PHOTO: Jeff Kravitz / Contributor
Arooj Aftab's "Mohabbat" Wins Best Global Music Performance | 2022 GRAMMYs
Arooj Aftab's "Mohabbat" wins Best Global Music Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs. Aftab is the first Pakistani woman to win a GRAMMY and is also nominated for Best New Artist.
Arooj Aftab won the GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance for "Mohabbat" at the 2022 GRAMMYs; she is the first artist to win in the new category. This is the composer’s first GRAMMY win of the 2022 GRAMMYs, and of their career. Aftab, who is the first Pakistani woman to be nominated for a GRAMMY, is also up for Best New Artist.
"I feel like this category in of itself has been insane… it should this be called yacht party category,” Aftab said onstage at the 64th GRAMMY Awards. “I made [this record] about everything that broke me and put me back together. Thank you for listening to it and making it yours."
Angelique Kidjo and Burna Boy, Femi Kuti, Yo-Yo Ma with Angelique Kidjo, and Wizkid ft. Tems were the other nominees in the prestigious category.
Check out the complete list of winners and nominees at the 2022 GRAMMYs.
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse
When these three came together to make impressionistic, genreless, meditative music, they rose to support and bolster each other — and the result is 'Love in Exile,' a work of quiet integrity that exudes friendship and otherworldly beauty.
When Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily stepped into a New York City studio to record their first trio album, they did so with nearly nonexistent advance preparation.
Which is borderline axiomatic, as all three musicians hail from improvisatory spaces.
Aftab, a GRAMMY-winning Urdu vocalist, has been clear about improvisation's importance to her work. Genre-spanning pianist and composer Iyer has forged a legacy throughout the creative-music space, including in what we tend to designate as jazz. As for bassist and Moog synthesist Ismaily, his sheer versatility and range in that realm is staggering.
Still, did the music the three made together count as improvisation? Not so fast, says Iyer.
"I don't even think that 'improvisation' is the right word for it, because it's actually just co-composition in real time," the pianist — also a Harvard professor — tells GRAMMY.com. "It's not taking solos or something. It's really like, OK, well, this is what the song is. Whatever's happening now, this is the song. So, what should happen next in the song?
Read More: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album Vulture Prince, The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care
That sovereignty of the now — and of each other — governs their new album, Love in Exile, the fruitage of this triangulation that arrives on Mar. 24. Together, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily seem to slow time; the sound of tracks like "To Remain/To Return," "Eyes of the Endless" and "Sharabi" is capacious but never diffuse, abstract but never aimless.
Aftab's frequently described as "ethereal," but that doesn't really do her justice; despite the transportive nature of her natural instrument, she sounds steadfast, planted to the earth. On piano and Rhodes, Iyer adds tremulous textures that never intrude; they always buoy and support. The resounding heartbeat of Ismaily's bass will wham you in the solar plexus.
If any of this sounds a touch self-serious, the music sounds as natural as breath. And in conversation, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily have an easy rapport and are quick to laughter.
Will they make more albums? Nobody's raring to prognosticate. "I love them," Ismaily says of his accompanists — in this sphere of ambient, drone, experimental, or whatever on earth you call it. "I love spending time with them, and for that reason alone, I hope that there is more time that I share with them.”
With the album release mere hours away and a tour coming up, read on for an in-depth conversation with these leading lights about the making of Love in Exile, the confluence of their experiences and expertises, and why they could make 50 more albums — or zero.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you three creatively triangulate in the first place?
Aftab: I met Vijay at Merkin Hall in New York. I was invited to play a set before his set. He was doing this special collab: that was Thums Up with [Das Racist MC] Himanshu Suri [a.k.a. Heems], [rapper and drummer] Kassa Overall, and <a href="https://www.grammy.com/news/meet-son-lux-composer-trio-behind-everything-everywhere-all-at-once-movie">[Son Lux guitarist] Rafiq [Bhatia] as well.
I knew Vijay and his music from before, and I had always been like, "Wow, this guy, he is amazing." So, meeting him, I was a little, for sure, intimidated. Not intimidated, but definitely like, "Oh s—, it's Vijay."
But we did a little collab that night — just an impromptu, kind of improv thing — and it felt really great. I was so surprised that it was so easy and so beautiful and so musical. You don't expect that just happening, you know? You have to work hard to find that sort of musical collaborator.
And Shahzad: I had been told lots here and there in New York, "Hey, do you know Shahzad?"
