Monday, 23 April 2012

Susheela Raman and Lahore’s Mian Mir Qawwals: Musical nirvana

I had never been to a Susheela Raman concert before her performance at Alchemy 2012 on 16th April nor had I explored her music to any extent.  In spite of growing up in Sri Lanka – or perhaps because of it – Tamil music had not registered in my radar and my first encounter with Raman had been in the bowels of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the day of her performance at the Festival. 

She looked harried but spoke softly, her intense eyes bearing down at you over a perfectly crafted nose.
It almost felt like a volcano was preparing to erupt in a few hours’ time. 

For the uninitiated, Raman – born in Britain to South Indian parents – is a Mercury Music Prize winner who has enjoyed success around the world; from the UK and France to India and Australia. 

Her unique, visceral arrangements of Tamil songs from Southern India are unlike any Tamil song that’s ever come out of South India, or anywhere else for that matter. 

The Tamil language may be as old as time itself but it isn’t the most mellifluous in the world. 

There’s a jarring quality to it, the words seem to collide with each other rather than flowing from one syllable to the next. 

As those syllables emanate from Raman’s mouth however – with the strum of Sam Mills’ acoustic guitar as the backdrop – they seem to transform, like sharp-edged stones on a beach morphing into beautifully rounded pebbles by the ocean tide rushing over them endlessly. 

The set began with ‘Paal’, a devotional song which begins with a whimper before reaching a crescendo of such terrific fury you’re left aghast.  Raman seems to enter a trance-like state before each song, living each word and chord.  There’s an almost primeval, Amazonian quality to her as she swirls around the stage, waving her hair, impassioned, furious and brooding.  It’s a remarkable spectacle.

Next up was a cover of Voodoo Chile – unlike any cover of the iconic tune you have ever heard, even darker and moodier than the original and inspired by the music of Ethiopia according to Raman. 

She was then joined on stage by several artists who would conspire to take Raman’s music to an entirely new level.  First up were Rajasthani singer and harpist Kutle Khan and Nathoo Lal Solanki, arguably the world’s preeminent exponent of the thrilling ‘Nagara’ drum.  Halfway through her set Raman was also joined by Lahore’s Mian Mir Qawwali troupe who managed to take the level of energy up by several notches whilst at the same time tempering the fury and despair that seems to characterize Raman’s songs.
The audience began to abandon their seats and make their way hither and thither, swaying and jumping in the aisles and entering the dream-like state that Qawwali music evokes.  It was beautiful and kept soaring to unimaginable heights. 

Just when you thought the furious strumming of the guitar, the frenetic beating of the Tabla and Nagara, or the singing could not continue any further, the Qawwals would find yet more summits to conquer.

It was the perfect hybrid; a fusion of Raman’s fury and the joy of the Qawwals colliding like some extra-terrestrial atom inside the Large Hadron Collider; the energy it generated was staggering. 

The men from Lahore however, triumphed on the night.  Susheela Raman enjoys a terrific following in the UK but her music is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

The Qawwals seemed to take her to a much wider audience. 

Raman has collaborated with dozens of artists over the past 15 years and has enjoyed some not insignificant success. 

It’s arguable whether this collaboration will be surpassed. 

-    Vijitha Alles

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