix. We found a setup we liked and took pictures and marked tape on the carpet.”

On the songs where the entire group tracked live in the studio, the Indian musicians sat on the floor in traditional formation, while the piano, cello, drums, and The Hang were recorded at the musician’s usual sitting heights. This too caused everyone involved to rethink notions of conventional setup.

“In the case of recording Anoushka, Norah, and Nitin,” Marinelli says, “everything was recorded live as a duo or trio. My main concern was that everyone was comfortable, that there were good sight lines between musicians, and that the recording properly translated the warmth, nuance, and depth of what was being performed. With musicians of their calibre, there may not be multiple takes to sort things out, so I worked hard to plan ahead and be responsive to everyone’s feedback and needs during setup. Once you press Record, it has to be right. I think these songs all ended up being the second or third take, including the live vocals!”

Though much of the album was recorded live, and certainly most Westerners believe that music as challenging to perform as Indian classical would require that all the musicians involved record live in the same space, that wasn’t necessarily the case for Traces of You.

“It was my plan to record live,” Shankar says, “but it didn’t work out what way. ‘The Sun Won’t Set’ was recorded completely live with Norah in Brooklyn. But for ‘Traces of You,’ I recorded my sitar in one take live over a bed of sounds that Nitin had created on guitar in Pro Tools. Then the tabla was recorded in India. Things happened in pieces all over the world. On ‘In Jyoti’s Name,’ a rough track was recorded live, then I redid some sitar parts and added more percussion. The percussion was overdubbed because it’s all Pirashanna Thevaraja; he played three different instruments. There’s no click on that song, but sometimes we did use a click on the slower songs. Some of the fast stuff had a click track, like ‘Chasing Shadows.’ That’s one of the more live-sounding pieces on the record. The whole question-and-answer part at the end was recorded individually in different studios and cities.

“Life informed the music,” she continues. I got everyone in a room in Delhi to record ‘Chasing Shadows’ originally, but I didn’t like that version. We recorded the sitar in London and sent the track to the percussionists in India, where they added their parts. There is a different energy to songs recorded live and I always prefer that, but in a song like ‘Chasing Shadows,’ that group of musicians has played that song with me live for seven years. So I knew the energy would still be there.”

And as for miking the rest of the classic Indian ensemble? After four classical albums and three non-classical albums, Anoushka Shankar is well versed in production techniques.

“For the tanpura,” she explains, “we used a combination of one mic near the bridge then something further away to get the string sound close up and the bigger drone. For tabla, it depends, but one central mic from above usually. If you close-mic the two tabla drums, they will sound separate and not as one. You’ll hear the high and low drum, when you want one unified drum sound with a high and low pitch. You can use a room mic to capture the resonance of the bass drum, and the ring of the high drum with the center higher mic.

“Indian music was originally performed for parlor courts and for the king,” Shankar continues. “All very intimate settings. We didn’t have a concert-hall culture until the 20th century. These instruments are not built like cellos or violins to project out into a concert hall. That’s why Indian instruments used amplification as soon as the technology was available.”

The main recording sound of the sitar comes from the bottom of the instrument, and a detachable gourd sits at the top of the neck, which amplifies the sound further. “My dad always had a second gourd,” Shankar recalls. “That was his secondary amplification in an acoustic, non-amplified, non-room-miked environment. The gourd adds weight to the sound but also to the instrument.” Shankar began playing on a custom-made half-size sitar when she was seven. She still plays custom sitars with a neck of smaller-than-traditional length, and a lower gourd.

“On a song like ‘River Pulse,’ which was written for guitar,” she says, “Nitin plays the really fast guitar all across strings in one range. When we trade lines then play in unison in that song, there are moments when I have to get all over the sitar neck very, very fast. It’s nuts!”

Another instrument that added to Traces of You’s genre-bending qualities is The Hang. Half steel drum, half flying saucer, The Hang sounds like both a melodic and a percussive instrument. Over bubbling electronic rhythms and the droning sitar of “Maya,” The Hang elucidates a gentle melody that rings as gently as a lullaby, but as conversationally as a marimba.

“It’s a steel drum and a flying saucer!” Shankar laughs. “It looks like a steel drum with nodules sticking out of it that are the tuning knobs. I fell I love with it years ago. I heard it first at a trance party on a hill in Portugal. It’s very hypnotic and beautiful sounding. And it’s limited because it’s tuned and hammered to a certain scale and pitch. I found it beautiful but it wasn’t until I heard Manu Delago playing The Hang that I was deeply sold on using it in my music. He is the best Hang player in the word and he plays three instead of just one with a combination of tuning that gives him a full range of notes, so he can play in any scale. He’s BjÖrk’s drummer and he plays drums with me too now. The Hang produces a resonant sound and has a delicate quality that fits with the sitar. And it looks like a UFO.”

A professional since the age of ten with seven solo albums to her credit, including Anoushka, Anourag, Rise, Rise Remixes, Breathing Under Water, Traveller, and Traces of You, Shankar has also taken part in four live albums: Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000, Live at Carnegie Hall, Concert for George, Healing the Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation, and Live in Concert at the Nehru Park, New Delhi. She excels at music that is primarily of an oral tradition, handed down from student to teacher for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yet with all her experience, Shankar is like anyone else when it comes to marketing her music.

“I struggle with that,” she admits. “I am better at making music than marketing it. Because I contest the need for labeling, it’s hard to then explain it. I would say that mine is music for people who want something that isn’t limited by those kinds of constraints. Again, a part of me feels that it’s a dirty word, but on this record there are things that are more accessible than they normally would be. So for people who aren’t used to the sound of a sitar, it’s presented in a way that is more accessible. And with shorter song structures that don’t tamper with the musical quality. To have a voice like Norah’s helps to ground the music in a place of familiarity for some listeners.

“It’s music that is genre-blind, in a way,” Shankar summarizes. “It’s about making beauty whether it’s a cello or a sitar, and not having any limitations.”

Ken Micallef lives in New York City, where he contributes to a variety of musical, technical, and financial publications when not shooting craps in Chinatown.

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