The Black Mamba spell: In conversation with Suman Sridhar

The singer fuses Carnatic, hip-hop and Afrobeat elements in her new album, Black Mamba.

Jaideep Sen Published :  31st March 2017 01:38 PM   |   Published :   |  31st March 2017 01:38 PM
Suman Sridhar - Pic by Sam Mohan

Suman Sridhar - Pic by Sam Mohan

Singer Suman Sridhar set the air waves abuzz with her versions of the classic Bollywood numbers Hawa Hawai and Khoya Khoya Chand, for the 2011 film Shaitan. She now has a new album in the works, which she will premiere in town this weekend, apart from a rap version of one of her earliest hits. 

You’ve come a long way since we last saw you making the covers of magazines. How has the solo ride been for you, so far?
Full of surprises.

How do you relate to the descriptor of a “vocal gymnast”?
What I express and communicate as an artist is more important than the skills with which I execute them. The latter enables the former — my craft aids the precision with which my message reaches its audience. So yes, I thank the journalist who referred to me as a “vocal gymnast”, but craft is only a means to my artistic expression.

Tell us a little about your new show in town. What can the crowds expect? Will you be performing popular hits too, apart from new material?
I am thrilled to be premiering in Chennai my new compositions off my forthcoming album Black Mamba. I am exploring the intersections between hip-hop, Carnatic music and afrobeat to develop a new sound – in form, and content. The themes I explore span globalisation, gender, love, ecology. I will also perform an original rap interpretation of a popular film song I have sung. The rest is for you to discover at the show!

We’re interested in your multimedia opera, incorporating Tamil folk music. Have you identified an audience for that project? Tell us everything we need to know about it.
The project received the Google-INK Trailblazers Grant, and is in the process of pre-production and research. 

How did playback singing change things for you as a singer? How did it affect your career? How do you see yourself playing this balancing act between films and solo, independent releases?
The independent music, classical music and film music industries are often at odds with and devalue one another. My challenge has been to proudly occupy all worlds with ease. I have often played the role of integrating snooty audiences from different worlds who would normally never be caught dead attending the same concert! I think, music is music is music – the demarcations are redundant.

Suman Sridhar - Pic by Sam Mohan
Suman Sridhar - Pic by Sam Mohan

Are there any plans to further your acting career, alongside and not just in playback singing? While we’re at it, we’re wondering if your favourite stars are singer-actors too?
My debut feature film release, Ajeeb Aashiq // Strange Love, by filmmaker Natasha Mendonca, in which I am the lead actor, singer and music director, will soon have its UK premiere at the Tate Modern. The film has screened internationally at film festivals such as Locarno Film Festival – Open Doors in Switzerland, Germany, India, Netherlands, Portugal, etc.

Is there something holding you back from going the route of releasing an album, with a major recording label? Do you intend to go ahead without signing onto a label?
The record label model has become outdated since people don’t buy music anymore. International stars formerly signed onto major labels have been going independent for some time now. The whole industry has changed. Having said that, my forthcoming double album release will find its best way to reach audiences – be it a major label or independent.

Tell us a little about the mixed influences in your music from Goan tunes, Indian folk elements, African-American sounds, soul and R&B to nautanki traditions too how do you keep up with so much, and how do you put everything together? Give us a sense of that unifying sensibility in the mind of Suman Sridhar. 
My music is an extension of who I am – my varied influences are a result of my upbringing. I was raised in Bombay by Tamil musician parents with Carnatic, Hindustani and devotional music, visual art, dance and theatre from a very young age. I went to an all-girls Catholic school where I sang hymns and Marathi nursery rhymes. When I was 14, my family moved to the United States where overnight I was exposed to jazz, hip hop and reggae. We lived very close to NYC, so I could access the thriving arts and culture spaces of the city as a teenager – free concerts, poetry slams, museums, parks. I went on to study Western classical music and Women’s & Gender Studies in college. I don’t necessarily unify everything— the disparity in my being is what makes me who I am.

A note on your videos online at times featuring what seems like home footage. Do you intend to slick things up on the video front soon? Can we expect to see new videos?
I think, sadly, our predominant moving image references are advertisements. Everything is made to look like ads these days, from feature films, TV serials to music videos – overly slick, almost plastic-like. It’s a phenomenon coined as “hypernormalisation” by Alexei Yurchak wherein fakeness is accepted as reality. The question is, does this trend of imagery stick or does one piss it out much like a 20-seconder?

Finally, a word for your work supporting the LGBT community. What manner of efforts do you believe need to be made, going ahead from here?
I see my work as supporting the humanity within all of us so we collectively move beyond the oppressive boundaries of race, class, caste, gender, sexuality, religion. Independence is a bit of a fallacy if we are still ruled by archaic colonial laws. We need to reconnect with our roots of freedom, fluidity and self-governance. Who knew that following tradition would be so radical!

Suman Sridhar performs at the Goethe-Institut Auditorium, Chennai, on March 31, 6.45 pm. Details: 28330645.