In the track “Raise Up,” jazz-soul singer Susheela Raman urgently breathes, “Got this voice coming through, in my blood, in my veins, a current of love, a chorus of pain.” Listening to any of Raman’s songs in her latest album Vel is something like that, a voice coming through, blazing a trail for the almost always revolutionary music. The music for “Raise Up” includes, for example, Rajasthani folk singers and instruments and the guitar. When she then sings to raise up your hands higher, higher a little later in the song, you want to obey.
Many know Raman from the soundtrack of Mira Nair’s movie The Namesake, but the London-born, Australia-raised singer shot into fame with her first album Salt Rain in 2001. It was the first time, perhaps, that the world got to hear Karnatik and Tamil vocals driving powerful jazz/ soul/ rock sounds, taking freely of the best from multiple musical cultures Salt Rain bagged the BBC Radio 3 world music award for Best Newcomer.
In Vel too, Raman’s complex blend of sounds is pulled off simply, by staying true to the underlying emotion. In an evangelical chorus-sounding “Ennapane,” she begins as would a soul singer, with breathy lyrics, albeit in Tamil. Then suddenly she invokes Muruga (second son of Lord Shiva, who sports the vel or lance) in cries of Vel Muruga! “Magdalene” is a Norah Jones meets Eric Clapton’s “Layla” meets the tabla; “Eighteen Floors” is Enya-like.
“Paal” has a gentle beat by ankle-bells, and Raman’s seemingly unheard appeals to Muruga are given a flourish by some great guitaring. “Daga Daga” is a passionate rendition by a die-hard devotee, and will be an acquired taste—while her voice is compelling in its rough staccato style, the all-Tamil lyrics take getting used to. It has to be said, though, that one cannot deny the vibe. YouTube videos of the acoustic recordings show every musician swept up in the emotion.
Apart from being an astonishing synthesis in itself, Raman’s music is really a commentary for how Indian music can be staged for an interesting crossover to a world audience. She credits this in part to Sam Mills. Given her background in South and North Indian- and blues-based music, Raman struggled with bringing these streams together, till she met Mills in 1997, a progressive guitarist who had collaborated with musicians from around the world. Says Raman online of his work in the album Real Sugar, “This record inspired me, it bridged a gap and found common ground for Indian music to be expressed to a new audience (and) opened a whole set of musical contact points.” Well, Vel.