Ismaily: [Singer/songwriter, rapper and bassist] Meshell Ndegeocello gave me [your record Bird Under Water] before I met you. She was like, "Hey, I think I'm going to be working with this person." So, she gave me that, and then I was obsessively listening to it for a while.
Aftab: Yeah, she connected us, basically. Meshell was going to produce Vulture Prince, before we even knew what it was — before we knew anything at all. But then she got busy, and then I produced it myself. But one of the things that she did was, like, "Hey, if you want to record in Brooklyn, there's this guy, Shahzad, who has this studio."
And I was like: Shahzad — this guy Shahzad again!
Iyer: I met this being named Shahzad pretty early after he moved to New York through [drummer and composer] Qasim Naqvi, who brought him into a Burnt Sugar situation. So, I was one of the OGs of Burnt Sugar, the band that [late writer, musician and producer] Greg Tate formed.
We would do these kinds of very open, improvised shows, or not even. It would really just be whatever happened, we would make something out of it. And that was where Shahzad started showing up and playing. It always just seemed like I never knew what he was going to play. One day, it might be drums. Another day, it might be acoustic guitar. So, he was this wild card.
And then we didn't really have a lot of chances to do anything together outside of that, until I finally called [Shahzad] and said, "Hey, can you do this thing with me and Arooj at [NYC avant-garde performance space] the Kitchen? That was in June of 2018. But I was certainly aware of Shahzad for eons.
What was the nature of the first music you made together? What mutual artistic groove did you all settle into?
Ismaily: It was truly an immediate, spontaneous listening response to what each of us were giving to each other in that moment.
Whether it was Vijay dropping a chord on the piano, and me putting my ear to the bass and trying to figure out, OK, where is he? Therefore, what will I play right now? Or, I may have started with a pulse on the bass and then Vijay came in, and then Arooj came in when she did. It was really the chemistry of who we were in the moment, and then it stayed there.
Iyer: I think it mattered that it was live.It was actually just like, OK, we've got to commit to this second. There's no do-overs here. This is a show. And I think that put us in the frame of mind of: OK, everything that happens is correct, is right. Everything that happens is meant to happen. So then, we just sort of aided that process, and it came through us.
Once your live dynamic as a trio was established, how did you go on to establish artistic parameters in the studio? How would you describe the ratio of improvisation versus previously written material?
Iyer: I think the method has always been co-construction. And since we committed to that from literally note one, or sound zero, at the first show five years ago, it's never not been that.
Aftab: I think there were definitely some soaring moments that we felt from the previous six gigs that we played before we went into the studio, but we never really wrote anything down or planned a structure. I definitely remember that even the first time we did it, we were dared to do it, really. There was a lot of super-hardcore listening and trust that was happening.
I was trusting where I thought I should come in. You know how you're like, Oh, I don't want to step on this person's toes? If it's not planned, you don't really know what the f— is going to happen. Or, If you're coming in, are you actually interrupting someone's thought? or whatever. But there was so much unspoken trust and communication between the three of us, anyway, and there was just such a great language of listening and playing happening.
Sometimes what happens is that when I start singing, everybody sort of steps back to give me space. And I hate that, because I'm just like: I am going to go with you guys. Don't make a clearing for me. It's boring now, because it's just me here alone. Play with me.
And they never backed away, and it was amazing. They have so much more than I do in terms of experience and wisdom in being musicians, and I think that every entry and exit point is coming from that — that experience that we carry as composers and musicians in our own right.
So, it's not prepared, but it is coming from [that]. It is a learned thing, and it is a skill, definitely, that's being applied there, that is a very difficult one — which is trust, intuition, listening, and basically being creative in that sense.
Ismaily: When we went into a studio after a few performances, I still felt an equal amount of gravity and focus as when we were playing live. So, I didn't have much of a different experience between the two.
Iyer: Yeah, it was basically that we learned from our live experiences how the music should go.
Arooj, I remember reading a quote from you about how you were more focused on the sound of your words than their literal meaning. What was your approach to choosing words in that regard — aurally, or even orally, as per open and resonant syllables?
Aftab: Yes, you're correct. The approach here was definitely to pretend to be an instrument, as well, to whatever extent that is possible as a vocalist.
I feel like there's this kind of idea that sometimes, vocalists are like, Yeah, I want the vocals to be an instrument, but to some degree, that's just not possible because it's not the same. You need vowels and stuff, and you need words to really get things going. Sometimes, the words are the instrument too. They're actually the keys sometimes.
