Susheela Raman at the Royal Festival Hall

Susheela RamanSusheela Raman opened the South Bank’s ‘Alchemy’ festival last Wednesday with a performance that rocked. That is the most apt description that I can come up with.

This was the first time I had seen her perform. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I liked her singing on the You Tube clips I had seen – deep voice, jazz / funk influenced. But her live performance was much much better, with an originality that brought together European, African, Indian and Pakistani influences and created something that couldn’t be so easily categorised.

Outside the UK, Raman has been feted. She has released 5 albums since 2001, with her first album, ‘Salt Rain’ going gold in France. In the UK it was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize and she also won the Best Newcomer award from BBC Radio 3. In India she achieved fame and widespread coverage last year when her version of Bollywood song ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan’ accompanied a pole dance by porn star Sunny Leone on India’s version of ‘Big Brother’ (You Tube link here).

Raman herself is of Tamil parentage, born in London but brought up mainly in Australia before moving back to London in the late 90s. She performs with her English husband Sam Mills on guitar. Mills himself has an interesting background, having become influenced by the burgeoning world music scene gaining prominence through the 80s – through the Womad festivals and subsequent setting up of record label Real World Records. His interest in Bengali Baul music led him to studying anthropology at the London School of Economics, emerging with a PhD in 1992, and then to musical collaboration with Bengali Baul musician Paban Das Baul. And Mills apparently speaks Bengali – a feat I have not even attempted, beyond the few words I have gleaned from Susen.

RamanAnd so to the performance. Raman appeared on stage with a cape and characteristically wild hair, accompanied by three Rajasthani percussionists and London-based tabla player Aref Durvesh. Later on came the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali singers from Pakistan – a group of 8, led by 2 nephews of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was a strange sight seeing the all-male Pakistani singers, some fairly portly and middle aged, juxtaposed with Raman’s no-holds barred self-expression. It was a joy to see how she communicated her total immersion in the music, through her body and voice. Her movements ranged from more nuanced to the slower tracks to sheer head banging and pogo dancing. At times she seemed trance-like, body moving, with the other musicians in time to the rhythm. On occasion the gyrations and head banging has apparently been a bit too much for her Indian audiences. But compared to the restraint of many Indian female vocalists, it was liberating to see her sheer abandonment to the music. Susen considered himself far too ‘English’ to join in – but she was here to shake up the English. Towards the end she encouraged everyone to stand up from their seats, for we were going to ‘rock out!’ And rock out we did, at least as far as our English sensibilities would allow.

We have come such a long way since those early days of Womad. It takes me right back to 1985, when I attended one of the first Womad festivals on Mersea Island, together with memories of the cold tent, rain, mud and plastic cups of beer. But a time of huge change and excitement – a musical escape from the backdrop of Thatcherism, miners strike, yuppiedom and privatisation gripping the UK at the time – to a world quite literally opening up on our doorstep. The musical collaboration of Raman and Mills is the fruition both of their own personal explorations and journeys (for Raman, back to her Indian roots, for Mills, reaching out across continents from the UK) as well as the newly opened up world – to create something so uncategorisable and new. Pure alchemy.

Leave a Reply