Anoushka Shankar hears Europe's refugees with sitar

Anoushka Shankar performs during the Premaanjali Festival 2012, a musical concert held at the Palace Grounds in Bangalore, India.
Anoushka Shankar performs during the Premaanjali Festival 2012, a musical concert held at the Palace Grounds in Bangalore, India.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Horrified by the suffering of the wave of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, the sitarist Anoushka Shankar has turned their plight into a musical journey.

Shankar, backed by collaborators including the actress Vanessa Redgrave and the rapper MIA, has offered an interpretation of Europe's migrant crisis on her latest album, Land of Gold.

Yet the album is as much a personal reflection as a political statement. Shankar recorded the album soon after giving birth to her second child, Mohan, at a time when a historic number of people were entering Europe from violence-wracked Syria and other troubled nations.

"That incongruence of sitting in the safety of my own home being able to provide for my baby while seeing hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the most horrific situations of war, and so often being denied the basic right to safety after unimaginable journeys, that just felt so utterly heartbreaking," Shankar said in New York as she started her global tour.

"Music is for me at least a way of responding to the world and processing my feelings, not always consciously," she said.

The 34-year-old five-time Grammy nominee is the daughter of Ravi Shankar, the late Indian maestro who introduced classical sitar to a Western audience.

Born in London, where she now lives, she was raised largely in Southern California with lengthy stints in India - a cross-cultural background that gave her even more of a connection to the migration issue.

"It's a bit like a really scary lottery," she said of her upbringing.

"I have the fortune of living in freedom and being able to grow up across cultures," she said. "My life is certainly a product of that. I believe in a cross-cultural world where we can respect each other and live with each other.

"It sounds crazy to even have to say that."

Much as in classical Western music, traditional sitar pieces are by definition more abstract with no lyricism to hammer home messages.

Yet Shankar, no stranger to fusion, also decided on more direct references on "Land of Gold," which was released on April 1.

MIA and Redgrave, both known for political advocacy, each come in for one track, while longtime Bjork producer Matt Robertson offers further immediacy through a subtle electronic layer.

Redgrave recites a verse by the Los Angeles-based Indian-Fijian poet Pavana Reddy, whom Shankar discovered on Instagram.

"Her feet are two split continents / Her heart is the map of the world," Redgrave intones in her Shakespearean voice against a backdrop of a yoga chant.

Dissolving Boundaries is set to a multilingual mishmash of newscasts on the refugee crisis from across Europe.

The title track on Land of Gold takes on a faintly Celtic touch through the airy voice of Alev Lenz, a German singer of Turkish origin - a heritage that is unusually relevant to the project.

Yet the album culminates not with the violence of the crisis but with a hint of sweetness on Reunion, with a hopeful, mellifluous sitar complemented by piano chords.

She also worked on the album with her husband, Joe Wright, the British director whose films include the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, whom she credited with offering a vital creative eye.

"For him it was so much less about technique and form and so much more about story and energy and what we were able to convey through our playing," she said.

Shankar has responded musically to current events before, most notably on In Jyoti's Name - a tribute to 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, whose brutal gang rape on a New Delhi bus galvanized Indian society - off her 2013 album Traces of You.

Ravi Shankar tackled another massive humanitarian tragedy when he and Beatle George Harrison put together 1971 benefit concerts in New York for refugees from Bangladesh, devastated by violence and a cyclone as it won independence from Pakistan.

The younger Shankar said that Land of Gold was less about outright advocacy but she said it could in an indirect way do good.

"If it connects with other people who feel the same way I do," she said, "that is part of the solution as well."