The Queen of world music? Susheela Raman comes to Abu Dhabi

This week sees another boundary-bending evening from The Arts Center at NYUAD in the form of Queen Between.

Susheela Raman is an innovative, imaginative musician with a completely inclusive approach. With her long-time musical (and life) partner, Sam Mills, she has explored musical possibilities that include styles and traditions from around the world. The Arts Center show on thursday promises a magical musical meeting of Raman’s enigmatic songs with ecstatic Sufi qawwali, a Western classical string quartet, orchestral percussion, a dash of rock and Tamil folk, and an overlay of hypnotic grooves.

Raman has never been easy to pigeonhole. Her performances and her six albums show an eclectic interest in traditional music from Europe and Asia; but she toys with genres, straddling cultures and continents, adding jazz and blues to those classical styles. Her performances can move from enthusiastic and exuberant to intimate and confessional, singing in whatever language and whatever style works – English, Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi.

Her family moved to Britain from India in the 1960s and she was born in London, moving to Australia when she was four and returning to London in the late 1990s to work with her then partner, now husband, Sam Mills. Her parents always wanted her to learn Indian music “to defend and value my identity,” she says, and that forms the core of her music today; but as a teenager in Sydney she started her own funk-rock band, branching out into blues and jazz-based music, and that also shows in her music today.

Raman’s early London shows were usually power-packed, high-energy affairs built on the sacred Bhakti and Sufi traditions of India and Pakistan – “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”. Her first album, the Mercury shortlisted Salt Rain (2001), managed to combine traditional Tamil music with Western jazz, pop and folk and pop influences in its mix of original and traditional songs.

The Queen Between ideas first appeared as a 2014 album. Produced as always by partner and guitarist Sam Mills, the Tamil influences of earlier albums had given way to Rajasthani flavours – especially qawwali, the rousing, ecstatic and sometimes trance-inducing devotional style made internationally famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Sam Mills is a longstanding collaborator with Raman, performing live with her, co-writing many of her songs, and producing her albums. He started his own musical journey with the avant garde postpunk band 23 Skidoo, noted for their experimentation and stylistic eclecticism as much as their dance rhythms. Taking time out for a PhD he met Indian singer Paban Das Baul, a friendship which resulted in the well-received Real Sugar album for Real World Music. He also played in the West African project Tama (check out the lovely and lovable Nostalgie from 1999).

For the last few years, projects with Susheela have been his focus. These are becoming more and more ambitious, testing the boundaries and the potential of musical crossovers. Take Sacred Imaginations, a concert of “sacred music for secular people” – which effectively covers all the bases – held at the Barbican earlier this year.

The lineup was an unprecedented gathering of 17 musicians from Russia, Greece, Syria and Ethiopia, each a leader in their own field and all of whom brought a tradition of eastern and early Christian music.The result was “crazily ambitious … a thrilling musical journey, and a triumph” according to The Arts Desk.

They don’t come more ambitious than this return to the Queen Between ideas – “an enigmatic look at imagination as expressed in language, poetry and music,” as the publicity puts it. “The songs explore the elusive nature of reality or spiritual truth, and the universality of liminal states, ritual, and magical thinking. The cross-cultural, cross-genre musical exchange reflects themes of cultural exchange, migration, and transformation.”

This is a World Premiere, commissioned by The Arts Center at NYUAD as part of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration, that features Raman and Mills with some top names from their own spheres. That has long been the preferred way of working for Raman and Mills – rather than bolt some world music on to their own work with individual instruments or players, they’ve preferred to find a group that knows their own traditions inside out and then collaborate.

The qawwali element comes from Pakistani brothers Riana and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan, two of the most prominent singers in the genre. They studied under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was their uncle.

The evening’s rhythm section is Malcolm Catto on drums, Dudley Philips on bass and double bass, and Lucie Antunes (left) on percussion – all notable names. Catto co-founded and produces the London psych/jazz experimental outfit the Heliocentrics, four albums and numerous collaborations). Philips has worked all over the world with top artists, made six albums with Perfect Houseplants, and has just released BassHeARTMANtra (“takes all the influences that I’ve grown up with, leaving nothing out”). Lucie Antunes lives in Paris; a classically trained percussionist, she moves easily between the worlds of contemporary music and pop music and has drummed with über-hip French bands Aquaserge and Moodoid.

The Phaedra Ensemble (right) will help fuse the evening’s music together, for the string quartet itself mirrors London’s diverse musical landscape; incorporating jazz, folk, and contemporary classical influences, it is the resident ensemble with multi-sensory arts collective Bittersuite.

Given the range of musical input, it’s no surprise that Susheela Raman says she doesn’t like labels. She’s described ‘world music’ as “a racist marketing category” and rejects the idea that she might be characterised as either an Indian singer or a feminist (or both): “I’m always striving for expression that could go beyond gender, beyond ethnicity”. As for her craft: “music can and should destroy illusions of cultural vanity and separation”.

Bill Bragin, executive artistic director at The Arts Center at NYUAD, reckons this performance will galvanise the UAE’s Tamil and Pakistani communities “and delight world music lovers of all backgrounds”. Never mind the provenance or the labels: this is magical music by some innovative musicians, and we’re lucky to have the chance to experience it.

Queen Between plays at NYUAD’s East Plaza on Thursday 19 October at 8pm. Tickets are AED 100 (students and under-16s AED 50).


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