By Chitra Kalyani
One evening at Geneina Theater, like a many-headed Indian deity, Susheela Raman showed her many facets. Her songs are borrowed from covers of Western rock to traditions in Southern India that worship the mountain god “Muruga.” While singing her own songs, Raman enters into the same ecstatic trance of the celebration whose music she imitates.
Years ago, my first impression of Susheela Raman summoned up the image of a nimble enchantress. The introduction was made through a cover song from the Disney movie “The Jungle Book,” where the sly snake Kaa is asking young Mowgli to “Trust in Me.”
The song from Raman’s first album “Salt Rain” featured Egyptian percussionist Hosam Ramzy. Raman’s sibilant vocals rise to the rhythmic tapping of Ramzy’s drums which have often accompanied belly dancers, luring one into a swaying dance.
“Maya,” too, evokes the dance of smoke in air. The lyrics speak of the “web of creation” that entraps one with both joy and sorrow. The reference to the Hindu-Buddhist concept of “Maya” (illusion) on her debut album is only an early indicator of what has come to be Raman’s lasting interest in world spiritual traditions.
“Salt Rain” made Raman the first world music artist to be nominated for the highly prestigious Mercury Prize, annually awarded to the best album in Britain. Ten years, and four albums later, the artist has come out with a distinctly different sound in her new album “Vel.”
With parents that insisted on keeping her Tamil heritage alive, the British-born Raman was trained in South Indian classical music. Her family moved to Australia when she was still a child.
As a teenager, Raman swayed as far away as possible from her classical Indian training, and delved into everything from Billie Holliday to Jimi Hendrix. At 16, Raman already had a rock band to her name, which played funk and rock and roll. Soon she discovered jazz and blues that left a strong imprint on her style.
It was in her 20s that Raman found her style to be limited and wanted to find her own unique talent. She started once more to explore sounds in her heritage and travelled back to India to explore its music. “My pride in being Indian started to come back,” Raman told Daily News Egypt.
Even within the Indian music system, Raman found there was a “hierarchy.” Not only does Raman explore the less valorized forms of folk and devotional music, she also “come[s] to it with a rock perspective.”
Mira Nair’s indie hit “The Namesake” carried two tracks by Raman, yet Bollywood was another popular form that Raman eschewed, choosing to partner instead with independent films. “Everyone is so prisoner to Bollywood. It seems like giant monster that eats up the talent that kills the spirit of free music.”
Raman’s repertoire, presented at the finale of the Mawred’s Hayy Program on Friday, also included interpretations of classics such as a soft, unrecognizable rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Her interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” veers from the traditional, with further composition using the Indian scale, and starting with an age-old Indian text.
Her own compositions too carried this variety of softer songs to hard rock. “Magdalene” from her latest album “Vel” was a ballad, while “Raise Up,” an inspired fused Indo-Western sounds in pure rock.
Raman’s band includes equally matched musical talents. She was joined by partner and guitarist Sam Mills on the guitar. Audiences were equally appreciative of the vocal support and violins of Karthik Raghunathan.
Tabla player Aref Durvesh, performed an impressive solo where the tones varied from the softer to higher notes. The talcum powder he used on the tabla rose in quiet plumes into the spotlight as audiences showered him with applause.
“Dagga Dagga” is a song that onomatopoeically imitates the “sounds of the cosmos shaking” as Raman led us through mythology where a saint with body of a skeleton and fangs worshipped the Lord Shiva — the lord of ghosts.
A motley lot responds to Raman’s call to dance onstage, enjoined with her in a trance. Called for an encore, Raman first sang “Maya” but she sent the audiences home with Tamil devotional hymn, “Nagumomo.” There is a part of Raman that is accessible, that appeals to the popular, and there is another that reaches out but does not crave to be understood.
The ethereal image of the artist vanishes when you discover an equally earthy rock diva. The audience is sharply divided between those that are entranced and those that stand on the border.