Q&A with Anoushka Shankar: Spirit of Collaboration

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Anoushka Shankar (Photo: © Yuval Hen/Deutsche Grammophon)

Born in London and raised in Delhi, India, and Encinitas, California, sitarist/composer Anoushka Shankar is the daughter of celebrated sitar master Ravi Shankar (1920–2012) and half-sister of jazz singer Norah Jones.

Now based in London, Shankar, 35, was headlining Sweden’s 13th Annual Uppsala International Guitar Festival last fall when DownBeat caught up with her. Her recent album Land Of Gold (Deutsche Grammophon) incorporates elements of classical minimalism, jazz, electronica and Indian classical styles as it delves into themes both spiritual and political.

What was it like to follow in your father’s footsteps?

It’s almost harder to answer that question than to do the actual thing itself, because it’s so hard to unpack it. It’s my whole life.

Having been raised in such a musical family, were you eager to start a career in music?

No. There was resistance and fear, and some intimidation; I felt intimidated. I was young. It kinda went in stages. And so, at the very beginning I wasn’t as intimidated at 7 as I was at 12 or 14 or 18. It was different every time. It was a lifelong process. You couldn’t not be aware of what he was to people, and the giant figure he was.

At the same time, I’d been listening to the music from when I was born. I loved the music. I loved going to shows, I loved being around it. So, there was that kind of two-sided element, where it was serious and intimidating to take on playing it, but I did also love it.

The clever thing was that my parents kept giving me that freedom to choose. A couple years into it they’d say, “How are you doing? Do you like it? You can stop if you want.” That kind of intermittent dialog let me know I could follow my own dreams if they were different. But the more I kept playing, the more I started falling in love with it.

Even more than your father, you have developed a career that includes collaborations. One of those collaborations was with Herbie Hancock. What was that like?

He was working with someone who had done some arrangements with an Indian vocalist. [Meanwhile] Herbie and I kind of played simultaneously off each other. We’d actually played a show together prior to that, when he was playing in Delhi. I had come off a one-month holiday after finishing a tour, and the day I arrived home Herbie came and did a tour of my dad’s music center the morning of his show. And he asked me to play with him.

How old were you?

Twenty-three? I started to say no because I hadn’t played with him. And he looked at me, and it was like, “I’m asking you to play with me!” It was Herbie asking me to play, and I can’t say no! So, we played together that night … and it turned out wonderful.

What kind of music did you play?

I wanted to play stuff that I felt confident with, so I suggested a scale and started playing some improvised raga stuff. And I just started playing along with him, and it was so beautiful, adding to it within the raga. And then we were developing a piece together. So, we kind of had a little taste of knowing that could work, and when we worked in the studio, it was that same kind of process of improvising, just having to decide what the framework was going to be.

So he didn’t just shoehorn you into a song.

Totally. And what was nice about it was the way they arranged it. It was a song [“The Song Goes On,” from Hancock’s Imagine Project (Hancock Records, 2010)] with Chaka Khan singing on it, and Wayne Shorter playing, but they allowed each of us to have that freedom to improvise, to do collaborations.

I hope it isn’t exclusively true, but I often find that collaboration is the best way … to reach my highest musical place. Because I get so inspired by another good musician; I feed off that. And their ideas can inspire another idea, and then we are raising it together.

On my own, it’s a bit more of an echo chamber. In a studio context, the music becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When you have collaboration, you have other people’s strengths that I don’t share, so my song can get stronger.

Isn’t each collaboration a different journey? I imagine working with Sting or Joshua Bell isn’t like working with Herbie, Chaka and Wayne.

When I work on someone else’s record, I’m happy to alter the way I approach it, if I happen to like who they are and I’m interested in their music. But I know it’s their record.  So, it’s about what makes them happy. If they come and ask me to play a line in a very particular way, I’m happy to do that. Because that’s what they want. When it’s my record it’s a bit more about what I want to have on this project, about what feels right to me. DB

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