So, I had fragments of poetry. Some of it's from Vulture Prince. Some of it's from Bird Under Water. And then, some of it's completely new stuff that I'd been thinking about. But I chose it based on the mood of where I thought the songs were going musically.
It's not entirely disjointed, but in terms of my intentional approach, it's not meant to be the focus. It's not meant to be the song. It's not meant to tell the story. I think I wanted the three of us to be telling the story — not just me, the singer. So, in that way, my intention was for it to be less intentional of an approach.
But of course, it's subtle. The listener and listen and be like: There's a vocalist, and bass player, and piano player, and it's a song. But, if you see, also, I'm not there 90% of the time. There's long sections where I'm not there.
So, I was interested in f—ing with this thing. The role of the vocalist and the lyrics and the storytelling, and how we can equalize the thing, for real. I'm still really inspired by it and playing with it. As you can see, I'm even messing it up in my own language of how to describe it. But it's fun, and it's great.
But the tone of the music itself: in a lot of the pieces, Vijay would start, and then it would definitely be something that I'd think of how it's making me feel, and go from there. Is it a theme of spring? Is it a theme of longing? Is it a theme of super-absolute despair? Is it feeling like: should I take it to a more hopeful place? That kind of stuff was all going on there.
Vijay, can you describe your pianistic approach to this music, perhaps as opposed to other music you're involved with?
Iyer: You know, what I think I was able to do inside of the music was focus on unity rather than focus on standing out as a pianist. So, really, all the choices are compositional rather than playerly or musicianly. I'm really never trying to grandstand at all, or say, Check this out. It's never that.
It's always more like, How do we hold each other together, and how do we keep it moving, and how do we build it? How do we sculpt the totality of this? So, all the choices I make are about that. It's not about piano stuff or keyboard stuff.
Sometimes, having the piano, the Rhodes, and various electronic things I'm doing gives me an expanded palette — a certain way to think compositionally. Even if it's just setting a certain tempo using the delay pedal on the Rhodes, so that then I can just play one note and I'm still in the song somehow. The pattern is kind of in line with what else is happening with Shahzad or something.
So, [it's] that kind of thing, where it's really constructive decisions about how to strengthen what's already here. How to offer something that others can strengthen. It's that kind of thing.
I just listened to Love in Exile on a terrific sound system, and I felt the pulse of your bass so powerfully in my chest. In my last interview with Vijay, he was talking about the primacy of the pulse, and I imagine you all feel the same way.
Ismaily: So, Vijay and Arooj and I have certainly had a plethora of experiences in music outside of this trio — playing with other people, playing in other contexts. And then many of those things make their mark on us, and then we bring that sense of personage into this trio.
I remember quite early on, when I began to play with [guitarist] Marc Ribot and [drummer] Ches Smith in this trio that we had. Marc would often say, sometimes somewhat aggressively: "Listen: rubato does not mean there's no pulse. If you start to hear me play in a free, nontraditional, non-chord-changes, rhythmic way, it does not mean I'm not feeling a pulse underneath that.
Marc Ribot had a very anti-languid, or lack-of-tension feeling about ambient spaces. He felt like when something ambient is taking place, you still viscerally feel the heartbeat of a pulse within that. Whether or not you indicate it, whether you only play a drone, you still feel a sense of time and connection with a rhythmic undertone.
That's one thing that flows into my positioning in this group. So, as things are taking place and Vijay is making a beautiful landscape and Arooj comes in with a few words, I'm still feeling a pulse, and then I start to play from that — whether I'm indicating it quite strongly and giving some sort of 5/4 doot-do, doot-do, or whether I'm still playing much longer phrases, but feeling an internal pulse within that.
The second thing is that I want to give a little shout-out to Badawi — [multi-instrumentalist and composer] Raz Mesinai, who I played with. He would call me in to play bass with him and suggest that I play in a hypnotic way, so that you just felt like your consciousness was unfolding across the desert — unfolding across a limitless landscape of sand dune after sand dune. Which feels the same, but you still feel movement and the subtlety of change.
These two threads of exterior experiences to this trio make their presence known as I'm sitting and playing with Vijay and Arooj.
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
After these album and touring cycles wind down, are there any concrete plans to make this particular configuration a going concern? And as an addendum to that, what would you like to tell the readers about anything else you're excited to be working on in 2023 and beyond?
Ismaily: It's been interesting to be doing press these last few days, because I often spend time with Arooj and Vijay just performing on stage, and not with a great deal of frequency. Over the last few days, here I am in a room with them, listening to them speak, sharing company with them.
