Susheela Raman: The blues - in any language

Susheela Raman's latest cross-cultural album has been nominated for a World Music Award. Martin Longley meets her
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The Independent Culture

On Love Trap, released in 2003, Susheela Raman sang in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil, the last being the language of her parents. Music For Crocodiles, which has earned her a nomination in the 2006 BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music, is mostly performed in English. This might be perceived as a commercial move, and to a certain extent, that is the case, but Raman has always been caught on the cusp between her Indian classical training and a desire to belt out the blues. She's interested in a variety of musical forms, and this is evident when listening to the range of her new songs.

I meet up with Raman and her long-term partner Sam Mills in a café on the Portobello Road, near their flat. She was born in London, but moved to Australia at the age of four. When the family moved to India, during her twenties, Raman studied Hindustani vocal techniques before moving back to London in 1997. She sang with the Asian dancefloor duo Joi. They were signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label.

"I met Sam through the Real World dating agency," she laughs. "I was at the Real World 10th-anniversary party in '99. I fell madly in love with the Paban record..." Mills had collaborated with Paban Das Baul, from Bengal. "Sam made the Paban album in his bedroom," says Raman.

Real World suggested a collaboration. "I was in a rather confused state in my musicality, because I'd gone from full Carnatic singing to going around pubs in Sydney, playing blues, and having to really scream to get people's attention," explains Raman. "I had a teacher from eight to 14, then rebelled."

Music For Crocodiles displays the latest stage in Raman's evolution, with its very detailed production, featuring a strong cast of guest musicians. It's at once more accessible, inhabiting the world of the soulful singer-songwriter, yet still layered with Indian classical input.

"There was a lot of time to work on the development of the songs, and a lot of them we played at gigs," says Raman, who is at once fairly serious and analytical, but prone to outbreaks of guffawing. "Compared to the last album, we had a lot of preparation time. I think that made a difference. The actual recording was done in various stages. We started out here, rehearsing in our place, in August, and started recording at the beginning of September, in Wiltshire. We did the bass and percussion, laying the foundation."

Raman and Mills were working with the same core band members that have been involved from the outset: Hilaire Penda (bass), Aref Durvesh (tabla) and Djanuno Dabo (percussion). This band worked on Raman's debut Salt Rain, which was released in 2001. That album was nominated for the following year's Mercury Music Prize, and Raman also won the BBC World Music Best Newcomer Award in 2002.

"With Love Trap we were going for a really live sound, but this album is a more mature version of that process. We banged out all the stuff in about a week, then did some editing. In October we went to India, so that was the second half of the journey."

The director Mark Kidel was commissioned to make a music documentary for the French television channel Arte. The concept behind Indian Journey was to film Raman and Mills working together with traditional musicians.

"We met with quite a lot of strange things in India. Music is very much tied up with religion and identity. I guess it's disturbing for someone to come from outside and be messing with their traditional music. They have pop, and they don't have a middle ground. Sometimes, I don't think they realise that what we're doing is actually very serious."

Raman has been culturally oscillating: "Ten years ago, my mother and father moved back to Madras from Australia. In the last few years, I've been going back there a lot. During the making of Love Trap, I started doing some research into old traditional music from my mum and dad's home town. I've been developing that relationship for several years, and I started to meet lots of musicians in Madras. I gave a talk at the British Council, and I had a lot of people come to my workshop."

But the UK is a focus now. "I really wanted to sing in English, because it's my first language," says Raman. "I want to be heard here."

'Music for Crocodiles' is out now on EMI/Narada. Raman tours the UK from 1 March (