Susheela Raman

 

I was born in London in 1973 to South Indian parents. My family moved to Australia when I was very young and were eager to keep our Tamil culture alive. I grew up singing South Indian classical music and began giving recitals at an early age. As a teenager I branched out into more blues-based music, which demanded quite different voice techniques. The question then was how to bring these streams together. In 1995 I went to India to study with Shruti Sadolikar, one of the greatest living Hindustani vocalists. This was a challenging experience as I had to let go of what I thought I knew and find a new, more insightful approach to my craft.

Returning to England in 1997, I started to work with Sam Mills who had made a record called Real Sugar with a Bengali singer named Paban Das Baul. This record inspired me because it bridged a gap and found

                           Photo by Andrew Catlin

common ground for Indian music to be expressed to a new audience. Sam’s work with West African group Tama also opened a whole set of musical contact points.

We spent three years developing this record. In addition to writing our own material, we discovered new and exciting ways to adapt the Carnatic songs I had sung when I was younger, particularly the work of the eighteenth century songmasters Tyagaraja and Dikshitar.

SALT RAIN was recorded between October and December 2000 (except Mamavatu which was recorded the preceding February for the Real World GIFTED album). We were lucky to collaborate with some unique musicians who live mostly in London and Paris but are of diverse origins: Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, India, Romania, France, Greece, Egypt, Kenya, America, and Spain. Any record is a meeting of many minds and, now more than ever, it is networks of people, not just individuals, who spark new and exciting work. Everyone brought their own special energy to the music and I am very proud of what we all worked together to create.

     Sam remembers:

When I first met Susheela in 1997 I was struck both by her personal magnetism and by the extent of her artistic ambition. It was great to meet somebody who was really brought up between two cultures and who had a South Indian classical (Carnatic) music sensibility but also was at ease with funk, jazz, soul, pop…whatever the blues gets called. It seemed like a chance to do something really new, exciting, and gutsy. Sometimes music which has travelled from India gets given a kind of pseudo-spiritual, phoney ‘ethereal’ gloss and we agreed that we wanted to make something that brought out the earthy sensuality that more typifies Indian culture, even in a devotional context.

We spent a long time experimenting with ideas, writing songs, playing anything we felt like. In addition to developing our own compositions, Susheela began to rediscover for herself some of the South Indian songs she had grown up with. We found chords, riffs, and grooves which fitted the songs and could transport the music from its strictly classical setting into a whole new arena of possibilities. The technical and critical levels in the Carnatic world are really second to none so we were nervous to approach these tunes. But for Susheela – with her mixed, second-generation migrant background – it was natural and necessary for her to seek a confluence between the musical and cultural streams of her life.

 

     SALT RAIN   -  Mercury Prize Nomination

So what is this music? Is it ‘Indian’, ‘World’, ‘Classical’? Susheela and Sam don’t have an answer for that. It’s just them. It worked for at an emotional level. "We are not concerned with authenticity of ethnic musical identity but we are seeking some authenticity of emotion and inspiration. Behind this the feeling that you should be empowered and emboldened by your background and training, not restricted or intimidated by it.

The music on SALT RAIN marks a huge collaborative endeavour, not just between Susheela Raman and Sam Mills but with a network of people with whom they have performed and shared ideas.

"The musicians we invited to play on the record are people who we figured would be able to go with the way we were working. We weren’t looking for jazzy ramblings but raw energy; we wanted people who were really assured in themselves and had the requisite imagination, ability, and experience to branch out. Some people we have played with for a long time or had met on other projects, or through mutual friends. Some people we had just admired and really wanted to work with. We were inspired by the depth and richness of what these people could do playing together."

     Susheela says:

Salt Rain was the first song we recorded when we started to make the album in October. It is the story of a young woman who loses face in her village and is tormented by scandal. This song has a particular resonance with me as, like Woman, it relates to the stories of women in my family.

