Susheela Raman on her journey with music that traverses borders, genres and identities

The collaboration with Gamelan musicians is an ongoing one

The collaboration with Gamelan musicians is an ongoing one   | Photo Credit: special arrangement


The musician has made diverse music — from Ethiopian-influenced covers of Jimi Hendrix jams to trance-inducing devotional music — in her illustrious career spanning 22 years

I stumbled and I saw

That it was not meant to be

You are still hanging on

And you are always, always

Out of reach...

Singer Susheela Raman’s hauntingly deep voice echoes off the soberly lit The Apartment of Park Hyatt. Sitting in front of the grand piano, the international musician, along with her “partner-in-crime”, long-time collaborator and husband, Sam Mills, is lost in a beautiful melody with a unique tonal quality — ‘Beautiful Moon’, an enchanting and introspective track from their 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan. Eyes closed, she soaks in the brief pauses when guitar interludes by Sam take over. Lit from below, the frame lends itself to the eerie and intimate quality of the music.

Susheela is an international name more than an Indian one. She has made diverse music — from Ethiopian-influenced covers of Jimi Hendrix jams to trance-inducing devotional music — in her illustrious career spanning 22 years. “It has been a very long journey. Initially, I wanted to create a musical sound which was representative of all of my different nationalities: my parents are from India but I was born in Britain and raised in Australia. It was largely driven by the trials of finding a home for oneself,” Susheela reminisces of the year 1997, when her relationship with music took an official turn.

Amorphous identities

“My parents moved to Australia when I was four, and there were practically no Indians on television when I was growing up. I grew up in parallel realities — the experience I had in school was different from that of home. By 16, I decided I wanted to do my own music.” Susheela was into the music of the 1960s then, but soon enough, she realised that she could not ignore her rich Indian ancestry. “I wanted to come and connect with that and do interpretations of the music studied here,” says Susheela who was particularly drawn to the sacred music traditions of the country. A lot of research followed, particularly of the religious and sacred traditions of South Asia.

Susheela and Sam

Susheela and Sam   | Photo Credit: Pichumani K

Her first album, Salt Rain, was based in London. “I was working with the Indian diaspora in England, and also some African musicians based in France. One factor is that you need to establish a personal connection with the artistes. It is more like, you are trying to cross over and make a direct connection.”

From the third album, she decided to come back and work with Carnatic musicians Embar Kannan, ghatam Karthik, and Aruna Sairam. Over the course, she discovered the Vellalar community. “My upbringing in England was very insular. I didn’t realise that it was a whole subculture here. Soon, I stumbled upon the music of the dasis.” She was later drawn towards the tavil and the nadhaswaram and these connections led her to devotional music on Lord Muruga. “My work is all about the connections I have with people and how much those interactions stimulate.”

Instruments to the fore

A lot of Susheela’s music has a calming, almost therapeutic effect on its listeners. “I have to give some credit to guitarist Sam. He has a PhD in Anthropology, so not just music, a lot of different thoughts and philosophies go into his creations. We are interested in music which is transcendent and are also interested in exploring spaces that go beyond regular existence,” she adds. Modern music is another area of interest for the duo. This quality is born largely out of the production but also from the dynamic they share.

Another noteworthy aspect of their music is the instruments — many of her earlier works had sounds that stood out, lending it a character of their own. ‘Tanpa Nama’ is one of them. “I think it’s just following your curiosity, it leads you to places where you discover new voices and instruments,” says Susheela. Their most recent journey was to Indonesia to explore Gamelan music. “Gamelan musicians have sets of large gongs and metallic instruments like xylophones in different shapes and sizes. Their tonal system is completely different from any kind of Western or Indian system. Their music is like its from another planet,” Susheela explains. Her Tamil background helped when she worked with the complexity of this music. “The connections between Tamil Nadu and Java are strong. Raja Raja Chola made expeditions to Java and Sumatra.” Though they started work on this project in 2015, it’s still an ongoing one. “It was a trial to connect Britain, India and Indonesia and I think we did it.”

In the pipeline

In 2019, Susheela forayed into the film music industry for Raju Murugan film Gypsy slated for release this year. In it, one of the characters is a fictitious Susheela Raman. “He wanted me to do two songs for the film and one of them was a version of a Murugan song called ‘Ullam Urugathaiya’, which sadly was struck down by CBFC. It will be present only in the international version of the film. Another one is ‘Aasai Mugam’, based on Subramania Bharati’s poem,” she says. But she clarifies that she does not see herself involved in film music, in the long run.

Susheela says a new album is in the works — a collaboration with Western Classical orchestras; the Gamelan project is an ongoing one. “It is starting to become known in Indonesia and I would love to come and present it in Chennai. People here might find it fascinating because of these three vantage points involved — Britain-India-Indonesia,” she concludes.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 1:44:11 AM |

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