Susheela Raman talks about the origins of her Indian-inspired rock and mood music, whose concert marked the finale of the Hayy programme, the Al Mawred Al Thaqafy’s international festival
In collaboration with Dahlia Ferrer, published on Monday 29 Aug 2011 in Ahram Online
Susheela Raman was born in the UK in 1973 to Indian parents. The family moved to Australia when she was still a young child. In Australia was where she was initially connected to the South India traditional music repertoire.
“Despite India being my homeland and my Tamil background, I went through a phase of rebelling against my origins, typical of all teenagers,” Raman commented to Ahram Online adding that at a certain point she sought out rock music, attending many concerts and performances in Sydney bars. She became closer to Western music; listening also to jazz, blues and trance. When Raman was in her early 20s, the family moved back to the UK, where she met Sam Mills, guitarist and producer, who soon became her husband.
It is her persistence that opened many doors to the singer. “I always knew I’d be a singer. I would fight for my way to the extent that I went to an agent and stood on a table in his office singing,” Raman recalls.
Raman’s music joins carnatic (South Indian) and ambient elements, always reaching to folk traditions with strong rock overtones. Her influences are not limited to Indian and Western music, nor does she keep them separate. Just as Susheela, herself, is a combination of cultures, she, naturally, mixes the music. The group also finds lots of common musical sensitivity with African music of Ethiopia and Nigeria, which has similar scales and musical logic as music from India.
Raman’s opening piece in El Genaina Theatre concert was a complete mood piece: she expertly warmed her vocals in a very long intro. Her well-experienced control is obvious as soon as she releases the first sounds from her mouth; shushing, lulling, engaging, overwhelming, expressing.
As she physically warms up throughout the concert she gets closer to the audience and her free hand mirrors what her voice is doing; clinching, opening, raising, lowering, stronger, weaker, harsher, entranced.
With her body she acts out with a sudden energy and stance that gives her the power to hail the Indian gods that she references to in her music. Raman was the only person in the series who was able to get El Genaina audience to stand up and dance. Or rather: jump around.
What can start as a mood piece, with guitarist Sam Mills sliding his hands up and down the strings, reminiscent of the sitar, sometimes turns into an all-out trancey head-banging session. The percussionist in the back with several Indian tablas, the guitarist and violinist join in enthusiastically. Sometimes the music was so strong it reverberated between the heart, lungs and spinal column – for some, not a pleasant experience.
There were two great surprises: one was where the percussionist relaxed his light-speed fingers and scat out for a minute the rhythms that he would normally do on the tabla. Another was a piece where the violinist not only plays interesting melodies and sometimes supports the percussion, but at one point released a set of classic Indian vocals.
“We are all shaped by different cultures, some coming from the household, others from the environment we’re raised in. Living between two contrasting cultures may generate some conflicts, but as we grow up, one learns how to embrace them,” Raman comments on how she managed to find a musical language that would benefit the most from the cultural mixture that she represents.
“Susheela has a very unusual and flexible voice and her bi-culture allows her to express many meanings in a variety of ways,” commented Sam Mills. Singer’s repertoire includes Tamil-inspired music, weaving it together with Western elements. This combination has been a great success and in last couple of years Raman managed to record five CDs. Meanwhile, her music is being used in films, such as her biggest pride, Namesake.
Her career has reached a peak and ever since her parents retired and moved back to India, Raman started performing more in her home country. “Now we spend half of the year in India,” Mills comments. “Susheela has fans all around the world, but the two biggest fan basis are in India and France.”
Neither Raman nor Mills have formal musical education. “We were always exposed to music and developed contacts with very interesting musicians from whom we learnt lot. We always consider ourselves as students; we perform and at the same time we keep learning and expanding,” Raman commented.
“We express ourselves as we wish. We do not follow any school or orthodoxy. Of course, we do follow musical knowledge, but with the confidence of creating a musical world and landscape from our imagination,” Mills concluded.
Susheela’s concert at El Genaina was her first visit to Egypt.