Susheela Raman as singer, composer and curator moves between genres, across frontiers into new spaces with uncanny ease. Born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, she is about release her seventh studio album (‘Ghost Gamelan') and is known for her beguiling and her incandescent and otherworldly stage presence . As the Guardian said Susheela is “wildly original, passionate and dangerous” . A song-driven artist, she has the rare ability to shape-shift from a Sanskrit Mantra to a Throbbing Gristle cover and to one her own borderless compositions, which vary from roots-infused melodic to twelve-tone and experimental. Though her music has sometimes been described as ‘World’, categorisation does sit easily with her and prefers to call it ‘unearthly’, which captures more of its magical and enigmatic character.
Susheela’s musical accomplice throughout her journey has been Sam Mills, a founder member of 80’s cult post-punk experimentalists 23 Skidoo. Perhaps the most ‘post-punk’ aspect of her music is its denial of restrictions and the emphasis on continuous change and evolution in her sound. Whilst driven to experiment, Susheela also never neglects her gift for delivering a melody straight to the heart. Susheela and Sam met in London in 1997 and have since created a string of ambitious cross-cultural works; albums and live projects often exploring different dimensions of South Asian music, whether classical, folk or contemporary. Musicians from South and South East Asia, West and East Africa, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa have all featured in their collaborations, including their own recent multi-artist creation, ‘Sacred Imaginations’ at the Barbican in 2017. Serious ongoing collaborations include Russian polyphonic singers, Byzantine chant, Indian folk and classical virtuosos, Contemporary string players, and Pakistan’s very finest Sufi Qawali singers.
Susheela’s iconoclastic take on her Indian roots bypassed the ingrained hierarchies of the classical music field as she forged her own approach to the tradition in which she was schooled when young. When she first performed in Chennai (Madras), The Hindu newspaper took half a page to denounce her for corrupting the classics; ‘dancing like a woman possessed by the devil’ and ‘misleading our youth into an alien hybrid culture’, despite their admiration for her voice! Nevertheless she has also earned huge popularity as well as notoriety in South India for her re- interpretation of songs from the ecstatic Bhakti tradition of South India, particular for her fission and fusion of these works with Sufi Qawali: A particularly Dionysiac performance in 2012 at the South Bank in London spawned 5-star reviews in the Guardian and the Financial Times as well as, more interestingly, viral videos on whatsapp shared numberless times amongst the South Indian diaspora. Bringing different audiences into juxtaposition, playing on multiple levels, is exactly how her music works.
Raman and Mills are now focussing strongly on their ‘Ghost Gamelan’ album, a work with gamelan players led by ‘kontemporer’ composer Gondrong Gunarto to be released globally in June on all formats by Naive Records /Believe Digital. Recorded in Surakarta and London with a unique, mercurial sonority which somehow succeeds in aligning Susheela’s own melodic, harmonic and lyrical gifts with the delirious microtonality and virtuosity of the Javanese Gamelan. As Susheela says “people underestimate the importance of Gamelan in all contemporary music; it has informed all smart music-makers from Debussy and Satie to John Cage, Miles Davis, Steve Reich and Sonic Youth. Its slippery DNA is on everything from Modal Jazz to EDM, so playing with the gamelan is more about connectedness than any kind of exoticism. Bringing a South Indian perspective to it also uncovers another kind of resonance.” The record also graced by one of her musical heroes, the fearlessly inventive This Heat drummer and singer Charles Hayward, a pathbreaker for many in the the avantgarde and experimental music world. Susheela has performed live with her ‘Ghost Gamelan Orchestra’ at Roundhouse, London and had performances scheduled later in 2018 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and at Peter Brooks Bouffes du Nord Theatre in Paris. She will meanwhile be performing the songs from the album live with a string quartet from the London-based Phaedra Ensemble in Paris in June.
Raman and Mills both feel this is a game-changing album for them. Says Raman “we have been getting incredible reaction for its sound and also for the songs themselves which the best we have ever written” With the new album coming out Susheela is looking forward to performing it around the world and to continuing her adventures in South East Asia, Europe, Australia and beyond. It is a thrilling new chapter in a unique musical journey.