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Musical mystic

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British-Indian musician Susheela Raman talks to Athira M. about exploring new frontiers in music

enviable repertoire Susheela Raman
enviable repertoire Susheela Raman

S usheela Raman’s music defies definitions and genres. To her fans, she is a modern-day dervish, to her critics she is a musical iconoclast. “I call my music, diasporic post-rock,” says the singer, adding for good measure: “Music is my religion.”

The singer is in fine fettle after a typical South Indian breakfast at Keys Hotel. Although she looks a tad tired, she is all enthusiasm while talking about her new album, her music and India. Her unruly mop of curly hair seems to have a life of its own as she talks about her music. The British Indian musician, known for her music which has “psychedelic connection”, was in Thiruvananthapuram to shoot for Kappa TV along with her team.

In her smoky and husky voice, she soaked Tamil devotional songs in jazz and blues while her high-energy performances imbued age-old melodies with a rhythm. Her adventurous take on certain kritis did invite criticism, but Susheela is undaunted by the discordant notes, refusing to restrict herself to any particular genre as she tries to explore new languages in music. More from the singer:

Her new album, Queen Between

It is my sixth album. It can be described as ‘London-post-rock psychedelia scorched by the deserts of Rajasthan, fuelled by the spiritual furnace of Pakistani’s Sufi qawwals’. It is a result of the music association I have had with British, Indian and Pakistani musicians. We have drawn from various music influences of the subcontinent, such as Tamil, Baul and qawwali for the album. There is Hindu mysticism, Sufi element, Afrobeat, blues, folk, contemporary and a lot more. It has my core team of musicians. Then there is Rizwan-Muazzam [nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan]. There are eight songs in the album.

On the title

(Laughs) I think Sam [Mills, her husband and composer] can answer it better.

Sam: It applies to what Susheela is. Queen stands for music and she is the queen between. You can’t categorise her music into any particular genre. Her music has a mix of various influences. Speaking on another level, it is about the boundary between reality and unreality.

What next?

I want to go to Bhutan and explore the music scene there. There you get to hear a lot of monastic music and folk music. I also want to work with the musicians of North East. Their music has a polyphonic system and a lot of political music comes from that region. There is so much to explore in India.

What do you feel about people calling your music bhakti rock?

I hate that term. In fact, I never call my music bhakti rock. For that matter, what we consider rock music is totally different from what it really is. It has its origins in the history of the African slaves in the United States. Their music and rhythms were re-adopted by the great musicians who came later. The idea of rock itself is change. It creates a new language over the years. I call my music, diasporic post-rock.

What excites you other than music?

Martial arts. I am learning Taichi, Bagua and Sanshou. It is like yoga for me, rather a moving meditation.

Being Indian

I come to Chennai every winter since my parents live there. As for music, I have always loved Ilaiyaraaja’s songs. Then there is the Hindi music of the 60s, the songs by R. D. Burman and Shankar Jaikishan which I love.

Her journey

Susheela, whose parents hail from Thanjavur, was born in the United Kingdom, grew up in Australia and is now settled in the UK. With parents who kept the Tamil culture alive at home, she grew up learning and listening to Carnatic music, Tamil songs and “eating typical Tamilian food.” A visit to India got her in touch with devotional musicians Kovai Kamala and Dharmapuram Swaminathan, thereby drawing her to the folk and mystical aspects of music.

Her albums are Salt Rain, Love Trap, Music for Crocodiles, 33 1/3 and Vel . Mira Nair used the song ‘The Same Song’ from the album Music for Crocodiles and Susheela’s version of the classic Hindi song ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan’ from the album Love Trap in her film The Namesake .

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