Reaching as far back as the '60s the music of India has flavored western pop, but never as much in the US as in England, which, from a political perspective makes enormous sense, although from a musical viewpoint the Colonies have been the poorer for this. The most recent, and perhaps most enduring and popular wave of influence has been the ironically named Asian Underground. Begun in the late '80s and early '90s in London by expats and second generation Indians, the Underground incorporated influences from much of Southeast Asia, and rolled them into dense electronica, dance and trance music. An honest and captivating attempt to remain true to hereditary roots while opening those sounds, rhythms and viewpoints to a larger world, this movement has seen Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation, Joi, State of Bengal, Cornershop and others become recognizable on both the dance floor and the music charts. With Salt Rain, her first album, Susheela Raman attempts to fuse her Indian roots with more acoustic based music, but like her Underground predecessors, remains true to the music of her family.
Born in London and raised in Australia, Ramans Tamil background eventually led to a move to India to study Hindustani song and to receive a classical vocal education. Returning to England in the late '90s she met guitarist Sam Mills who had recorded previously with Bengali and West African musicians. Mills' varied background and the sound he achieved with both musical styles appealed to Raman who was looking to weave classical eighteenth century Indian song with modern sounds. The resulting album is a mix of Raman's India and Mills' West African sounds, with the two sharing composing credits on the three original works on the album as well as sharing the arrangements on five of the seven traditional Indian tunes (the other two songs are covers of English language songs). The remaining musicians on Salt Rain are from Europe, West Africa and India. The curry that these elements make combines all three musical cultures in a mesmerizing, largely acoustic sauce.
Using western instrumentation as a backdrop for the eastern melody and lyrics and, especially, the vocals of Ramen, the opening track "Ganapati" is the perfect example of how Ramen and Mills mix cultures while retaining the integrity of the constituent parts. A meditation on the Hindu G-d Ganapati (more commonly referred to as Ganesh), this arrangement of a traditional song builds a mesmerizing drone that climaxes in an ecstatic wash of strings and cymbals and then winds down to a peaceful surrender. A stunning song, "Ganapati" is also the best track on the album. "Mahima", another traditional song, is a plea for guidance from above in walking the paths of truth and is built around a swaying, deep and meditative groove while "Bolo Bolo" (an original song) is a chant built on a beautiful and subtly complex rhythm. "Kamakshi" is yet another standout track and is the most intricate use of Raman's rich and lovely voice. This song employs a droning cello and snaky clarinet mix to highlight the otherworldliness of the vocal line. Not surprisingly the weakest tracks on the album are the English ones. The remake of "Trust In Me", from Disney's The Jungle Book is well done but obvious, and Woman is even more banal. That said the concluding track, "Song to the Siren", is both the most conventional tune and the best English song on the album. In all, there is much here to be grateful for and interested in. Raman is an artist to keep an eye on, both for this album and for what she will do in the future.
Sound Quality: 90