Anoushka Shankar Uses Music to See Beyond Boundaries
It was a riveting image that was seen around the world. The photograph of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a small Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach that gave a human face to the almost incomprehensible suffering of thousands of Syrians who were risking everything to flee the devastating effects of war in their homeland. It was an inescapable image in the summer of 2015 that brought people all over the globe face to face with the disconnect between their comfortable lives and the incalculable anguish of others that often passes by under our radar. Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death seemed to distill all of the world’s injustices into a single event that was impossible to reverse.
For Anoushka Shankar, the acclaimed sitarist and composer, seeing that image was a profoundly disturbing experience. “First, there was the basic truth that the world continues to go through a huge upheaval and the number of people who are affected is just shocking. It is so horrific that one can’t escape the fact that it is going on. The contrast between my good fortune and growing up in a multicultural way is something that I take for granted. I am able to travel around the world as I please. I grew up on three continents. By virtue of the passport I have and where I happened to be born, all of that is available to me. The idea that some people can have that while it is denied to others feels really fundamentally wrong. The emotional connect came in because during the time that all of this was unfolding, I had just given birth to my second child, which is, of course, a really emotional, profound, and vulnerable time. So, to watch news images of children suffering and their parents trying to give them safety and shelter, in contrast to me, who by virtue of where I was born, made me aware of a contrast that had never felt so stark before.”
When the Syrian exodus first hit the news, Shankar was in the studio recording new music for an album that had not yet taken shape or found its direction. Shankar explains, “At the beginning of recording Land of Gold I wasn’t specifically setting out to write an album that expressed a political theme. But, as musicians, we are not immune to what’s going on in the outside world and the situation began to permeate everything we were doing and seep into our days in the studio together.”
Land of Gold was an immediate critical success when it was released in 2016. Through a series of tracks that blend Indian classical music with polyrhythms, poetry, and hip-hop (“Jump In,” featuring the Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. on vocals, is one of Land of Gold’s strongest tracks), it is one of those rare albums that expresses the need to take action without sacrificing artistic integrity in favor of sloganeering. With its compelling messages and innovative music, Land of Gold stands out as the most accomplished release of Shankar’s already very successful career, and it’s already proven to have relevance long past its release date.
President Trump’s actions and rhetoric against refugees and the detention and separation of immigrants from their children at the US southern border has motivated her to tour Land of Gold again, after playing the album in its entirety over one hundred times in dozens of countries.
This month, she and her band will perform seven concerts in the US to raise awareness and money for refugees. The shows will offer attendees the opportunity to support www.helprefugees.org, an organization that provides concrete aid and necessities for people suffering dislocation and forced migration.
“Sadly, it’s still relevant,” Shankar said of the songs from her home in London, during a break from rehearsals for the tour. “We have toured the album before in America. In the spring of 2016, we played throughout the East Coast and into Canada. It was during that tour that Trump made his first public statements about building a wall separating America from Mexico. Those outrageous statements inserted themselves in my memory to the extent that the song ‘Dissolving Boundaries’ changed and became about dissolving that giant wall. I wasn’t conceiving of just a physical wall, of course, but the wall that we build to separate ourselves from one another. When we first wrote the track, it was in reaction to all of the videos of hordes of people crossing borders together we’d been watching throughout the summer of 2015. We tried to capture the brief triumphant moments that emerged amidst all of the horrible moments.”
Shankar is too sophisticated an artist and human being to lay the blame for the current situation solely at Trump’s feet, tempting as that may be. “I left America eight years ago to come to live in London again. I could feel that America really changed after 9/11, so London became my haven, especially with all the intolerance that I was seeing in India. Sadly, India wasn’t really an option for me, but in the last few years I’ve also become worried about London with Brexit and the intolerance I was seeing spread there. Such attitudes don’t arise overnight, of course. It’s a multilayered process of dehumanization that brings people to a place where they can view suffering people as somehow ‘other’ or ‘outside’ of themselves.
“So, when I began to read some people’s responses to the terrible events of 2015, exemplified by the photo of Aylan Kurdi, it broke my heart as both a mother and a human being to read some of the comments related to the situation. It broke my heart to read how people thought it was okay to jeer at people and insult them based on where they were from. It’s incomprehensible to me.” Pausing to collect herself, Shankar offered, “We are living in really unstable times and it’s easy to get caught up in it all.”
When asked if the believes of her father, Ravi Shankar, inspired her current activism, Anoushka proudly reflected that the Concert For Bangladesh event he organized with George Harrison in the summer of 1971 remains the blueprint for benefit concerts the world over. Featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Leon Russell, the event and the subsequent film and live album raised millions of dollars to help people in Bangladesh who were suffering the effects of displacement and war.
But there was something even more important she learned from him, she said. “My father was always careful to draw a line between humanitarianism and politics. One does not have to share political views to believe that separating children from their families is wrong. That’s something borne out by the current non-denominational reaction to Trump’s policies.”
As moved as she is by the current situation, Shankar is not touring Land of Gold again as a way to agitate the masses or assign blame. “I’m not a politician or an expert on the refugee crisis. I’m just someone who feels strongly, and I’m not specifically trying to provoke discourse. In the more than one hundred times I’ve performed this music, I have had only one person get visibly angry at a show. He stood up and shouted ‘Go back where you came from.’ I told him that I was ‘from here’ and that I grew up in America.” She was unfazed by this confrontation and graciously offered, “In a sense, I understand that when people buy a concert ticket they want to hear music, and that it’s different than if I was asked to contribute to a political panel.”
It may just be that, as Bob Marley once sang, music is a stronger weapon against the forces of ignorance than politics could ever be. Shankar concurs: “Political discourse is filled with echo chambers where people don’t listen to each other and points are lost or distorted, so music can be useful. It has a way of sneaking through the back door and affecting people in a powerful way.”
“Political discourse is filled with echo chambers where people don’t listen to each other and points are lost or distorted, so music can be useful. It has a way of sneaking through the back door and affecting people in a powerful way.”
So, it would be a mistake to think if you came out to one of Shankar’s shows this July that you’d be treated to endless doom and gloom. “There is a level at which I was not done with Land of Gold musically,” she said. “I love the band and still engage a lot with the music, and this tour offers me an opportunity to play it again and perhaps do something useful for refugees who are suffering dislocation and hardship at the same time.”
As our conversation came to a close, Shankar re-emphasized that she is a musician foremost and nothing makes her happier than to be playing with her band when things really start to cook. “It’s in my nature that as dark as things get or as troubling as the things I express in my music are, that I can’t leave an album or end a concert on a bum note. If you listen to Land of Gold, it ends with ‘Reunion,’ a song about loved ones reuniting after a period of forced separation. I’m an optimist at heart, so that even when I get scared or feel really troubled, I’m hopeful. When I look around me, I’m seeing more activism than I’ve ever seen at any other point in my life now. Things like this move in cycles. At the bottom of everything, I’m filled with hope.”
Anoushka Shankar’s benefit concerts in aid of displaced people will be held at The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever (Los Angeles, CA: July 12, two back to back concerts), California WorldFest (Grass Valley, CA: July 13 & 14), Stern Grove Festival (San Francisco, CA: July 15), Dakota Jazz Club (Minneapolis, MN: July 16 & 17), Millennium Park (Chicago, IL: July 19), and Celebrate Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY: July 20).
You can learn more about how to support refugees at https://helprefugees.org