Having been mightily impressed with Sheema Mukherjee’s debut solo album Sheema, we simply had to know more about how the record came together. The beautifully packaged vinyl only release is a stunning mix of classical Indian sitar playing and bold fusions of style and material that offers surprise and delight in equal measure. At the heart are the rigorous disciplines of a virtuosic musician, but also the adventurous spirit of a composer and performer who hasn’t always followed the obvious path, and who has the imagination to push the boundaries of her instrument with extraordinary results. Here Sheema explains some of the background that set her on her musical path and the training that is an essential part of her development, whilst also offering a little insight into the recording and the choice of material for this groundbreaking release.
What was your original inspiration for making music and why the sitar?
My uncle, the Late Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, was one of India’s greatest sitarists. I studied the basics with him and had the privilege of listening to him perform (and do what we call ‘rewaz’- disciplined practice) from when I was in the womb. I believe my love of the sitar and approach to music came from him originally.
My limited understanding of Indian music, there is a whole spiritual dimension wrapped into learning an instrument. Can you explain? Did this add to the challenge?
Yes, there is a whole spiritual dimension within the learning and performance of Indian Music, although I believe that spirituality is not to be equated with religion at all. There is a relationship of Indian music and especially the veena, to Saraswati the Hindu goddess of learning, but as many have said before me, music is the universal language of the soul and a vehicle to attain liberation. It crosses barriers of language and creed and unites the listener and artist. In this respect most music is spiritual. The meaning of the sanskrit word Raag (raga) is ‘to colour the emotion’ and that is one of my main goals as a performer. There is a whole philosophy behind each note – with reference to the solfa scale – Doh is infinity, Re is sorrow, Ma is peace, Fa is romance, Soh is joy, etc our notes are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa. Also, each note has a chakra, colour and body part! And then of course the micro-tones….
As I started my practice of Indian music one of the main things, other than the usual practice of scales etc was to find a feeling and connection with each note and space – there had to be a reason. The daily routine of practice was very difficult with school, Top Of The Pops, parties etc, but I did still manage about an hour a day after school in the beginning, and more as I got older. Discipline was, and still is, my main challenge, although I appreciate now the benefit of having all these extra musical influences.
Tell me about learning with your uncle. Who else has taught you and how long have you studied?
I started with singing scales from the age of three, my mother used to sing with me. Ustad Amir Khan, one of India’s greatest classical vocalists, stayed with us a lot and suggested ways to do this. My uncle, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, then presented me with my first sitar at the age of eight. He passed away in 1986 so from then I studied with the late Dyanesh Khan, Aashish Khan, and then their father, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, son of Baba Allauddin Khan. I still have a routine of daily study and practice.
Is there a patriarchal aspect to music studies and if so, was that ever an issue?
In my generation I believe there isn’t an obvious patriarchal aspect, but the same roles/problems for ‘women in the workplace’ apply.
Again my limited knowledge suggests that female sitar players are relatively few, although there do seem to be some who are very highly regarded. Is this correct? Are their any role models who have been important to you?
In previous generations the greatest female artists were often courtesans. Ali Akbar Khan’s sister, Shri Arnupurna Devi (first wife of Ravi Shanker) never performed in public, but is regarded as one of the greatest Indian classical musicians, male or female! Musically I feel I aspire to my uncle and to her. With the current generation of indian musicians, I think there is much confidence and little competence. There is also a lot of prejudice, for example a classical musician will generally never sit with a folk musician. Also, no-one has the time to dedicate to hours and hours of practice and study and therefore the music played by our fore fathers, with that depth and understanding, is sadly disappearing.
Tell me about your own history of music making? What got you started with Transglobal Underground?
After studying with Ali Akbar Khan in San Raphael (US), playing 16hrs daily, I came back to the UK in a bit of a weird frame of mind. I felt very isolated and so joined a punk band as a bass player. The hand position is very similar to the sitar, so I asked my boyfriend at the time to show me the most economical way to play the bass and pass the audition. I played bass in a few other bands after that, one of which was run by one of the previous singers, Simon Beaton, of a band called Furniture (Brilliant Mind in the ’80s), who of course knew Tim Whelan and Hami Lee, originally in Furniture and at that time were in Transglobal Underground. I heard from Simon B that TGU were looking for someone to do a sitar session on one track. Simon didn’t really know I was a proper player but suggested we all get in touch. I went along and they realised I didn’t just ‘twang’ a bit and was asked to join them on the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant tour in 1998.
There’s The Imagined Village too.
In 2005 Simon Emmerson asked Tim Whelan to produce Cold Haily Rainy Night for which I came down and did a session, when the band was put together I became part of the mix.
Are you still part of that?
I am still part of both bands. With TGU we released an album last year called Kabatronics, which is an exploration of Albanian traditional songs and we have been touring it with an Albanian brass band and vocalist (Nico). With The Imagined Village we hope to release an album next year!
Are there plans for more recording? What else have you done and who else have you worked with?
With regards to other things I have done recently, I have been a composer for the Royal Shakespeare Company on a production called The Empress. In 2006 I worked on a piece with Sir John Tavener, which I thought was never completed, but recently it was presented at the Barbican as his final piece. Called Flood Of Beauty, it was based on old Hindu scriptures and I was one of the soloists. I have had a very interesting and varied musical career, my website is www.sheemamukherjee.co.uk
What was the starting point for this record and how did you set about composing the material? What were you aiming for and where there specific inspirations?
I have over the years written many tracks and the album is a collection of tracks and styles I like. I had no particular agenda except to make it as live as possible (no samples) and a reflection of being born and brought up in the UK, but with the Indian Classical tradition as the musical foundation. I wanted to explore styles I like. The sitar is a very dynamic instrument, but I feel it is more known by the general public as a comedic instrument, e.g. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Tell me about the other musicians involved and how the arrangements came together. What was the most difficult thing to make work and what was the easiest?
Financing it all was the hardest thing and I am hugely grateful to ECC100 records (www.ecc100.co.uk), the LUSH record label, for backing me! I was involved with writing the music for LUSH spa’s with other members of The Imagined Village and strange as it may sound, we were able to be as creative as we liked, one of the inspirational aspects of the company and very refreshing (excuse the pun). The second hardest thing was the availability of the musician as we are all touring with various projects etc. The easiest aspect was putting it all together. Normally when I do sessions or work with other bands, people don’t realise the sitar has drones but no chords in the western sense. It is also restricted to the key you play in, for example, I play in D and with the drones tuned differently I can also play in G. With Indian classical music your framework is the raag. Since I wrote most of the music all this was fairly easy to negotiate.
What inspired the cover versions?
I was asked if I wanted to help create a perfume inspired by one of my tracks called Sikkim Girls, of course I said yes! During that conversation Mark Constantine mentioned the Radiohead track Street Spirit was his inspiration for their perfume Karma. It is my favourite Radiohead track so I did a version out of curiosity really!
My parents and uncle were big Francoise Hardy fans so her albums were played a lot in our household. L’Amitie was always a track that reminded me of the old style Bollywood.
The vinyl format works so well in every which way, but you’ve packed a surprising amount of music onto the LP was it challenging to master?
The album was mastered at Metropolis by Ian Cooper. He was great to work with and it was a real privilege – he didn’t appear to have any problems!
What else are you working on and will you be touring the album?
Interview by: Simon Holland
Sheema is Out Now and available via the ECC Store: eccrecords.co.uk/shop/sheema