Sheema Mukerjee Interview
Youʼll have noticed that Sheema Mukherjee has the same name as Nanditaʼs mother in the story. The name in Sanskrit means ‘infinite potential’. Well, Sheema Mukherjee lives up to her name. A well-known sitar player who has created a magical fusion of modern and ancient sound, she has amazing discipline and energy and is a delight to work with. You can hear her exhilarating, fast-moving sitar and her beautiful arrangement of a traditional Bengali lullaby on the Songs from Nanditaʼs Dream album.
Sheemaʼs new composition, ‘Bending the Dark’, was commissioned for the 2012 Olympics and will be heard on the dedicated TV music channel playing throughout the games. It’s also the title track on the new album from Imagined Village, the band she plays with. And recently Lush (the handmade cosmetics company) brought out a perfume named after the track ‘Sikkim Girls’.
Born in the UK, Sheema travelled frequently to India to train with her uncle, the illustrious Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Luckily her father was with British Airways and they had free flights. As a child of 8 she received her first sitar from her uncle before he arrived from India to teach her. She eagerly picked out a scale and tried out pop songs. “I played ʻA Whole Lot of Loveʼ a lot and realised it was raga-based, and also the Blue Peter theme.” That early playing with different styles marked out her individual approach.
When a recent trip to India was delayed, Sheema went to the Gambia to work with children. “I love working with children. You learn so much through their perception of things. I love the way they hold the gourd of the sitar and feel it vibrate… the natural excitement. I worked in schools for three years teaching traditional Indian music and Iʼm working with a storyteller at the moment.
“I get asked how I feel about being a British Asian. Iʼm proud to be from here and I appreciate the opportunities and openness of this society. More than anything, the opportunity for women is important to me. For my mother to have a career like mine wasn’t possible. I love being in India every year too. But really I think I just belong in music wherever I am.”
Recently, at the Home Festival at Dartington Hall, Devon, Sheema played a great fusion set with funky drums and fast-moving sitar rhythms. In the Great Hall the next day, she gave a powerful classical Indian raga performance on the sitar for which she had practised 16 hours a day for four months, just as her uncle would have done.
“Practice gives you that connection between your ears, your hands and your heart in between. Playing is emotional and to be able to play what you feel is everything. Indian music wouldnʼt be here if it hadnʼt been remembered by seven generations, because itʼs not written down.”
Black Umfolosi Interview
Black Umfolosi of Zimbabwe are known and loved the world over for their beautiful African songs full of rich harmonies. They bring their gorgeous voices to many of the songs on the Nandita’s Dream album. Here are highlights from a recent talk between Sarah and Thomeki Dube, one of the group’s founders
“Black Umfolosi started when we were at school. I was 16 and Sotsha Moyo was 15. I came from the countryside, and the community I grew up in sing and dance all the time. So we inherit that. It’s a natural part of us. We sing at all times – working, cycling. There’s always somebody harmonising, someone singing. School intensified it – we did a lot of singing in school. Our first support came from our fellow students.”
For this year’s tour they’re celebrating their 30 years as a group. “You know, this work has been quite a beautiful journey. It has taken us all over the world and to other cultures. You absorb all that into you. It is quite an amazing feeling to reflect back and take a look at where we came from. Thinking of the innocent years when we started humbly, not thinking of where it would take us.”
Black Umfolosi founded the Enkundleni Centre for the Arts, promoting visual arts, singing and dancing. “Our vision is that the people we work with will pass on this legacy. So we have programmes that link strongly with young people. We’re training them up in the centre so they can take the work on and take it forward. There were people who were there for us when we were growing up, and now we can give back. We wanted to do something for underprivileged people and children for their education. So we created a facility where they can come and cultivate their talents.”
This dream of working with children is carried everywhere they go. “Besides giving concerts, we want, as Black Umfolosi, to integrate with communities. Whenever we can we go down to schools and centres in the different countries where we are singing. We know working with children at this level helps them understand other cultures. That way they learn from us and we learn from them. It opens up the view of this world and the future because children are our future leaders. When children interact with different cultures, they assure the future of this world. We’re growing them up to be beautiful leaders, more than we’re seeing right now. It’s really fulfilling for me and for Black Umfolosi to share this. We are assured of a beautiful future where people live peaceful lives in harmony with self and nature. We’re making sure the children can make this world a better place.”
“It was exciting creating on the Nandita’s Dream album and working with you and your project with children. It was quite an experience and we absorbed it… because it’s a different way of creating to write a piece of music as you did and then leave a space for others like us to come in. We loved it. We wish the children all the best as they listen to the CD and read the book. We love them so much.
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