Susheela Raman, born in London from Tamil parents, is almost a household name in France, but isn't as well known as she should be. That's partly because her consistently innovative records have tended to confuse her followers.
Basically, she hails from the movement of immigrant and second-generation musicians from the Indian subcontinent based in Britain, who perform a fusion of traditional and classical forms from their homeland with contemporary beats and dancehall tracks from Western Europe.
She began work on the idea of fusing Indian classical forms with more contemporary Western ones.
Her first album "Salt Rain
" from 2000, which looks more and more like a classic in retrospect, was tinged with jazziness, with some highly memorable tunes like "Ganapati" and "Maya", with an amusing take on "Trust in Me (The Python's Song)" from Disney's "The Jungle BookJungle Book 2 [DVD
It won her a fervent following, a BBC World Music Award and the love of the world music crowd.
Her next albums have veered from takes on Ethiopian pop in "Love Trap" to Dylanesque lyrics in English culminating in an adventurous album, "33 1/3
", of cover versions including "Like a Rolling Stone" and a wonderfully re-imagined version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Child", which usually makes for a delirious encore in her concerts.
The world music contingent was, in general, frankly baffled (other critics liked this album the best).
As one Indian journalist commented, "When you hear Carnatic with a bluesy treatment or a Lou Reed classic sounding like it originated from Chennai or the Mississippi Delta, you're in Susheela Country".
In India too, though, there seems to be a divided response to Susheela - from ecstatic approval from some who see her as the avatar of a new cultural re-arrangement to others who are outraged by both her lax use of spiritual texts, in their opinion, or a kind of jealousy that an outsider is leading the way into the modern world.
For the new album "Vel" (the Tamil for spear, Tamil Voodoo and Incantation), Susheela Raman had worked with Londoner and Rajasthan's Folk musicians to create a different sound which has got a blend of both English Rock and Indian music.
It documents her journey as a European with South Indian ancestry into the heartland of Tamil music.
Its main references are based on ancient Tamil religions and culture, marginalised and downplayed by the mainstream culture in India and an intense sort of rough post-punk sound with added Indian violin, played with passionate verve by Kumar Raghunathan and masterful percussion by long-time collaborator, tabla guru Arif Durvesh.
The post-punk elements are provided by Johnny Turnbull on bass, who used to be in the band 23 Skidoo with Sam Mills, Susheela's partner and producer, who plays guitar.
There are several singalong in-your-face uptempo pieces including the head banging prayer inspired by an ancient female saint "Daga Daga", which is the sound of cosmic union between Shakti and Shiva , and "Raise Up", both of which will have festival audiences entranced, and but also more lyrical tunes like "Orfea", a version of the Orpheus myth, and "Paal", a song about pilgrims climbing a mountain to make offerings to Lord Muruga, which shifts gear from downtempo atmospherics to Wagnerian semi-thrash.
Her supple voice combines the soul of a Joan Armatrading and the wildness of a P.J. Harvey, even at times the spiritual plugged-in power of an Abida Parveen .
With her trademark raw cry, she is well known for singing ancient devotional hymns with an insistent urgency. Every word and note is malleable, and she spares no opportunity to sculpt each with passion.
With the likes of fellow Indo-Brit pioneers like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney there is a feeling of artistic treading water.
With Susheela, though, she moves forward with the force of one of her beloved and fearsome South Indian goddesses, moving implacably into uncharted territory. Peter CulshawProphesyLove TrapMusic for CrocodilesTogether - Talvin Singh & Niladri Kumar