Anoushka Shankar And Karsh Kale
Two of the most visionary talents working and pioneering the overlap of today's popular world music scene collaborate to create a genre-hopping triumph and a sonic journey within the many varied worlds in which these two artists exist...
From the time that the great sitar maestro Ravi Shankar attuned Western ears to the eloquence of Indian Classical music, the world has been fertile ground for creating new fusions of culture and music. The evidence is heard in music from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, from Shakti to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to today's most influential fusions of sound like that of Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale. Imagine living in a world where psychedelic raves follow classical recitals and rock and roll dives become Bollywood hangouts. A world where one finds West Coast yogis immersed in Eastern culture and the New York underground drawing inspiration from the New Delhi club scene, where globalization is an internal state-of-being and borders were made to be crossed. This is the world Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale live in and journey through. "Breathing Under Water" is the soundtrack of this journey as created by two of the most visionary talents pioneering the hip and fertile overlap of today's world music scene. The album is carefully constructed and composed, boasting some of the finest guest artists on the order of Ravi Shankar – who created the nucleus of two climatic pieces for the album (Oceanic Parts 1 & 2) plus Sting, Anoushka's sister Norah Jones, Midival Punditz, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Noah Lembersky , Shankar Mahadevan and Sunidhi Chauhan. "Breathing Under Water" plays like a modern gypsy travelogue through the alluring world of Shankar and Kale.
That Anoushka Shankar--the 25-year old star sitarist and composer (and daughter of legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar)--would meet and work with producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale (Kursh Kah-lay) seems almost inevitable, given their markedly parallel paths. Like Shankar, the 32-year old Kale was raised in America by Indian parents, and proved his instrumental talent early--as a founding member of the all-star super group Tabla Beat Science and later as a producer and composer of some of the finest global electronica of the past decade. As leaders, both have four albums to their credit, with their latest--Shankar's Grammy nominated "Rise" and Kale's "Broken English"--launching both on a creatively multi-dimensional musical path. "Breathing Under Water" marks the convergence of these paths and is the first time either has shared titled credit on a recording.
To say that "Breathing Under Water" stands as a career breakthrough for both Shankar and Kale is an understatement. For both, it proved creatively catalytic and stands as a measure of their growth as musicians, as they broke ground beyond the roles each is known for: Shankar expanding her talents as an electronic producer, keyboard/pianist, composer and lyricist, and Kale as a composer and singer, while playing guitars, tabla, drums, keyboards and bass. For both the common thread within this album remained the Indian Classical repertoire. In the same way rock and roll artists used blues music and hip hop artists use jazz and funk as their muse to create new forms, Kale and Shankar both keep Indian music at the center of all that they create, yet allow the music to expand beyond cultural and traditional borders to reach a panoramic view of their world.
The songs on "Breathing Under Water" were "conceived organically, written mainly on sitar and acoustic guitar before taking them in all different directions," Kale says. "There were two ways that we composed for the most part," Shankar adds. "Some songs came from an acoustic space, coming up with the melody and then orchestrating around it. And there were a few pieces like 'Slither' and 'PD7,' which we started creating and programming on the computer first, and layered on top of later." Adding structure and lending studio expertise to the project were two of India's most celebrated producers: Gaurav Raina, known for his groundbreaking work with electronica/raga fusionists Midival Punditz; and Salim Merchant, the prolific Bollywood soundtrack composer and keyboardist. According to Kale, the two were a guiding force to the project. "They facilitated our ability to collaborate. They made it possible for us to throw things on the wall until they were sticking, without worrying about anything else." "Travel is one thing that's very common to the music--Anoushka's and mine," says Kale. "It's that feeling of being in-between places, of always moving. That's how we made the album--going from Delhi to New York to California and Bombay, back to Delhi. I don't think I've ever done an album in one city anyway." "This is where the water theme comes in. Travel inspires a lot of song and a lot of these songs are literally about being a traveler at sea."
"I've not really had this type of intense musical experience with anyone, other than my father," says Shankar. "To be creatively free with somebody else and trust them with your ideas before they're already formed, that was very new to me, and it allowed both of us to do things we don't usually do. I think the real surprise to most people on this album is that a lot of what we're known for switched--a lot of the hardest, most rhythmic moments on the album came from me, and a lot of the prettier, melodic moments were from Karsh." "But we've both been developing a personal style rooted in and influenced by Indian classical music and we've been friends for a number of years. That really broke down a lot of barriers that usually exist between musicians. Anoushka and I were also able to break each other down a bit. Instead of being too respectful with each other, sometimes we got at each other and challenged each other," says Kale. Anoushka Shankar's own playing is a major part of "Breathing Under Water." She plays on every track, and says "with the sitar being such a distinctive instrument, it conveys so much to hear it travel through the range of musical styles and genres that it does on this record. One of the greatest aspects of creating this album, for me, was giving unabashedly full reign to my creative desires, pushing and being pushed far outside my comfort level, and working with people whose talents complemented my own to the point that I was able to give the best of myself as a producer, writer, and instrumentalist."
As for Kale, he was able to stretch his abilities as a guitar player and singer while continuing his duties as drummer, tabla player and keyboard player. "I was able to do different things on this record, use my voice in different ways, sometimes as a composer, sometimes as a bass player, sometimes all at the same time. This was the best part of creating this album for me, to be able to play so many different characters," he says.
If the varied sounds and styles on "Breathing Under Water" offer a unifying musical force, Kale says, "for me the real thread holding it all together is Anoushka's voice as a sitar player. On each of the tracks, I got to run in all different directions in terms of composition in order to create scenery for her to stand in. I got to focus on the music in so many different ways having her voice to anchor these songs. That's why it didn't feel like we had to keep boundaries on this album stylistically because that voice was flowing through all of it."
There is little doubt that in a time when cultural connections that span the globe can be achieved with the simple click of a mouse, musical blending is becoming more and more a standard practice. "Being an Indian musician in the world we live in right now, when there's the amount of fusion and crossover music that's being made, it's a challenge to find a genuine and sincere way of making these different sounds work together," says Shankar. "Our end goal with this record was to create an honest picture of how dynamic a world we live in, and how natural and beautiful it can be for seemingly-incongruous elements or ideas to co-exist." Shankar sums up the priority of their joint vision on Breathing Under Water. "It's not fusion for the sake of doing it--I mean we weren't intellectualizing the music. All of this is organic to us. All of this music, all these styles and sounds are what we are."