Music for Reptiles
Susheela Raman Charms a New Species
By Derek Beres

The quest for identity has proven arduous with little guarantee. Much of what we consider permanent – hallowed ground, ancestral lineage, religious certainty, definitive melanin – is ultimately revealed transitory. Given the population explosion of the last two centuries, this is no surprise: 300,000 or so years into this human life, we hit one billion, circa 1825; the second billion arrived one century later, in 1927; by 1960 we hit three, and have doubled that number since. The only defining quality of modernity appears to be a penchant for rapid reproduction.

So what to hold onto in 2006? Cultural exchange and technological dissemination blurs the dividing lines of culture. With so many people populating, we’re still centuries away from an unassimilated assimilation. Yet the more we intermix, cross-pollinate and create an imagination of multiethnic utopias, the less distinction any single country will hold and the more emphasis we can place on the human connection: passion, artistic ambition, divine connection. All of these quizzical conundrums are offered across Susheela Raman’s prior releases, Salt Rain and Love Trap. On her third, Music for Crocodiles (Narada), what’s basic seems simpler, making this extremely honest record even more accessible to broad audiences.

The initial argument in such a thesis would seem her turn, or return, to English. While the language made guest appearances prior, here it is the dominant tongue. This does not turn her bluesy renditions of folkloric Indian songs to pop; ironically, this is her fullest, most diverse album. Whereas she has sold hundreds of thousands of records by translating and twisting Carnatic devotional music into a pentatonic palate layered with West African rhythmic structures, Music for Crocodiles finds Raman exposing her innermost depths across a very natural fusion of English, Indian and African instrumentation. And depth is something she knows well.

"I’m taking this repertoire that has a life of its own and exists in the consciousness as a sort of entity," she says. "I’m taking that but I’m also playing with it, changing the context and meaning, which some people find disturbing. ‘Sharavana’ [a South Indian song dedicated to the deity Muruga] is quite embedded in the cultural brickwork. At a concert we performed in Madras, people were really shocked by our interpretation. It’s an old Tamil song; the way it was sung was very quiet with an intense rhythm, and people were shocked by the way we played it."

A few months back I came across a classical Indian blog claiming performers like Raman "ruin" the tradition they cling to. It’s an unfortunate, though not surprising, statement. The static quality of classical tradition – an invocation of Edenic ideals, really – stifles growth outside narrow boundaries. For anyone who has witnessed Raman live, or heard the utterly gorgeous, at times heartbreaking quality of her voice, reflected brilliantly by guitarist Sam Mills’ intricate knowledge of Western blues and African idioms, the problem of purity never arises. It’s something you immediately feel, no thought, speculation or philosophical backgammon necessary.

In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, economic professor Richard Florida defines regions by "audio identity." In this forward-thinking treatise he notes that, alongside occupational options, public safety and overall hipness, an important factor in urban areas is the music scene. "Music in fact plays a central role in the creation of identity and the formation of real communities," he writes. This has always been the case of folk and regional music – it is often how we experience each other before we meet that other. We may not be familiar with Tamil, but when we hear Raman perform sonic bhakti to the elephant-headed protector Ganesha on "Ganapati" from Salt Rain, or entwine with the destructive creator Siva on Love Trap’s "Amba," we feel inspired, exalted, elated. She has, essentially, defined an unassailable identity by partaking in her surroundings and creating anew.

And just look at her immediate surroundings – this band of nimble athletes is no mere social makeshift. Mills’ British-trained guitar acumen is extensive; he can ably jump time signatures and sign his heartfelt scripture on any song. Percussionist Djanunu Dabo, who heads up the Guinea-Bissau-based Tama, injects African cadence. Hilaire Penda of Cameroon adds stellar low-end against the guitar. Tabla player Aref Durvsh – an extensively traveled and tried, and truly unique individual – keeps the trad Indian flavor alive. After utilizing the dexterous drums of former Fela Kuti bandleader Tony Allen, American kit player Marque Gilmore holds down the backend on Crocodiles. This polyrhythmic, multi-syllabic paragraph is as broad as the record itself – and, as you will hear, as sonically pleasing.

Even with the diverse roster, Music For Crocodiles proved spontaneous. "This is exactly where we were at that particular time. What happened post-Love Trap, we toured a bit but ended up having a bit of time off. We went to Brazil, Madras, and had a lot of time to work on things. With Love Trap it wasn’t like that. We had very limited time; we went from touring to the studio. When you have time, you have more chance of being inspired and to focus on lyrics. This was really coming out during the sessions."

The 13 songs (well, 10 songs and three musical interludes) arising were well worthwhile: patient, articulate and emotionally plaintive, Raman sounds more exposed, as well as more comfortable with being exposed. Lyrically the record is page after page of well-kept journal monologues. The poetic grandeur of "What Silence Said" and "Light Years" is mournfully uplifting. Add in Indian violin and veena – an ironic addition, as these cinematic overtures are new to Raman’s repertoire – playfully weaving within Mills’ guitar work, and classical elements build dutifully inside the acoustic backdrop.

