Beyond bhangra

Anoushka Shankar joins forces with Karsh Kale
By JEFF TAMARKIN  |  October 30, 2007

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BLENDED: For Anoushka and Kale, there are no boundaries between rock, electronica, and traditional Indian music.

When Anoushka Shankar says that Breathing Under Water (Manhattan), her new collaborative effort with tabla player/producer Karsh Kale, is “the first record I’ve really had fun making,” a natural reaction would be to dismiss the statement as so much media-coached hyperbole. Doesn’t every artist pump up the latest work as the pinnacle of his or her career? But the youngest daughter of Ravi Shankar (and half-sister of Norah Jones) makes the proclamation with such a girlish giggle that she seems to mean it.

Shankar, who’s now 26, has been paying dues as a sitarist since she was eight. Schooled in the intricacies of the complex instrument by her father (his only private student), she’s earned plaudits as the anointed torchbearer of the ancient art, and she’s built a devoted international following since her first release.

But after her first three albums — Anoushka, Anourag, and Live at Carnegie Hall — established her as a formidable presence on the Indian-classical-music scene, restlessness nudged, and on 2005’s Rise, on which she played piano as well as sitar, Shankar broke free of tradition. Concentrating on composition in addition to improvisation, and working with like-minded progressive players, she began to explore the possibilities available to a young, worldly, tech-savvy musician whose roots have as much to do with rock and electronica as with traditional Indian music.

Although she was born in London, Shankar spent much of her childhood in New Delhi and her adolescence in Southern California, where the Beatles (family friend George Harrison used to bring her gifts), Rage Against the Machine, and Tori Amos found their way into her consciousness alongside the traditional ragas. “I’ve always felt blended,” she told me over the phone from an island off Washington State, where she was rehearsing for a tour that was supposed to come to the Boston area in September. (Those dates were cancelled.) “It’s never been difficult. To me it doesn’t seem like one at the cost of the other. Just because you’re more Indian doesn’t mean you’re less something else. It almost makes me sad that culture seems so difficult to so many people. I’m me, outside of anything else. I feel confident enough in who I am as an Indian musician. I am a classical sitarist. That doesn’t get put at risk by the things I listen to or the other things I want to do.”

Karsh Kale (“Kursh KAH-lay”), meanwhile, spent his coming-of-age years on Long Island, one of three students of Indian heritage in a school of 4000. Like Shankar, he straddled two worlds. “For a long time my Indian influences were kind of kept private. I would come home from school and go into my room and play Indian music for four hours. Then I’d come out and get picked up and go to a Metallica concert. My friends didn’t know I was doing my Indian thing.”

Kale mastered the traditional tabla drum, but he also embraced electronic percussion. Then he set out to tear down fences, handling production, programming, sampling, keyboards, guitars, bass, vocals, and more with the Indian/electronica fusion collective Tabla Beat Science and on his own albums, most recently 2006’s Broken English (Six Degrees).

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