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The Dravidian Experience
on October 17, 2001
This album, the debut of Joi's Susheela Raman, was recently nominated for the Mercury Award 2001, Britain's foremost reward to new artists with distinct creative ability. She was beaten by PJ Harvey's new set, but nevertheless, it brought to the attention of Europe the talents of a brilliant new songstress.
'Salt Rain' is by far one of the best fusion albums I have heard. I always thought that only Kila and Afro Celt Sound System knew how to make a good record, and when I first heard of Joi through Real World, I was a little skeptical. On those early records, Susheela stands out, but no one could predict that a solo career would bring so much promise to the world of new age music.
That said, Susheela's work here should be compared to Auroville's Nadaka, as well as M. S. Subbalakshmi, and Dead Can Dance. While she no doubt uses these influences in her vocal style and song structure, she is very much an independent and original artist. I thoroughly enjoyed this album. The first time I really listened to it was on headphones, which I thought was the proper method to appreciate a work of this sort.
Strangely enough, Susheela's more interesting moments come when she thoroughly bungles up the lyrical content of a song. You must remember that this album is a celebration of the singer as an Indian. The tracks are sung in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Sanskrit. The ones in Sanskrit work best, but the Tamil tracks are inexplicable. While her diction is less than flattering on these tracks, it does lend the songs a certain listenability - more so because all the words are phonetically reproduced in English in the liner notes.
I think Susheela lost out on the Mercury because the album is far too experimental for the common listener. PJ Harvey, who I think is the poor-man's Fiona Apple, had a great record last year, but its nothing as groundbreaking and revolutionary as 'Salt Rain'. There are a few songs here in English, but to be honest, they are the least compelling of the set. Susheela scores best when shes singing in Indian languages.
Of all the tracks, I personally connected with 'Mamavatu'. This song reminded me of attending a Hindu temple in Thanjavur, South India, when I was a child over ten years ago. I haven't heard a song so deeply capture the beauty and spirit of Southern India the way this song does. The last time I heard something like this was on 'Nama Shivaya' by Nadaka, but you can only get that one on the limited French Edition of 'Origines'.
Susheela's record label has done us a huge service by releasing this album with all the respect a record of this magnitude deserves. All the musicians are given a page with their picture, and Susheela herself appears very briefly on the painted page. The album booklet is thorough, informative, and a classy production. Lisa Gerrard would do well to learn from Raman's mastery of putting together a debut album package.
Unfortunately, this record is not being heard of in America. In France, its a consistent top seller, and its always near the top of the British new age charts. Pity, because the US always misses out on the best musicians (Vanessa Paradis, Axelle Red, The Sealand Poets, All Saints) in favor of lesser, more vapid talent (Spears, Aguilera, Timberlake). Also, with the new success of Afro Celt Sound System in America, one would think that Raman would leap up the charts as well. Well, she deserves to. If theres one new age or classical album you intend purchasing this year, let it be this one.