Asian Music and Dance

Anoushka Shankar

At the annual Alchemy celebration of things British and South Asian, Anoushka Shankar’s headlining appearance came touted as ‘A Special Show for Alchemy’. (Three days earlier she had had a cameo with Circle of Sound.) More factually speaking, it was the London staging-point on the sitarist’s European tour. Five more dates in Germany, Austria and France would take her to the end of the month and the end of the tour. Nevertheless, it did turn out to be a special show.

 One all-time favourite, music-related bit of earwigging concerns Anoushka. From the row behind came: “She’s not her father.” Her father being Ravi Shankar, its sagacity was of Monty Python koan-strength: simple, asinine and a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Her 2013 studio album Traces of You (on which her live set drew heavily) is an examination of humanity, family and loss. In part, it is also a meditation on mortality, made more manifest still by the presence of her older half-sister Norah Jones as guest vocalist and pianist. Although its London-based producer and sound-programmer Nitin Sawhney was in the audience (he took a figurative bow from the front stalls), he did not take part. The album’s compositions informed the concert greatly but their role was to act as runways, not opportunities for replication.

Their first number was ‘Voice of the Moon’, set in the once-Karnatic, now border-dissolving, north-south-east-west rāg Kirwani, originally released on 2005’s Rise. The audience was introduced to the concert’s basic sound palette of sitar, cello (Danny Keane), shehnai (Sanjeev Shankar) and percussion (Pirashanna Thevarajah and Manu Delago) over the course of the two opening pieces. With the third, the final missing element fell into place. Ayanna Witter-Johnson joined them to play cello and sing the Norah Jones part in the Shankar-Sawhney co-written ‘The Sun Won’t Set’. Delago emerged as a vital force for the Traces of You Band sound, variously playing kit drums and percussion but most especially some of the most delicious and inventive Hang-playing ever. Hang is the UFO-shaped – picture Michael Rennie’s flying saucer in the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still – tuneable idiophone. Delago had three. A metallic counterpoint to Thevarajah’s South Indian percussion – mridangam (barrel drum), ghatam (tuned clay pot) and kanjira (frame drum) – his ‘Hang ghatam’ segments produced sonorities that were exquisite.

There was an unexpected visual element. Decades of witnessing hundreds of those interludes during which Kishori Amonkar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha, N. Ravikiran, Aruna Sairam or T.H. ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram sat out and kept time have always been too insignificant to mention. What can you say about right hands counting matra (beat) and tāl (rhythm cycle)? However, when Ayanna Witter-Johnson counted matra, she did it with an astounding gracefulness. It qualified as Bewegungskunst: German for ‘art of movement’. Research the next day turned up that she is a graduate of London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. That made a ‘small-world’ connection. Laban was a modern dance pioneer and theorist and my next-door neighbour Warren Lamb (1923–2014) had personally studied with him. Witter-Johnson’s matra and tāl time-keeping wasn’t brown or black: it was Laban.

The concert’s musical highlights were many and various, including the Traces of You ‘runways’ ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Chasing Shadows’ on which Shankar flew and Witter-Johnson delivered Norah Jones’ vocal part beautifully. Particularly remarkable was ‘In Jyoti’s Name’, Shankar’s passionate tribute to Jyoti (‘flame’), the murdered Delhi bus gang-rape victim. Riffing on that earlier theme, Anoushka Shankar’s music evidently isn’t her father’s either. And this was a most special concert.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox