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The classics go funky

The debut album "Salt Rain", which shot Chennai girl Susheela Raman to fame, is a blend of Carnatic and various Western styles. Recently, in the city, Susheela spoke about her passion for music...

GRANTED THAT this is the age of re-mixes, collaborative ventures and whatnots. There are even plentiful takers for cover versions of chartbusters of legends from Elvis Presley to the current heartthrob Jennifer Lopez. Remember ``Can't Help Falling in Love'', ``I'm Real'' or ``Tu Hai Wohi'' that have bounced around in the music countdowns?

But what would one say to traditional compositions of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar being given a make over? Add a bit of reggae, a touch of the blues, a dash of Eastern melody to Tyaggaya's ``Nagummo'', Dikshitar's ``Kamakshi'', Vasudevachar's ``Mamavatu'' and what do you get — a CD titled `Salt Rain', these songs sharing the 50.36 duration with nine other numbers. A debut album, which brought its singer almost instant celebrity, after its release in the U.K. and the U.S. early last year. It earned her a Mercury Prize (the music equivalent to a Turner or Booker prize) nomination and fetched her the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for the best newcomer.

Currently in Chennai on a holiday, Susheela Raman, for she is the NRI singing sensation who is creating ripples on Western shores, unwinds about her passion...

Born in London and brought up in Australia, the petite 29-year-old was introduced to Carnatic music more because of her mother's concern to keep alive the family's link with Tamil culture. She began regularly performing at get-togethers organised by the South Indian community there.

As a teenager, Susheela was drawn to the blues-based music. She formed a band and they were soon performing all over Australia. Though she had veered away from Carnatic music, she had not lost interest in it.

Restlessness set in and she strongly felt the lack of a guiding influence. That's when she decided to take a break and visit India in 1995. Circumstances drew her to singer Shruti Sadolikar. Under the latter's tutelage, Susheela unlearnt her previous approach to music and learnt different voice techniques. It turned out to be a sojourn that introduced her to the various gharanas of Hindustani music.

Richer by the experience, Susheela left for England two years later. There she met Sam Mills, a producer with Real World, who had made an album with a Bengali singer Praban Das Baul. The two struck a fruitful partnership, both professional and personal. (They intend to marry shortly.)

The duo spent long hours experimenting with ideas. In addition to writing songs, they developed ways to adapt Carnatic classics to funky music.

They came up with chords and grooves, which could blend the two streams. That, in turn, branched out into many exciting possibilities, and not surprisingly, the idea of `Salt Rain' was born.

Collaborating with musical talents from across the globe (some of the artistes involved in the making of the album include Sam Mills (guitar); Hilaire Penda (bass); Djanuno Dabo (bongos, congas); Vincent Segal (cello); Hossam Ramzi (the Egyptian percussionist); Aref Druvesh (tabla, dholak); Manos Achalinotopoulos (clarinet); Julia Thornton (harp); Don Dieu Le Divin (fender rhodes) and Marque Gilmore (drums)) Sam and Susheela have performed at live concerts in England and Paris. Music, they believe, cuts across cultural barriers and even though not everyone in the audience may follow the Sanskrit/Hindi/Tamil lyrics, they respond to the flow of melody.

Though they have performed abroad, they are yet to hold a show in India. ``We are working out the modalities,'' she reveals in her husky voice, which can reach up to a three-meter scale in Carnatic and its Western counterpart is a comfortable G sharp. Susheela practises the Mongolian overtone technique, which helps control the windpipe. She feels it helps her voice modulate better.

A retreat to her parent's house in Sri Nagar Colony, Saidapet, is unfailingly rejuvenating and she visits as often as she can. This trip has been hectic — she conducted a workshop at the British Council last week (the interactive session with budding Carnatic vocalists, aspiring rock bands, a couple of playback singers and the audience gave her a picture of the current trends in Chennai, she said), met Aruna Sayeeram with whom she hopes to work, and made a trip to Thanjavur, where her parents hail from.

Though she has earned a name for herself as a `genius innovator' in the foreign media, she is relatively unknown in India. To begin with, `Salt Rain' by Narada World (Rs. 400) is a good way to get acquainted with her. (Available at Music World, Spencer's Plaza, it can also be ordered through

`Salt Rain' has two cover versions. One deconstructs the Sherman brother's ``Trust in Me'' (from Walt Disney's ``Jungle Book'') and turns it into a smooth Egyptian reggae lover's rock. Susheela's hushed version of Tim Buckley's ``Song to the Siren'' is pleasant. The album proves to be a beautiful listening experience.

The girl with the golden voice is currently working on her second album and seems poised in the cusp of musical stardom.


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