A Raga-Flamenco Journey: Anoushka Shankar Spellbinds Washington with the Ultimate in Fusion Music

By Bharati Mitra

Anoushka ShankarWashington, DC, April 14, 2012 (Washington Bangla Radio) On April 13, 2012 at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, Anoushka Shankar and her Traveler Ensemble performed their "Raga-Flamenco Journey" concert. Anoushka played her sitar soulfully, along with Sanjeev Shankar in Shehnai, Pirashanna Thevarajah in various Southern Indian percussion instruments, Bernhard Schimpelsberger in Flamenco percussion box, Melon Jimenez in Flamenco guitar & Sandra Carrasco in cante (vocals). The concert was presented by Washington Performing Arts Soceity (WPAS),and Co-presented with the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.

The music which ensued was innovative, experimental and awe-inspiring to say the least.  It was at once a combination of musical instruments from various parts of India as well as the Flamenco counterparts of Spain. The Sitar, originally a Persian but now more popularly a North Indian string instrument, was combined with Mridangam, an ancient percussion instrument which originated in Southern India, as well as three other Southern Indian percussion instruments: the Ghatam, a clay vessel to be struck with the palm of the hand, Kanjira, a hand drum of the tambourine family, and Morsing, a Southern Indian mouth harp. To this was added the Shehnai, a North Indian wind instrument typically used for auspicious occasions such as weddings. These alone could have provided for an unusual and highly creative concert. But the creativity and innovation of Anoushka Shankar goes far beyond in which she thought of combining this large variety of Indian classical musical instruments with the gypsy & folksy tunes of Spanish Flamenco music.

Anoushka Shankar - Traveller MP3 Download »

In an interview she confessed her long-standing love for the Flamenco, and that she had always contemplated creating an album which would be a combination of Indian and Flamenco styles. Traveler, her newest album which she played from at the Lisner auditorium, was the manifestation of a primal love affair with the Flamenco style of music, and years of research and experimentation in concert performances and in the clubs of Madrid. As her father Pandit Ravi Shankar could be viewed as Sitar personified, and was responsible for introducing the classical Indian string instrument to the Western audience, Anoushka can be equally credited for introducing the Flamenco style of music to Indian ears.

Though the origin of Flamenco is shrouded in controversy, it is widely believed that Flamenco traces its roots back to the gypsies of Rajasthan, India… the traveling communities which moved through India, across South Asia and the Middle East before settling in Europe. Through years of evolution and intermingling with various forms of music, Flamenco settled in Andalusia becoming a genre of its own.

Anoushka was accompanied by Bernhard Schimpelsberger in Flamenco percussion box or Cajon as it is widely known in Peru and Spain. It is eye-opening to see how music can be created by beating a box with the palms and fingers of both hands. Cajon originated with the slaves of the Spanish Colonial era. These slaves were forbidden to use music in their lives, so used shipping boxes or crates to create music for themselves when no one was listening… which proves beyond doubt that music cannot be confined or suppressed by force, and that it flows out like water or air from every nook and crevice of human existence.

Anoushka’s Spanish guitar accompanist was Melon Jimenez, who played rather softly in comparison to the usual Flamenco guitarists who must be heard over the dancers’ nailed shoes striking the floor….for obvious reasons…no dancers were performing…and a loud guitar would’ve drowned out the sitar, the predominant instrument in this concert. During his rendition of the “Granaina,” a form of Flamenco music which originated in Granada, Melon’s guitar was heard a bit more clearly.  Anoushka announced that while experimenting with the two forms of music she was lucky to have struck a chord of union when she realized that the notes in Granaina were almost the same as Raga Manj Khambaj in Indian classical music. She demonstrated this by playing Manj Khambaj in sitar while Melon played Granaina in his Spanish guitar. Curiously, these two forms of music played side by side sounded cohesive and almost symbiotic. In my opinion, this was one of the major highlights of the evening’s presentations as it demonstrated Anoushka’s love for Flamenco and her dedication towards finding new avenues of combining the tunes of the East and the West, much like her father sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar had done with Jazz many years ago.

The Flamenco vocalist Sandra Carassco is a great singer/performer and her palmas (hand-claps) were just as rhythmic and pleasing to watch. The entire concert was an experience to be cherished for a long time to come, or until Anoushka is ready to bring us similarly awe-inspiring or even more innovative concerts…hopefully in the near future.