Whatever comes — it may take place, it may not take place. I can get hit by a bus, so who knows? But, internally to myself, I have that feeling. And because I have that feeling, I will probably request to look toward it, at least with my own eyes and my own time and my own voice and my hands.
There's this band, Ida, whose music I was absolutely in love with in the '90s when I was working on becoming and working as a musician. They went on a long hiatus, and it looks very much likely that they're going to make another record, and I will get to produce it or be a significant part of it with them. That's what I'm looking forward to outside of this trio.
Aftab: I'm really excited for the album to come out, and I'm excited to see people's reactions to it. We're going to go on the road a little bit this year, which is going to be great, and that will probably ascertain if we're going to keep doing this. It's really all about how we feel — if we're really into that for this particular project. No advanced decision-making here.
So, yeah, we're probably going to do one [more], or maybe we're never going to do one again. Who the f— knows, right? I love it. I think that's the vibe. There's no business model.
And since we are going to play a lot of these shows without writing down anything, there will be so much new material. So, we may as well put out 50 more albums after this tour.
Iyer: So we could be like the Dead?
Ismaily: Oh, let's get your Grateful Dead space where we just have a huge parking lot of crazy people all the time!
Aftab: And then, yeah, my boring answer that is everyone's answer is: yes, I'm working on a new record. My new album is supposed to come out in 2024. I just produced a short album for Anoushka Shankar, which is going to come out in the fall.
Iyer: I do have a couple of things that may or may not come out this year. We kind of have to figure out what's the best moment for those things to happen. One is a trio album with Tyshawn [Sorey] and Linda [May Han Oh]. I guess you could say the follow-up to Uneasy. It may come out at the end of this year, or beginning of next year sometime.
The other is that there's a recording of three different orchestral works that might come out sometime this summer, by Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
And then I have pieces I'm writing for different ensembles. A classical pianist named Shai Wosner — I'm writing a piece for him and a string orchestra. I'm doing a piece for Sō Percussion, and a piece for this pianist named Vicky Chow. And I wrote a cello concerto that got recorded that may come out sometime as well.
[As per the future of this trio,] I imagine that anytime we are invited somewhere and are able to do it, that we will rise to it. And I imagine that could happen at any point in the rest of our lives. That's the kind of guy I am.
Whether that means there's going to be a bunch more albums or zero more albums almost doesn't matter to me at this point. If there's more music that we cherish that we want to share with the world in that particular way and go through a similar cycle again, then that would make sense. But I think that we'll always have the capacity to come together and create. And so as long as that is nurtured, then I'm content, as far as that goes.
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album Uneasy, American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
The 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony To Feature Performances From Carlos Vives, Samara Joy, Madison Cunningham, Arooj Aftab & More; Presenters Include Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Malcolm-Jamal Warner & Others
Streaming live on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT on live.GRAMMY.com and the Recording Academy's YouTube channel, the 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony is where the majority of this year's 91 GRAMMY Awards categories will be awarded.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect additional performers and presenters.
Officially kicking off the 2023 GRAMMYs, the 65th GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony will return to the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles with a star-studded celebration of performers, presenters and awards. Taking place Sunday, Feb. 5, at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, just hours before Music's Biggest Night, the 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony will stream live on live.GRAMMY.com and on the Recording Academy's YouTube channel.
The beloved annual event, in which the majority of this year's 91 GRAMMY Awards categories will be awarded, will be hosted by current GRAMMY nominee Randy Rainbow and will feature an opening number performance by Blind Boys of Alabama, La Marisoul from La Santa Cecilia, and additional surprise performers. Other artists scheduled to perform include current nominees Arooj Aftab, Madison Cunningham, Samara Joy, Anoushka Shankar, Carlos Vives, Shoshana Bean, Maranda Curtis, Buddy Guy and Bob Mintzer.
Presenting the first GRAMMY Awards of the day include current nominees Judy Collins, Babyface, DOMi & JD BECK, Myles Frost, Arturo O'Farrill, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Amanda Gorman, and five-time GRAMMY winner and former Recording Academy Board of Trustees Chair Jimmy Jam. Recording Academy Chair of the Board of Trustees Tammy Hurt will provide opening remarks. Additional talent and co-host to be announced in the coming days.
This year, City National Bank has signed on as the first-ever presenting sponsor of the GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony.