The song was written during a three month tour with Joi as they supported the Eurythmics. It was definitely inspired by Annie Lennox as night after night I was continuously moved by her stunning ‘unplugged’ renditions of Why? and Here Comes the Rain Again. We played the song with Sam on Spanish guitar, Hilaire Penda on bass and a claypot rhythm by Djanuno Dabo which evoked an intimate, village feel. The song is sung half in English and half in Tamil. I had to get my father to check that the words were right and he kept driving me mad, singing it for days afterwards so I thought it had passed at least one important test!

Salt Rain is also the title of the record. Salt Rain is a journey across oceans, bringing together worlds, creating new spaces. The title refers not only to tears of sadness but to tears of ecstasy, joy, longing, and release. SALT RAIN is catharsis. The shedding of tears as cleansing, liberating, and healing. We wanted to suggest the unified opposition of joy and sadness. Just as through performance, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would drive people into such states of emotional ecstasy that tears would stream down their faces and yet they would feel uplifted and somehow released. Such is the strange magic of music.

The work brought about different emotions in us. Laughter and tears. SALT RAIN was certainly cathartic for us, both healing and rewarding. To see one’s own history crafted and channelled into one set of songs was truly an unforgettable experience.

 

     The songs of SALT RAIN

     as told by Susheela Raman and Sam Mills

Susheela sings Maya in English but its seductive Eastern melody is based around an Indian Raga…It sounds East European but has a reggae feel as well (we described it as a stab at ‘Armenian Ska’, but won’t insist on it). It’s a love song. Maya is both a name and a word which connotes illusion and enchantment. It features the Greek clarinettist Manos Achalinotopoulos who Sam met while working in Athens with the singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki who is also featured on Real World’s GIFTED album. Manos’ inspired, wild, gypsy-style solo at the end was done on the first take, and was actually recorded in a bedroom studio in North London, because he was just passing through. Manos is an extraordinary musician recognized as an expert on Byzantine music and keen to link up between the music of Greece and of the whole region of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Caucausus. Interestingly, he said that he had recently started immersing himself in Indian classical music, so playing on this song and on the more somber, mystical Kamakshi later on in the album was quite a powerful experience for him (and for us!).

Kamakshi is another song to a divine enchantress, ‘she whose eyes hold the power of attraction’. The beautiful musical scale of this song could almost be Near Eastern. The song was familiar to Manos so his performance was really astounding; one of the golden moments of making the album. Everyone present in the studio was momentarily stunned into silence by it….and then we all clapped!

Mamavatu was a track that we had recorded for the Women of the World GIFTED album and was our debut recording for our collaborative endeavor. The mix on our album is different to the one on GIFTED. It’s a South Indian song which is actually sung in a five-note blues scale. So Sam – fresh from his experience with the West African blues sound of Tama – started to play the song in that style. Susheela really adapted the song superbly to that groove which springs off Djanuno Dabo’s funky bongo playing. The track is really live, fresh, and funky with Susheela singing like she has a Carnatic hellhound on her tail.

Woman is a song about someone in a destructive relationship who is looking for the way out. As Susheela urges her on, the song transforms into a mesmeric chant invoking the Goddess Kali, a kind of archetype of feminine power. Susheela’s family has long tradition of Kali devotion and the intensity that comes through shows it. The song also describes situations she can relate to in her own family history. Indian woman have often had to endure a lot…family and social structures are very patriarchal and women are expected sometimes to sacrifice their own happiness on the altar of family honor. Woman features the amazing Egyptian percussion virtuoso Hosam Ramzi (who has played with many artists including Peter Gabriel and Page and Plant).

Hosam is known worldwide as the ‘King of Belly Dance’ and also played to great effect on our version of Trust in Me which is a kind of oriental cha-cha-cha. Trust in Me is of course taken from the Jungle Book. Like millions of others, we grew with these songs, but after Susheela and I met we both discovered that we had been thinking about covering this particular tune. Getting the right tone was quite tricky. The snake Kaa, who sings it in the film, is an evil seducer, so Susheela had to get into character for it. I think she’s still recovering.

