Asian Music and Dance

Land of Gold

During the first days of September 2015 television screens and the front pages of newspapers across the world filled with a tragic tale from a never-finished saga. A small Syrian boy of Kurdish extraction had drowned with his mother and brother in the family’s attempt to cross the stretch of salt water separating Turkey and freedom. He was washed ashore near Bodrum in Turkey. There the Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir photographed the toddler’s lifeless body on the strand. The boy’s name was initially reported to be Aylan Kurdi. That is the spelling that Anoushka Shankar uses in her notes to Land of Gold, an album of consummate near-perfection, musical engagement and enduring relevance for present times.

“The seeds of Land of Gold originated,” she writes, “in the context of the humanitarian plight of refugees. It coincided with the time when I had recently given birth to my second child. I was deeply troubled by the intense contrast between my ability to provide for my baby and others who desperately wanted to provide the same security for their children but were unable to do so.” That small boy’s death by drowning triggered what would evolve into one of the crowning achievements of Anoushka Shankar’s musical career. 

There are two separate Lands of Gold. The first is the tangible Deutsche Grammophon artefact, released in April 2016. The second is the one that migrated to concert stages during 2016 and 2017. She co-produced the former with her husband and father of their sons, Zubin and Mohan, Joe Wright who directed, among others, the films Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina. The title represents the music’s central premise, namely people’s striving to get to a figurative Land of Gold. The twist is that now that Promised Land is not necessarily El Dorado-like but more to do with places of safety. In the town’s library at the Rudolstadt Festival this July, Anoushka and I discussed her husband’s input. What she homed in on was his helping her to focus on the music’s narrative journeys.

Narratives are the pivot points on these journeys. Co-written by Shankar and percussionist Manu Delago, the album’s instrumental overture, Boat To Nowhere provides interweavings and overlayerings of Hindustani, Western classical and jazz strands that set the standard of what is to come. Sprinkled amid the ten tracks are vocal collaborations. Aside from a brief yet telling snatch of BBC actuality that partway through Dissolving Boundaries descends into radio bulletin blur, in order of appearance these are the hip-hop artist M.I.A. on Jump In (Cross The Line), the German-Turkish singer-songwriter Alev Lenz on Land of Gold, the actress-narrator Vanessa Redgrave on Remain the Sea and Rhyl Primary School Girls for Equality on Reunion. It is a concept album in the old sense of the word and its music is riveting. 

A studio recording may be like a television pilot that needs time to develop. Indeed, concert performances need to lead independent lives to the studio counterparts. That is another variant on the creative process. For many, a core passion in the arts is to learn how a piece of music, a drama or novel, a painting or dance unfolded and changed. In the case of music the process might be something like going from a sketch or demo recording to the finished piece. Miles Davis habitually listened back to concert tapes to pry out passages of spontaneous creativity in the fleeting moment that had kernels. However small the feint or pattern touched upon, it could be a new launch-pad to incorporate and explore. The Netherlandish painter Adriaen van de Velde kept sketchbooks of figures and scenes to insert into his landscapes. On the other hand, The Eagles were supposedly content to replicate their stage-show standbys like Hotel California, Life In The Fast Lane and Take It Easy note for note. Happy to be disabused, Eagles fans…

Land of Gold’s transition to concert and festival stages required a recalibration of the work. Budget, as ever, was an important factor. The core line-up reduced to Manu Delago on Hanghang – the plural of the Swiss-invented idiophone, Hang – and electronic drums; Tom Farmer on double bass, keyboards and triggers; Anoushka on sitar; and Sanjeev Shankar on shehnai (Indian shawm). The concert programme involved a process of honing and focusing, substitution and replacement, try-out and retention. However, by the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany the elements of playing within fixed arrangements or the places where extemporisation could fly seemed pretty solid. Watching the show’s broadcast on the public Franco-German TV network ARTE reinforced concert impressions. They were further reinforced by the programme’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London in October 2016.

Farmer now triggers the M.I.A. vocal but what stands out so much now is Sanjeev Shankar’s shehnai. For example, on Crossing The Rubicon it takes on the exuberance and wildness of Ornette Coleman during his Dancing In Your Head majesty. Coleman also tapped into a mind-altering, head-piercing shawm tradition for that work, that of the ghaita shawm that inspired Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. But shehnai now is another aspect in microcosm of what Land of Gold live is now. Removed yet linked to its original inspiration. It is worthy of a live release in its own right.

With thanks to Angela Sulivan and Lizzy Frost at Sulivan Sweetland.



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