Concert Review: Anoushka Shankar

So I was sitting at a jazz club in Minneapolis watching Anoushka Shankar. Something about that is really kinda cool.

For those who have no idea who she is, Anoushka Shankar is Ravi Shankar’s daughter, and Nora Jones’ half-sister. Like her father, she is a virtuoso sitar player.

The sitar being one of the more insane musical instruments known to man. At first glance it seems like any other (really ancient) string instrument. In that it has strings, frets, tuning pegs and a resonance chamber. However, the resonance chamber is basically a hollow gourd, the frets are movable and there are over 20 strings. Most of them provide sympathetic resonance, and only a few (six or seven) are playable. Half of those are drone strings, and the rest are used for the melody. To top it off, there’s no standard tuning on the thing! They usually get tuned according to whatever piece is playing at the time.

Oh, and sitar pieces are usually 10-25 minutes long.

Being able to play the thing competently is an achievement in and of itself. Anoushka Shankar is one of (if not THE) best players in the world.

A few words about the venue before I go back to actually writing about the show.

The Dakota Jazz Club is an interesting concert venue. They usually feature, believe it or not, jazz acts. In recent years they’ve been expanding their horizons a bit, which is why I was able to see Nellie McKay (who is a BIT jazzy at times), Suzanne Vega (who’s not really jazz at all) and Judy Collins (a mainstay of folk) there over the past few years.

It’s basically a restaurant – during the show you get to sit at the restaurant tables/booths/bar, and the full menu is available. It’s a bit pricy and sadly very fish-heavy (though they’ve recently become accommodating to vegetarians). You can basically get dinner along with the show.

What I like most about it is that it’s not loud. I don’t know why concerts at ‘real’ venues, even small ones, tend to be so unbelievably loud. The Dakota is a very small place and they use the bare minimum of amplification. After all, it’d almost be possible to hear the music with NO amplification.

Being a small restaurant-ish place, you also get to sit pretty close to the action. We’ve gone to a couple of shows there where we literally had our feet on the stage.

They also seem to be pretty much OK with cameras. Most shows I’ve been to had people taking photos (with the flash on!) all night long. I hate being intrusive so I tend not to do that. Today I actually brought the REAL camera, which should be able to take decent photos without a flash (50mm f/1.4 lens, high ISO, this should be on the other blog).

And of course today they ask people to please not take photographs. I’d have tried to sneak some anyway, but it’s hard to be subtle with a huge camera. I did take one ‘photo’, and yeah, that’s it up in the corner. Great photo if you’re a ghost hunter.

Oh yeah, there was a concert in there somewhere, too.

The first thing you notice when Anoushka Shankar walks onto the stage is that she’s tiny. Really tiny. I had no idea. And sitars are HUGE, and played whilst sitting cross-legged (did I mention THAT up there?).

She had an ensemble of musicians playing other traditional Indian instruments. Two percussionists, a guy playing various flutes, and a guy playing a… uh. A drone instrument that’s very similar to a sitar (stop me if I’m getting too technical). They all got to feature their own solos (except for drone-guy) and were all amazingly talented musicians in their own right. The vocal percussion demonstration was especially impressive.

Anoushka was definitely headlining the thing, though. It’s always great to watch someone who’s just so good at something that they make it look easy, and this was no exception. Oh, another thing about the sitar, you play it while it’s basically facing away from you so you can’t actually see the strings or frets. Not that it really matters, since she had her eyes closed for a lot of it.

They played some of her own compositions, one of her father’s (though re-arranged by her), and a couple of traditional tunes.

One of her compositions was a collaboration she did with a flamenco pianist who’s name escapes me even though I was going to look him up when I got home. There was no piano in this show (The Dakota usually has a near-ubiquitous grand piano on stage, but sadly did not this time) so the composition was rearranged for the current group of instruments, and is apparently still evolving. It was very interesting to hear recognisable flamenco strands coming out of a sitar!

Another composition was a collaboration between Anoushka and the two percussionists. That was the one that had the vocal percussion. Vocal percussions is exactly what it sounds like, and yet it sounds nothing like you’d think. It was presented almost like a musical discussion between the two.

They played for a bit over an hour, and I think they only played five different pieces!

If you enjoy sitar music, or even if you’re not sure you do and are curious to find out, and this tour ends up anywhere near you, I highly recommend it. Or you can buy some of Anoushka Shankar’s CDs (her “Live At Carnegie Hall” album is my favourite). Or look her up on youtube!

Anoushka Shankar’s Official Website
The Dakota jazz Club’s website

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