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All Premiere Ceremony performers and hosts are current nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs, as are most presenters. Aftab is nominated for Best Global Music Performance ("Udhero Na" with Anoushka Shankar); Babyface is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance ("Keeps On Fallin'" with Ella Mai); Blind Boys of Alabama are nominated for Best Americana Performance ("The Message" with Black Violin); Cunningham is nominated for Best American Roots Performance ("Life According To Raechel") and Best Folk Album (Revealer); DOMi & JD BECK are up for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (NOT TiGHT); Frost is nominated for Best Musical Theater Album (MJ The Musical); Joy is nominated for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album (Linger Awhile); La Marisoul is up for Best Tropical Latin Album (Quiero Verte Feliz with La Santa Cecilia); O'Farrill is nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album (Fandango At The Wall In New York with The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra Featuring The Conga Patria Son Jarocho Collective); Rainbow is up for Best Comedy Album (A Little Brains, A Little Talent); Shankar is up for Best Global Music Performance ("Udhero Na" with Arooj Aftab) and Best Global Music Album (Between Us… (Live) with Metropole Orkest & Jules Buckley Featuring Manu Delago); Vives is nominated for Best Tropical Latin Album (Cumbiana II); Warner is nominated for Best Spoken Word Poetry Album (Hiding In Plain View); Bean is up for Best Musical Theater Album ("Mr. Saturday Night"); Curtis is nominated for Best Gospel Album (Die To Live); Guy is nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album (The Blues Don’t Lie); and Mintzer is up for Best Instrumental Jazz Album (Parallel Motion).
Read More: Where, What Channel & How To Watch The Full 2023 GRAMMYs
"We are so excited to kick off GRAMMY Sunday with the Premiere Ceremony ahead of Music's Biggest Night," Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. said. "Not only do we have an incredible lineup of presenters and performers, but this ceremony will also reveal the winners in the vast majority of our categories, celebrating this amazing year in music across many of our genre communities."
Following the Premiere Ceremony, the 2023 GRAMMYs will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET / 5-8:30 p.m. PT.
On GRAMMY Sunday, fans can access exclusive, behind-the-scenes GRAMMYs content, including performances, acceptance speeches, interviews from the GRAMMY Live red-carpet special, and more via the Recording Academy's digital experience on live.GRAMMY.com.
The Official 2023 GRAMMYs Playlist Is Here: Listen To 115 Songs By Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar & More
Photo courtesy of the Recording Academy
Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"
Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf showcases his improvisation skills in this instrumental performance of "Right Time," a hip-hop track from his latest album, 'Capacity To Love.'
Since the initiation of his solo career, Lebanese instrumentalist Ibrahim Maalouf has strived to diversify music with his trumpeting.
The musician found his start performing at international jazz and classical competitions. After quickly becoming one of the most decorated trumpeters, Maalouf began his career as a soloist, where he could transcend the bounds of traditional genres. His skillful, unique improvisation caught the attention of artists globally, including Afrobeats singer Angélique Kidjo.
Together, they released Queen of Sheba, which snagged Maalouf his very first GRAMMY nomination in the Best Global Music Album category at the 2023 GRAMMYs and made him the first Lebanese instrumentalist to be nominated in GRAMMY history.
In this episode of Press Play, Maalouf performs an instrumental version of "Right Time," an upbeat hip-hop track on his latest album, Capacity to Love. Accompanied by an electric guitar and saxophone, Maalouf plays the track's melody, originally sung by Erick the Architect from the Flatbush Zombies.
Maalouf then trades off with the saxophonist, as the two musicians deliver an impressive, improvised solo.
Capacity to Love is Maalouf's fifteenth studio album and first self-produced project. The genre-bending release features collaborations with pop singer J.P. Cooper, rapper D Smoke, New Orleans funk band Tank & the Bangas, and more.
Press play on the video above to watch Ibrahim Maalouf's performance of "Right Time," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
Meet Kibrom Birhane, A Keyboardist & Vocalist Fusing Jazz With 1,000-Year-Old Ethiopian Tradition
Photo: Gui Süssekind Bailey
Anoushka Shankar Wrote A Composition Standing Up For Women & Girls. 10 Years Later, She Questions How Far We've Come.
Anoushka Shankar is firing on all cylinders, with two nominations at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Through an ever-deepening facility with her sitar, the virtuoso communicates her feelings about a global problem with bracing clarity.
Upon hearing glowing press blurbs about her, Anoushka Shankar audibly winces.
"It goes without saying that Anoushka Shankar is a virtuoso sitar player," The Guardian gushed, front and center in her press release. Ditto for Harper's Bazaar, who proclaimed she's "making her own unique mark on the world." Her live show is "Expect to be thoroughly intoxicated," wrote an awestruck Time Out New York.
