Interview: Susheela Raman (January 2017)

With six albums and a nomination for the Mercury Prize on her resumé, Susheela Raman, British-Indian musician, raised between Australia and London, has been captivating audiences around the world with her mesmerising voice and powerful performances since 2001.

Ahead of her performance on 1st February at the Roundhouse in London, where she will play alongside extraordinary musicians from the UK and Java, we sat down with her to discuss past, present and future projects, and the million influences, from African drums to The Beatles, one could trace in her music.

On 1st February, you are performing at the Roundhouse in London with the Ghost Gamelan Orchestra, an ensemble made up of composer Gondrong Gunarto and three other multi-instrumentalists from Java, alongside some of the best musical talents London has to offer. Musicians who have previously collaborated with a number of stars such as Jeff Beck, Sting, and Roxy Music, to name a few. Where does your interest for Gamelan stem from? How are you reinterpreting the genre with your collaborators?

I have listened to Gamelan for many years and love, for example, the classic Nonesuch recordings of Javanese court Gamelan. The music is a feast on many levels, sonically, harmonically, rhythmically and also in terms of the atmosphere and ethos it conveys. Sam Mills [Ed: her musician/producer husband] and I were travelling in Indonesia in 2015, and were introduced to the amazing Gondrong Gunarto whilst in Surakarta in Java. Gondrong is the son of a Dalang (a shadow puppet master who manipulates and vocalises the puppets) and so is steeped in the culture. Meanwhile, he is known for his work in ‘contemporary Gamelan’ which is sometimes quite experimental and iconoclastic, so there was no problem in doing something a bit adventurous with him. We hit it off right away and decided there and then to do a version ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which he arranged in a Javanese style for a group of musicians. We had been planning this as a way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles album Revolver.

Your new album will be released in 2017 on Naive Records, and it will be indeed called Ghost Gamelan. What can we expect from this work?

We loved the sound of the 2015 recording, and had a chance last year to go back and do some more. We had some songs which were not originally written for Gamelan but we knew that Gondrong would find a way to play the songs. We spent a month there rehearsing and then recording. That is the first layer of the record, but we are now adding our own instruments and voices. I think it’s a very exciting sound for us. The challenge is the harmonic juxtaposition of the Gamelan, which has tunings that do not exist in a European or even an Indian context, so seeing how that works is quite fascinating. There are moments of dissonance which actually become quite addictive! Think that consonance and dissonance are part of every kind of music… it’s like matter and anti-matter.

You are not new to breaking boundaries in music and mixing different traditions. Born in London to Tamil parents, you grew up in Australia, then relocated to London as an adult. Your 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, for instance, drew on a blend of traditional Tamil music with jazz, folk and pop; Love Trap is infused with African influences; in Music for Crocodiles you also sang in French; and in 33 1/3 you covered popular rock tracks of the sixties and seventies by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and more. Was music a way to negotiate your different identities? What do you find interesting in this blending of traditions?

Actually, I think all of these influences are there all the time, it’s just that the spotlight shifts around. I don’t really think of cultures in terms of essences, so I think it’s all up for interpretation. I don’t feel like I have ‘multiple identities’ but just being oneself in a certain context will amplify certain aspects of one’s knowledge or personality. I have spent a lot of time in South Asia and my parents live there now, so it’s normal for me to be there and to interact with the music and the musicians there. I was also in Paris quite a lot at a certain time, so met quite a few West African musicians based there. At the same time, I have never really found a category of music that I could conform to; I think you just have to follow your inspiration.

You have reinterpreted many Tamil traditional songs. How do you feel about the fact that often your lyrics are not understood by a cut of your audience? Would you say the reception of your music is different depending on where you perform, and if so, how?

It changes all the time. Sometimes there is a compulsion or curiosity to do a certain kind of music, so you follow that. You don’t really know what the audience for that music will be. I don’t think you can transcend language, and, of course, it makes it a bit harder when you’re not singing in the native language of the audience, but we try to deliver the songs in a way that people can feel the music and feel the intention of the singing and the playing, a big part of which does connect across cultural boundaries. It’s true that audiences in different places react more to a language they recognise. In North India people expect to hear ‘Ye Mera Divanapan Ha’, which in Hindi and in the south they really repose to the Tamil songs. But I generally play whatever music we are doing at the time. When I write songs, they are in English; the truth is that different audiences are often familiar with just a part of one’s music history. You would have to be a real fan to know the whole thing. I suppose we play what we like and hope to make everyone live in that moment with us.

You are famous for your live performances, which are very energetic and physical, and in a way recall the dances of the sacred Bhakti and Sufi traditions of India and Pakistan. Is this something you wanted to convey? Is the musical experience a physical one for you?

Music is a physical thing. Sound waves are ‘real’ and the micro-climate totally affects them. You use your body for music, so it’s got to be a physical thing. When the music summons your energy, you have to give it. In fact, there are times when my approach is quite contemplative and ethereal. It depends on how one is feeling. I don’t perform in any given fashion just because there is an expectation of that. It has to be spontaneous. I did sit with some amazing Sufi and Bhakti, or you could say Folk singers in India, Qawals Bauls and so on. Of course, they are all very different to each other, but you get a sense of the physicality of their music and it’s hard not be inspired by that when you are exposed to their ability to send energy to an audience. As for the head-shaking foot-stomping person that was exploring Bhakti songs tenders ago, I am not sure if that’s where I am now.

In October 2016, the EP Tomorrow Never Knows/Love You Too, recorded to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles album Revolver, was released. Why is this album important to you? Is there a particular reason behind the choice of these two songs? How have you reinterpreted them?

Famously, it was an album that was very inventive. Those two songs really channeled a growing awareness of Indian music, which was I suppose part of the early psychedelic ethos. For me, it’s strange to think that as they were imagining India in Abbey Road, my dad was flying to London to start a new life, so there was two-way traffic. It was interesting to look at what the Beatles did 50 years ago, which still sounds so strong, and to do something creative with those songs, not straight covers. 

In December 2016, you contributed an unreleased track to the Décamper (French for ‘move on’) project, a CD and book of texts and pictures to describe the unwelcoming land Europe is for refugees nowadays. How did you become involved in the project? What can you tell us about your track?

It’s a Bengali song called ‘Syama Ma’, a song to Kali, the Dark Mother. We were approached by the people who were doing the project and offered them this song. The refugee situation, post-Syria, is something that kind of eludes easy understanding. How is it that poorer countries can accept so many people and adjust, but it becomes so hard for richer countries? 

Your 2001 debut album ‘Salt Rain’, mentioned above, was the first world music album to be nominated for the Mercury Prize. How did you feel about it? How happy were you with the label ‘world music’?

Of course, it was a thrill to get that recognition so early on; it was the first album and we had hardly played any gigs. I don’t really know what world music is. Is it something you can play consciously? It’s a kind of marketing category applied to music after its creation. So it can’t really influence what you play. No musician, in fact no person, likes having a label stuck on them, unless they are some kind of fundamentalist. I don’t think Salt Rain is intrinsically a ‘World Music’ album; it is what it is. We have to make a living from music, so telling people what things are is important but it can become a limiting thing. After Salt Rain, I got asked why I was wearing leather trousers and not a sari, and why we have electric guitars and so on, which seemed absurd. It’s music, you like it or you don’t!