Anna Tanvir is interested in a dialogue between the East and the West

It should not in the least modify admiration for the virtuoso Anna Tanvir, who gloriously sings and plays traditional music from Ireland, Scotland, Madagascar, India and France creating a musical biography.

Daughter of the late theatre legend Habib Tanvir, Anna grew up with her musical Anglo-Irish mother, Jill MacDonald. She has recently won a prize for promoting cultural understanding between the French rural community and other cultures, especially India. Whether it is “Carrick Fergus”, “Ballade des Dames” or “Rose of Tralee”, the rich timbre in her voice and her magnificent singing style while playing on the Celtic harp shows that she was born to sing. She shares her journey...

You were trained as a classical singer, how did you turn to folk songs?

I was born in Ireland where there is a very strong tradition for singing and playing at home and in my mother’s family all sing Irish folksongs. I spent a lot of time in Scotland too as I was taken there by my Scottish stepfather and so heard many other Celtic songs there as well. At the time I went to music college, there was no other choice than studying classical music. I love all kinds of music and so it was good to learn the classical repertoire and gain a singing technique, but I like the creative part of making music, improvising and performing pieces that are not written down and also performing in a less formal atmosphere than classical concerts require. So I was always drawn to traditional music (of all cultures) where the rules are not so rigidly fixed.

Why not theatre? Have you been influenced, inspired or supported by your father?

I grew up not knowing my father and so it did not occur to me to follow in his footsteps. Of course I knew of him and I met him a few times when I was young, but although we always had a natural affinity he had no direct influence on me. I don’t remember having any support from him at all. He was simply not there.

My mother trained as a singer and so her influence was very great. I have been and still am inspired by my father and I greatly respect his work. As I didn’t know my father well until I was grown up, his influence is difficult to pinpoint. However, towards the end of his life I became very fond of him, and in any case I have a great love of India; Indian people, and Indian culture, particularly that of the rural people and all of this has of course influenced me.

Tell us about your exposure to Indian music….

I was lucky enough to be a pupil for a time at a wonderful school in South India called Rishi Valley School. My mother first took me there when I was nine years old, which meant that I heard and saw Indian music and dance when I was very young. When I decided to study music seriously, I went to Dartington College of Arts in England, a college inspired and influenced by Tagore and where Indian music was taught, and later The Royal Academy of Music, London. These places gave me a certain knowledge and experience of Indian music, but unfortunately I never learnt the folk music performed by my father’s theatre group as I didn’t spend enough time with them. I had exposure to Rabindra Sangeet when I was asked to perform at a festival celebrating the life and work of Tagore held at Dartington in May 2011.

Are you interested in collaborating with Indian artistes?

Yes, I am very keen, particularly in the area of folk music. I have various projects that I am working on at the moment. One of them is a vocal duo with Arko Mukherjee, a folk musician from Kolkata. He is the singer in a world folk band called Fiddlers Green that I have also been working with. They are a versatile group of excellent musicians, open to all forms of traditional music allowing for a great cross-cultural musical exchange. I am very interested in the dialogue between the East and the West. I want to play music which is not necessarily fusion but has a sound where each tradition or style is heard in its own right, an exchange where each language keeps its integrity but a conversation takes place nevertheless.

Do you propound responsibility to the folk culture or people?

Strangely, I do not propound responsibility to the folk culture of any one people. I feel that in my position as someone coming from both East and West, my responsibility is to express my own background, representing a bridge between the two. If I can contribute to the bringing together or the understanding of these two sides of the world by singing songs of universal sentiment that move people from different cultures, then I have a duty to do so. By maintaining diversity in terms of form, style and language, while conveying the same heartfelt feelings, music brings people from all backgrounds together

Why are you accompanied on the guitar while you play your customised harp while singing?

I have played the guitar since I was small and so I understand the instrument very well and love the sound. It’s a great instrument for accompanying the voice for folk songs from all over the world. It’s also very practical for carrying around, so I’ve always used the guitar one way or the other. I chose to learn the harp as I wanted to accompany myself with an instrument that took the music into another dimension which I believe the harp does. It has a quality of sound that elevates whatever music is playing, adding a sacred element. It is the national symbol of Ireland, and I was born in Dublin. It also happens to be one of the oldest instruments in the world, and a universal one, which allows it to transcend cultural barriers. I have two harps made for me by Claude Bioley who had my voice in mind when he designed them. They both have a distinctive sound; very resonant and crystalline, and they also stay in tune well which is rare.

On Indian and Irish Culture…

Both being colonised nations, I feel that both Indian and Irish people have a special need to establish and nurture a cultural identity. This gives rise to a very rich repertoire of every sort of artistic expression. My own reason for travelling to both is that I feel I belong to both and am “at home” in either.