"The Same Song," perhaps Crocodiles’s most minimalist, recalls past successes of such quietude: the sultry, sensuous dive of "Mahima," as well as the chilling "AB-I Beka," a collaboration with Turkish ney player/DJ Mercan Dede from his Su. A tabla-led track, with light flourishes of guitar effects and a roving bass line, Raman flexes autumnal speculation in her subdued tirade:

"Autumn leaves like discarded dreams/Underneath a tide of callous feet/Its the same song playing everywhere I go/Its like an army marching right through me/Nowhere to go but the horizon/Where then will I call my home?"

Outside of English and Tamil, Raman performs her first song in French. "L’ame Volatile" is the band’s take on Afghani poet Barmak Akram’s work. Having stayed in his house, Akram read to them; weeks later, in the studio, the melody stuck in their minds. "The rhythm is very hypnotic, especially the way he recites it." Sung in her trademark breathy style, Raman proves her versatility in any language. Given her biggest fanbase to date is in France, the move should prove fruitful.

For those craving the reinterpreted classics Raman carved her niche creating, "Sharavana" fills the order. As mentioned, it is a Tamil rendering of the god Muruga. His legend is penned in the Skanda Purana: known as the second child of Siva and Parvarti (the first being Ganesha), Muruga is the most important deity to the Tamil Nadu. His name roughly translates to "beauty," and he is an auspicious being of great austerity and discipline. In the south he is referred to as Tamizh Kadavul (God of the Tamil), and is a match in worship to deities like Krishna in the north.

Interestingly, one of the main functions of deity worship in India – bhakti, devotion, expressed through repetitious chanting that lulls the participant into trance – is absent in the astute upper class. Trance is often seen as a lower caste idea – look at the difference between American Christian worship "proper," in which prayer services include monotone hymns and no ecstasy, and the electricity of southern gospel, where attendees fall into rapturous bliss through song. Kirtan (chanting), the vehicle of Indian devotional music, belongs to the latter.

Alas, recorded music and elitist strongholds propel definitive folk versions to the forefront, making certain artists and particular presentations the "accepted" catalog. While Raman only has four to eight minutes on record, her live shows stretch those boundaries; the lively pace of her band finds hypnotic grooves she shamanically prances upon. To witness her in action is to see possessed wizardry in all its brutal, and beautiful, glory. The lines between angelic and demonic dissolve; her sensuality and sinisterism toy with purity. In short, her music is, in every sense of the word, divine.

"The distinction with trance and the classical tradition is quite linear. Carnatic music is very mathematical – the people who do trance are low caste people. It’s considered a jungle mentality if you want to do that sort of thing. When they play Carnatic music, no one ever stays on a groove; it will last two bars and that’s the end of it. What was disturbing to the people in Madras was that our approach was quite trance-like. To create real trance, and to take a repertoire drawn from the classical tradition, was not in any way what they expected."

"The root-meaning of that word individual means ‘indivisible,’" said the great philosopher Krishnamurti. "A human being who is in himself not divided, not fragmented, is really an individual." There is no difference between how we define ourselves and who we are. That is, our definition is ourselves, if we choose to define. Parameters are algebraic wordplays – by assigning this idea, affixing that god, to the notion of who we are is the box surrounding flesh. Inside that box – if we so choose to be expansive – we can create a world of identity. We take the world and become it, fully.

Perhaps this seems a little demanding from a simple album. Yet music is no simple subject, and the emotion music provokes not simply glossed over. Susheela Raman is an important purveyor of the classical Indian tradition, while fully conscious of her British – and, for years during youth, Australian – upbringing. Her citizenry is not defined geographically, so neither should she be stifled sonically. Music For Crocodiles is her testament to this residency. And make no mistake, regardless of credo or ablution, prayer or hometown, you’ll find a piece of yourself within its 54 minutes.

"When things are symbols its easy to add to them. They’re not too structured. Indian classical music would never be able to travel like that. Maybe the gypsies were more folk, but they extended themselves beyond that culture. Once you go really far into it, it’s hard to not be rooted in a tradition. You end up becoming an ambassador for that tradition. You’re contributing to the reproduction of the tradition – you become a vehicle for the tradition to express itself."

Susheela Raman’s tradition is the future of global-influenced artists joining the fragments of 10,000 years of organized culture. As Florida points out, "Eclecticism in the form of cultural intermixing, when done right, can be a powerful creative stimulus." For eons travelers have traversed geographic nuances and social mores, fitting themselves like bendable jigsaws into new territory. There is nothing uncertain here – simply take the epic journey of Indian gypsies, through Persia to Spain and the creation of flamenco, through the Balkans into Eastern Europe and high-energy brass work. Along the way they serve as wandering archivists, collecting pieces of this and that in the formation of identity. Their open-minded indivisibility – the shocking threat to the Madras elite – is their greatest strength.

Perhaps that’s why Raman and crew have turned to reptilian life for this extensive record. After a journey south of Madras, seeing hundreds of crocs roaming the watery farm, inspiration hit. Cold-blooded, in a different light, is adaptability. Mammalian range is limited; reptiles are more suitable to diverse environments. Weathering storms is second nature – they accustom themselves to surroundings, instead of eagerly altering the landscape. Leave the snakes to wild-eyed opportunists and stubborn fundamentalists; Susheela Raman has a charm all her own.

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