For two weeks of the year London’s Southbank Centre is transformed into a celebratory hub of South Asian music, art, food and culture for the Alchemy Festival. This year’s event (the fifth occasion it has happened) saw an impressive line up draw to a close with a show by Anoushka Shankar at the Royal Festival Hall.
Her incorporation of other instrumentation into her music alongside her own sitar playing is immediately visible as she takes to the stage backed by a group of musicians playing cello, piano, percussion (both traditional drum kit and dhol drum) and the shehnai, an Indian reed instrument.
She opens with an energetic version of Voice Of The Moon from her 2005 album Rise which sets the tone for the evening but also, by starting with an older track, contextualises the rest of show which predominantly draws from her excellent latest album Traces Of You. Maya offers quick proof of how it may be her most complete album to date. The ambitious, textural structures and intricate percussion flow together beautifully, at times shuddering, shifting and rotating like leftfield electronic.
Ahead of The Sun Won’t Set she acknowledges the role played by Nitin Sawhney (in the crowd tonight) who helped write the track and produce the album. Tonight the vocals are expertly handled by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who more than matches the originals provided on the album by Norah Jones. Sawhney’s clean, fresh production values are transposed to the live show, helping evoke thoughts of endless skies and distant horizons. Metamorphosis meanwhile moves in denser and deeper directions, the inclusion of chanted vocals signifying a change in dynamic.
In Jyoti’s Name is dutifully impactful, centred around glittering, locked-in sitar cycles with the shehnai and percussion rising to prominence. The introduction from Shankar on the background of the piece also gives a reminder of her activism, especially regarding women’s rights and welfare. It is followed by Flight, the soft shimmers of the hang (played tonight by Manu Delago) and the wordless emoting of Shankar’s sitar combining to help project a sacred beauty, arguably the most poignant moment of the night.
The unravelling, dancing melodies and golden hues of Lasya see the pace rise again before Chasing Shadows brings all elements together in superlative, climactic style, each performer being afforded space for their rapidly marked-out individual improvisations. It encapsulates the breadth that the show offers, yet also the unity with which everything is held in place. It’s also a testament to her strength and talent as a composer and realiser of ideas. She returns for an encore of Monsoon, a noticeably more modest and self-sufficient closer.
Ahead of the release of Traces Of You she spoke about how the album was informed by the concept that everything in the universe leaves an indelible mark on everything it encounters. With dazzling live shows like this she has proved she’s capable of leaving lasting, powerful impressions of her own.