For music fans with far-ranging, eclectic tastes, there is no place better than Big Ears, the annual festival held in Knoxville, Tennessee. At venues around the city big and small, concertgoers can soak in a wide array of musical styles, testing their idea of what the boundaries of music are with experimental artists at the frontiers of sound, or journeying into exotic new lands with artists that continue to elevate the limitations of their genre.
At the 2018 festival, attendees were treated to everything from traditional folk songs and Irish jam sessions to electronic dance parties and heady, mind-bending jazz, often all together in the span of a few hours. When you arrive at any show at Big Ears, it can be hard to know exactly what to expect from the artists they bring in for the festival, who often show up at the event eager to try out new material or collaborate with the multitude of genre-bending musicians present.
One such artist who continues to push her own boundaries is Anoushka Shankar, who played Saturday night at the Tennessee Theatre, a 1920s era movie palace that to this day possesses an aura of dignity and extravagance. Because of its esteemed history, it also hosts some of the most celebrated acts at Big Ears. Being the grandest stage of all the Big Ears venues, I can’t imagine any place in Knoxville more appropriate for the British-Indian musician’s music, which filled the lavish, colorfully lit dome of the theatre with sounds both exotic and familiar, combining the traditions of Indian music with jazz and a host of other elements.
Many know Anoushka because of her famous father, the Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, and in whose footsteps she has followed. Ravi passed away in 2012 after a long and illustrious career, one in which he collaborated with many artists who have had a major influence on Big Ears, such as the composer Philip Glass. That is why it seems appropriate that his daughter now carries on his legacy at the festival, playing the sitar to an absolutely enchanted audience, in a city that is increasingly making itself known on the music map of the world.
During the concert Shankar played the sitar, accompanied by three other musicians on a wealth of other instruments including piano, bass, and various hangs, which is an instrument developed in Switzerland around the turn of the century. The sound they produce is different depending on how you play it, and can sound like a harp, bells, or various types of percussion, and stood out to me among the dynamic sound of Shankar’s band. Played with an expert touch, they acted simultaneously as percussion and melody in the songs, often possessing a tender, beautiful timbre reminiscent of the steel drum. If you haven’t heard one before, I suggest looking up a video and hearing the instrument yourself.
In front of a nearly packed house (which can be quite rare at Big Ears due to the sheer amount of music and events happening at the same time), Shankar and her band performed pieces from her 2016 album “Land of Gold,” an album that documents mankind’s eternal search for the paradisaical land of his dreams. Shankar wrote the music for the record in the face of the world refugee crisis, hoping to find strength within herself and others, a power that could enliven the darkest parts of humanity. On her website, Shankar described the album as such: “Everyone is, in some way or another, searching for their own “Land of Gold”: a journey to a place of security, connectedness and tranquility, which they can call home. This journey also represents the interior quest that we all take to find a sense of inner peace, truth and acceptance – a universal desire that unites humanity.”
That inner land shined out from her songs, which traveled through places of mystery, fear, hope, and connection, written in the notes of her sitar lines. This need for hope and love came together in the final song they performed called “Reunion,” which summoned up a celebratory atmosphere that radiated throughout the whole theatre. Watching Shankar’s hands move gracefully across her sitar, I glanced around at the colorful lights of the Tennessee Theatre and was instantly struck by the feeling that somehow, through the power of her music, I had returned home, despite the lack of any physical idea of where that place might be.
So powerful was this feeling that it remained with me even as the crowd erupted in applause, before long Shankar and her band returning to the stage for one more song, another track from “Land of Gold” called “Say Your Prayers.” Before playing the song, with her band huddled around her, she wished the crowd pleasant dreams, and that, in order to guide us safely into the nocturnal land of sleep, she would play us one last lullaby before we all fell back into the darkness of night.