To which Shankar emits a sheepish reaction through her teeth: "Whoa boy."
"I have that real mix of pride and self-loathing when it comes to this stuff," Shankar tells GRAMMY.com from New Delhi; her London accent rings clear. "On one level, I feel like I'll never be good enough at it, but on another level, I'm feeling great about it."
The nine-time GRAMMY nominee isn't projecting false humility. Through the lenses of her recent music — including a new song, "In Her Name" — it's clear that Shankar is galvanized by more important things than self-gratification. One of them is a magical sense of interplay with her collaborators. The other is an inner drive to address issues that affect women and girls — chief among them, the scourge of sexual violence.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com, Shankar praises colleagues like vocalist and composer Arooj Aftab, composer and conductor Jules Buckley, percussionist Manu Delago, Dutch orchestra Metropole Orkest, and poet Nikita Gill.
With the former, Shankar is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance, for "Udhero Na"; with the middle three, she's up for a golden gramophone for Best Global Music Album for Between Us…, their co-created live album.
But it's "In Her Name," featuring Gill, that's at the forefront of Shankar's mind. She initially released the song about a decade ago as "In Jyoti's Name," in tribute to its namesake: a physiotherapy intern named Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died from injuries as a result of a gang rape in 2012.
Pandey's attack and death sparked protests throughout India; the news affected Shankar deeply. With the 10-year anniversary looming, Shankar decided to revitalize the tune with words from Gill. Hence, "In Her Name," which grapples with this particular horror and so many of its kind through electrifying, evocative language.
"Time cannot devour/ What we will not allow to be forgotten," Shankar recites, channeling Gill's words. "Let the wind take these embers, these ashes/ And build a goddess of wildfire in her name."
Today, Shankar grapples with her innate optimism when considering this subject, as eradicating sexual violence seems to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition. But musical monuments like "In Her Name" do crucial work nonetheless. Because at the very least, they shatter silence — and offer a thread of beauty amid human suffering.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Shankar about this crucial issue, other musical offerings in the immediate rearview, and more. And for a hub of global organizations working to counteract sexual violence, visit here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I became aware of your work 20 years ago, when Concert for George came out. What are your memories of that time?
It's a funny one, that one, because obviously, it was celebrating a loved one. So, on one hand, it was a truly iconic concert to take part in, musically. But on the other hand, the main experience was an emotional one — of connecting with people and sharing our love for someone. So, it was a very unique concert experience for me.
What was it like to be in the room with George?
A bit like being with family, but at the same time, with someone who had a larger-than-life presence as a musician and human.
You're nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance for "Udhero Na," your collaborative track with Arooj Aftab. Tell me about how you and Arooj connect artistically and personally.
It's mutual admiration and friendship and love, but it started off a little differently, because she was in college at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When I would tour in that region, she would be at my shows. I guess she was maybe a fan first, but she also knew some people that I knew, so we became acquaintances and then friends.
At the time, there weren't that many people like us out there touring. So, I think it meant something to her to be able to come see me out there doing what I did.
Then, that kind of shifted as she got older. We became more peers, and it's been really beautiful to see what's happened for her in these last couple of years, with people discovering how amazing she is. So, that's been really lovely.
Can you tell me about the writing and/or recording process behind "Udhero Na"?
It's a song that preexists our working together on it. It's a beautiful piece of music that she wrote long before, and then wanted to release as a bonus track when she was releasing her album, Vulture Prince.
She sent it to me, and I just utterly loved it. I recorded it in my bedroom while I was alone in my house, because I had COVID and my kids were staying with a friend. So, it was a remote and kind of bizarrely chilled-out, relaxing recording process over a cold, dark London winter.
Between Us… is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Album. I find its marriage of East and West so beautiful. How did that live recording come about?
It's interesting that you use that phrase, "the marriage of East and West." I think the reason it works is that we're so many generations past that first marriage. The pieces on this album are more like little diaspora babies that belong to the world in a really authentic and integral way. They're not the parts that make up their whole.
This live record, Between Us…, came about because I wanted to explore my music in an orchestral space. I worked with Jules Buckley to choose pieces of music that we thought could live in that space in a really beautiful way.
Manu Delago had been a dear collaborator of mine for several years at that point. He was central to a few of the songs that I kept wanting to see translated into the orchestra, so we invited him in to almost be a second soloist on the show.
