Quite frankly, as far as musical instruments go, few are more suicide-provoking than the Indian sitar. Just playing a simple melody on the stringed instrument takes years of practice; to effectively learn advanced techniques often takes a decade of study, with the player serving as an apprentice to a teacher.
No sweat for Anoushka Shankar, who's close to being a sitar master, and poised to be the next big thing in world music, at the ripe old age of 24. That might be because she's studied exclusively with her dad, sitar legend Ravi Shankar -- dubbed the "Godfather of World Music" for his fusion of Indian and Western music -- her entire life (essentially, that's akin to getting daily piano lessons from Beethoven). This week, Ravi, now 85, will perform with Anoushka at The Festival of India II, a concert that will include sitar, Indian violin, folk drums, wind instruments and traditional Indian vocals.
Since tutoring and mentoring the late Beatle George Harrison in the late '60s, the elder Shankar has been a world ambassador for Indian classical music. His works have been commissioned and premiered by the London Symphony and New York Philharmonic orchestras, and he was nominated for Grammys and Academy Awards for his musical score for the film Gandhi.
But growing up with such a world-famous dad -- and, by the way, a pretty famous half-sister by the name of Norah Jones -- has never really fazed Anoushka. A prodigy who started playing sitar at age nine and grew up in London and California, she's released such albums as Anoushka, Anourag and the 2003 Grammy-nominated Live at Carnegie Hall, which made her the youngest ever nominee in the Best World Music Album category. (She also somehow found time to write a book about her dad: Ravi Shankar: Bapi -- The Love of My Life.) Her latest album, Rise, fuses her classical stylings with elements such as flamenco, bossa nova and Brazilian music. "I loved composing it," she says excitedly. "The sitar is there throughout the album, but I found myself in love with the other sounds and other performers." Hardly the stuffy classical snob, she says Massive Attack, Portishead, Björk and world music heartthrob Ottmar Liebert are on her current CD rotation list.
And while many in the music world have anointed her the next Ravi Shankar, she's content to just play music and enjoy herself. She says she's both "bigger and smaller" than that identity. "I have his stamp on me, but we're very different."
Speaking of her famous family members, what does she think of the reports that she and her half-sister, Grammy-winning songstress Jones, aren't exactly tight? "Oh, yeah, we're supposedly awkward, but we're actually very close," says Anoushka. "We talk or e-mail just about every day." She says since she and Jones play such different music, the chatting is less music biz-related and more sisterly dish. "We tend to talk about our own lives, and our own experiences." So is the classical prodigy a fan of Jones's jazzy work? "It's hard to be a big fan of someone who you're close to," she says with a diplomatic giggle, "but I do love her!" Awww.