Ganapati is a song to the elephant headed deity Ganesh, customarily invoked at the beginning of any work. Ganesh is a remover of obstacles. The song itself is written by a legendary eighteenth century composer, Dikshitar, a virtual contemporary of Beethoven and well known to anyone versed in Carnatic music. The treatment of the song, however, is quite radical. Perhaps its worth mentioning that a lot of South Indian music is composed and the tunes are written down which distinguishes it from the North Indian tradition, known to westerners through such luminaries as Ravi Shankar, which has very great degree of improvisation. In a way, having a fixed tune freed us up to experiment with the arrangement, because however we experimented with the instrumentation and the intonation, the melody and lyrics were still retained their identity.

"Mahima is definitely one of my favorite tracks," says Sam. Composed by Tyagaraja, another eighteenth century songmaster, who is the best-loved South Indian composer. His music is heard everywhere Carnatic music is played. "We heard this song on a cassette we bought at a street stall in India, sung by a great singer called Yesu Das, and then we went around some music shops in Chennai (or Madras), where Susheela’s parents live, hunting for it in music books. What is amazing about this song is that its based on a very obscure Raga (musical mode) which really sounds like some European music from the turn of the century. It could be Debussy or Ravel. But we treated it in our own way, observing the Raga and laying down a rich carpet of guitar and bass with some very ambient drums form Marque Gilmore. Vincent Segal, the cellist, plays exceptionally as does Aref Durvesh, the tabla player. We felt the music really gives a beautiful, somnolent sense of being deep underwater, floating through a vast space. And the words are really gorgeous, devotional poetry, very spiritual and self surrendering. I think Susheela’s vocal here is almost the best I have ever heard her sing."

We found the song Nagumomo on the same cassette and were stunned by the beauty of the melody. We wanted to play this song very stripped down, just tabla and guitar which is how we sometimes perform. The tabla has its own basslines, but Hilaire Penda plays a really beautiful solo on the acoustic bass.

One of our heroes is the Kenyan singer and Ayub Ogada, who also plays the small Kenyan harp known as nyatiti. We were really eager to have him come and play on the song O Rama but he was quite elusive. Although his album on Real World is one of our favorite records, he’s biding his time about a sequel. Everytime we called him he was in the middle of building his house in London, laying pipes, constructing walls and so on. In the end we had to virtually abduct him from London for a day at the Real World Studios and he played beautifully. The duet on O Rama is really great; Rama is the divine King to whom Susheela is appealing for attention and he found a way to answer in the Luo language with his rich, swooping voice. "It’s OK," we told him "you just have to sound like God!" He rose to the challenge admirably. Ayub also plays his nyaytiti alone with Susheela on the old ‘bhajan’ or devotional hymn Bolo Bolo. The combination of the Indian melody and the gentle but pulsing East African nyatiti is a thing of rare beauty and is totally live.

Song to the Siren is a song which we started playing because it was featured on the Women of the World GIFTED album. We fell in love with the original Tim Buckley version and used to play it for ourselves. Again this was a live duet in the studio. It has fantastic lyrics about the wreckage of love; to get to the emotional place where it sounds convincing was not something one could do everyday. This version seemed to work its magic so we put it on the record. The themes of love and separation chime with some of the Indian devotional songs….Indian gods are not really separate from people and so their interaction with us can be almost as playful and perverse as human relationships.

Susheela Raman is the winner 
in the Newcomer category for the
BBC3 World Music Awards.  

Ceremony: January 28th, in London

BBC Radio 3 Awards For World Music  
Visit the site and check out Susheela's page!
  • SALT RAIN was honored this past Fall with a  nomination for a MERCURY PRIZE 2001.  
    Susheela is the first world music artist to be nominated for this prestigious British music prize.
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