We did this little run of shows in 2018, and then had some conversations about: Let's book some more. In the middle of all that stuff, the pandemic happened. As we started coming out of it, I just found myself going back to that album on my Dropbox now and then; I had the recording from one of the shows we had done.
In isolation, it blew me away to hear so many human beings together, on a stage, playing music together. It was hard for me to even remember what that felt like, and I kept listening to it, saying, "Oh my god, I was! I was on stage with 40 people playing music!"
I found myself getting a lot from the energy of hearing people together playing music. So, as we came out of it, I just wanted to put it out there. We didn't record it thinking I was going to put it out one day, but it's been a joy to share it.
I feel like the most pristine, lossless WAV file in the world couldn't do justice to how it felt with all that music swirling around you.
That's a great way to put it. Especially with music that has lived in different avatars: to hear it expand and grow to that scale feels really magical.
But at the same time, I think that's something that's so beautiful about music — some of the songs here, I can play them with just Manu and have the most amazing experience of connection and chemistry in music. But then, it can also grow to include all these other people, and it's beautiful.
Tell me more about the deeper workings of this music — the submerged majority of the iceberg as opposed to the exposed tip.
Working with Jules Buckley in particular, we were able to orchestrate around the sitar in a way that felt modern and energizing as opposed to conventional or overly sentimental.
Because I think it could be really easy to do that, especially with the emotional quality of the sitar. Not that any of this is wrong, but it could be really easy to go into Bollywood strings or kind of faux-Western-classical territory. I think his sensitivity with the way he worked around my music, the ragas… he was just brilliant.
And the orchestra is mind-blowing as well, because I have so much experience working with a truly diverse array of unbelievable musicians — the ones the world says are the best in the world. [But] working across traditions is really, really hard.
People can take the best orchestra in the world, and they might really struggle to play an asymmetric beat cycle with precision, for example, which would maybe be simple for us. We just speak different languages.
So, what I think is happening on that record is, even when it sounds simple, the level of skill the orchestra, Manu and Jules are exhibiting allows all the elements to come together, and the way they do is really amazing.
I get that it's inelegant to say "the marriage of East and West," as that's been happening forever. It's something I've always thought about the Beatles' "Within You, Without You"; it kicked open the door to that idea for me. But it's just one part of the chain.
Yeah, it's part of the chain! I think that's the evolution. We had some first meetings of East and West that started with my father, an iconic legend. Then, generation after generation of different meetings. This just feels like it's an existing rather than a meeting, and that only can come forward from it happening before, and pushing forward from there.
Can you talk about "In Her Name" and its decade-long gestation? What was the germ of the song — the intention — back then?
The intention at the time was more of an emotional response to what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey 10 years ago — her gang rape that eventually led to her death.
Like so many humans in the world, I was affected very deeply by that news, and it led to me telling my own story. It really impacted me deeply, and it came out in a piece called "In Jyoti's Name."
The reason I named it that was because up until that time in India — and usually still — victims' names are protected to shield them from what some may perceive as the shame of what happened to them.
And her family, at the time, actually gave permission to release her name. I thought that was really powerful, because it spoke to how it wasn't her shame. I felt significance in it, so I released the song in her honor, but with her name in it.
As these years have gone on, there have been so many others like her. I'm almost reluctant to continue naming them, because there are so many that I'll miss one. But I found myself noticing the anniversary was coming up this year, and thinking: God, 10 years is a time in which a lot can change.
Yet, I remember at the time saying: This has got to change, and enough is enough. It feels like that's not what has happened. That's why I felt it important to come back to it. Not just to mark the anniversary, even though that is, of course, significant, especially to people who actually knew and loved her.
But to just question where we are. Around the world, in all the ways that women's bodies are impacted. It just felt like an onslaught, and I think this piece of music comes from there.
Can you talk about Nikita Gill? What she brought to the song, and what you appreciate about her?
Ah, she's magic. She has a very powerful way of speaking simply, that is not simple. It takes a great deal of skill to make something seem as accessible as that, but speak a truth that reaches in that kind of way that she makes it.
So, when I realized I wanted words on this version, she was my first and only phone call. She said yes before I even finished asking; for all the same reasons I wanted to make the song, she wanted to be a part of it.
I don't know what to say about her poetry, other than it speaks all my feelings in a way that I would never be able to express, and it's an honor to get to speak them.
Regarding this global horror that you're deeply invested in and making music about, what progress have we made in the last decade, from your perspective? And where do we go from here in order to negate this suffering and death?
