Interview: Susheela Raman

Part British, part Indian and part Australian, the world music star considers culture, spirituality and philosophy before her June 10th appearance at Prague's Respect Festival

Susheela Raman makes her Prague debut on Friday, June 10th, at this year's Respect Festival.

Born in London and raised in Sydney, Raman moved to India, her parents' birthplace, in 1995, to study music.

These experiences give a depth both to her lyrics and to her arrangements, which combine classical Indian and contemporary Western styles into a smooth, multilayered sound.

Raman's debut album, Salt Rain, earned her a Mercury Prize nomination and the Best Newcomer prize at 2002's BBC World Music Awards.

Darrell Jónsson: What reaction has your work had from listeners in India, and elsewhere in Asia?

Susheela Raman: The reaction in India has been very interesting. Many people love the music and others feel angry that I play songs by some of the south Indian composers who are regarded as divinely inspired. We played in Madras and we had so many who loved the energy of our live show. There was even some stage diving! There were also angry letters to the papers. There are musicians there who we work with in Madras and their approval is what counts most to me. We all have a great time

DJ: Has your work had any reaction from any of Europe's Roma communities?

SR: Not that I know of. We worked with Dorantes who is from a Gitano background in Spain. And Manos Achalinotopulos, the Greek clarinetist we have worked with, brings something of that sound in. It would be exciting to take it further.

DJ: I find it fascinating and refreshingly real that you work with both contemporary secular and traditional sacred themes. Can you tell us a little of how you see the bridging of these themes in your art?

SR: I am not religious myself, but making music can stir up some very strong feelings. A lot of the best music comes form a religious or ritual context, probably because it suggests going beyond oneself. It just so happens that south Indian music, [which] I learned as a child, is steeped in spirituality. It's a great privilege to be able to play these songs, but being as much a European and Australian as an Indian I have to find my own way to do it. Spirituality is really about the transmission of knowledge and feeling and so is music in an earthy, direct and sometimes ethereal way.

DJ: Is there a humorous aspect to southern Indian philosophy or outlook that helps in this?

Indian culture is really very diverse. There is a lot of iconoclastic humor around. Where there is hierarchy there is always subversion. When we recorded in India there was a lot of laughter. It was very joyful.

DJ: Do you see the geographical and historical range of influences that you work with as a reconciliation of separate forms or as more of an embrace of a preexisting unexplored continuity?

To me it's about musicians rather than music systems. Musicians, like everybody, are a mixture of connection points and private musical explorations. Cultures have their own integrity but there are things that hit you and you have to react to them. That's how all music works; it's like a virus that gets transmitted. There obviously is continuity between forms, otherwise it wouldn't be possible to bring things together. The challenge is to do it in an interesting way.

DJ: How has your living and studying in India, Australia and England shaped your work?

India brings intensity, Australia brings a sense of space, England brings toughness.

DJ: Do you have anything else you would like to say that might clarify your musical vision for Prague TV readers?

Follow your pleasure.

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