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Ambition realized

Breathing Under Water
Breathing Under Water
By Anoushka Shankar / Karsh Kale

Manhattan Records: 2007

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This review first appeared in Turbula in October 2007.

Encinitas' Anoushka Shankar, daughter and artistic heir to the legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, ventured a bit beyond Indian classical music on her 2005 album, "Rise." While that world beat album was still on EMI's classical imprint, Angel (where her first three, classical Indian albums were also released), her latest album, recorded with fellow Indian-American Karsh Kale, has been moved over to EMI's contemporary and fusion jazz subsidiary, Manhattan.

It's more than a marketing move – the music on her new album moves far afield from both the Indian classical tradition she was raised in and the somewhat timid world beat explorations of "Rise."

If "Rise" was a toe in the water of synthesizing her Indian heritage with Western pop forms, then "Breathing Under Water" is Shankar holding her nose and jumping right in the biggest wave she could find. It's a bold, confident vision melding Indian, jazz, electronica, Latin and other influences, and one that is successfully realized more often than not.

Two of the best examples of that vision's fruition come on the two tracks featuring Sting and Shankar's half-sister Norah Jones on vocals. Sting's warm, jazz-tinged vocal on "Sea Dreamer" reminds of his outstanding work in the 1990s on jazz composer Kip Hanrahan's albums, while Jones (who co-wrote "Easy" with Shankar and Kale) caresses her lyrics in her patented style. In each case, the song sounds like a Sting or Norah Jones tune, except that here each is backed with sitar and tabla – world-class sitar and tabla by Shankar and Kale. It is the equivalent of having Eric Clapton and Charlie Watts sitting behind you.

The remaining tracks contain both instrumental performances, and guest peformances by other, lesser known singers (Sunidhi Chauhan, Noah Lembersky, Shankar Mahadevan). The styles range from sleek Euro pop ("Burn") through an Indian/Afro-pop stew ("Ghost Story") to trance ("Slither") and symphonic new age ("Little Glass Folk"). And there are two tracks co-written by Anoushka and her father on which he sits in on sitar, "Oceanic" parts 1 and 2, that are purely in the Indian classical idiom.

Outside jazz's John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg, there have been few successes in bridging the distinctive traditions of Indian music with western forms. But Shankar, daughter and student of one of India's greatest musicians but raised in Southern California, comes to the music from both directions at the same time. And so there is an utterly organic feel to this album, a holistic approach to this synthesis of East and West.

As ambitious as this album is, and as successful as it is at finding common ground – and at creating fun, listenable music – it certainly seems that this is but the beginning of what should be a fascinating life's journey of musical exploration.