It feels like for every step forward, there's a kind of step back. And it feels like as it can happen with progress overall, there's so often resistance.
It can feel really baffling at times that this topic can suddenly become center-stage, and we can be talking about it and listening and learning. Then, suddenly, some politician comes along, or something happens where there's some shaming tweet about someone, and it just feels like we get pushed down again.
So, I don't know if I can say to you whether we've made progress overall, because for every bit we have made, it feels like we're going backwards. I feel like, historically, I've always landed on the side of optimism, and I'm [Uneasy laugh] a little undecided about that right now.
“In Her Name” single artwork. Credit: Shilo Shiv Suleman
I'm pretty young, but I do remember a time when the model of manhood was aggression and derring-do and imposing your will on others. Consent was addressed in the media in crazy ways that wouldn't fly today.
Yes, thank you for bringing it there, because things have definitely moved, and it is amazing to look back and realize how nuanced change is.
I can go back and watch a TV show I feel nostalgic about, and I can feel shocked about what's actually in there in a way I didn't necessarily remember at the time. Which shows how things have changed. As a child, as a teenager, as a young woman at that time, that would have been presented to me as fine, so I processed it as fine. I can look back and go: Wow.
That can be a very strange feeling, because it brings a bizarre kind of grief for myself, or others like me, in the past. As a child, I was raised in what people were telling me was a post-feminist society. We were told everything was fine now.
But like you're saying, we go back and look at the way it was, and it was so far from fine. It's a weird thing to look back and realize I've had to continue learning that, as a woman, I deserve better than that. Or that people I'm next to, or raising, deserve better than that.
I guess what gives me hope is that I'm raising boys. That was something that gave me a heart attack at first, when I was pregnant and realized I was having a boy. I had to work through what that was about. It was like: Oh my god! I'm raising future men! What does that mean?
And then I turned it around and I was like, What an incredible opportunity. And I watch my older kid and his friends, and they're just amazing. Their language, their understanding, their nuance, their care, their awareness. It really, really blows me away.
My older son doesn't want to watch things that don't pass the Bechdel test. You know? Or he gets really frustrated by old cartoons, where it's all about romance; he'll immediately catch when something sexist happens. His group of friends is really, truly mixed and safe and open.
I didn't have a fraction of that when I was his age. That was not what was [prevalent].
I'm sure that extended to your beginnings in the music business, which was and is male-dominated in many regards.
It really was, but I'm more aware of that looking back than I was at the time.
I remember reading a statistic for which the numbers escape me now — I'm making this up — but say, it took 30 percent of women in a boardroom to speak 20 percent of the time for men to feel like they were speaking more than half the time. Because their presence felt so novel. It felt so loud.
That's kind of what it was like. Now, I can look back and say, "Yes, it was very male-dominated." But at the time, I probably would have seen myself and one other woman there and said, "Wow! This is great!". [Laughs.]
The 2023 GRAMMYs are coming up, and you're in the midst of a press cycle. But what are you planning on when this hectic period wraps up? What will you be working on when there's a clearing?
I just did a mini-tour of India, but I haven't come back and done a proper tour of America since the pandemic. So, that's going to be happening in the autumn, which I'm really excited about. I'm in this very last-minute panic of what that tour's going to be. [Laughs.] I'm leaving it to the wire.
I'm starting to write a new album at the beginning of the year, and I'm very excited about that as well. If things go according to plan, it's a new album and the beginning of a big tour.
Can you drop any hints about that album?
[Hesitantly.] A producer I'm very… excited about? [Laughs.] No, I guess not. Not yet!
Before we get out of here: you've been steeped in the sitar for your entire life. All these years later — even with your advanced facility with the instrument — do you ever feel like you've just scratched the surface with what you can express with it?
I feel like I'm at the beginning section of the whole available journey. There is something about getting good at my instrument that brings true joy. When I play now, there's an intimacy with my instrument that's such a beautiful feeling. I could have had a similar amount of skill 10 or 15 years ago, but I don't feel like I had this feeling when I play.
I know that comes from growth, so I can tell I'm growing through an evolution on my instrument. I can feel that, and that feels really, really beautiful.
One of the frequent stories I tell when people ask what I learned from my dad is that I learned more from example. He was at the top of the mountain with the instrument, but I sat next to him every single day, watching him still journeying and seeking and looking at how much more he had to do.
So, I can't even answer the question in correlation to that, because I know where he was compared to me. Therefore, what he still saw ahead of him. That puts it all into perspective, I guess.
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