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As in 201 9
Priya Menon, July 14, 2019: The Times of India
A distant clap of thunder, the steady sound of rain, the call of peacocks, a sonorous voice chanting shlokas in praise of Shiva and Durga even as a haunting voice wafts in the background. As torrential rains lashed Kerala last year wreaking devastation all around, violinist, singer and composer L Shenkar used the sounds of nature’s fury to create something beautiful — the music for his title track ‘Chepleeri Dreams’ from his soon-to-be-released album. “I recorded the sound of thunder, heavy rain and the calls of the peacocks at the Chepleeri Shiva temple. Original footage of the floods is also likely to be a part of the videos,” says the musician, who once collaborated with legends such as George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Phil Collins. Around four years ago, he moved away from the limelight to live almost like a recluse.
Shenkar greets us at the door, clad in a pink shirt, white dhoti, the sunlight glinting off his bright orange hair. Seated in the sparsely furnished living room of his villa located in a quiet, verdant part of Hosur, Shenkar is enthusiastic while speaking about his new album, which will be released by Hollywood label Cleopatra Records. The “pop rock and song-oriented” album was crafted during what Shenkar calls “one of the hardest times” of his life.
“It was like living in a forest, with no electricity or water,” says Shenkar. As the flood ravaged Kerala, and moisture damaged his instruments, Shenkar struggled to work with musicians abroad. Artists such as Jonathan Davis (Korn), Scott Page (Pink Floyd), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Norwood Fisher (Fishbone),Tony Levin (known for his work with John Lennon, and Peter Gabriel), Chester Thompson (famous for his work with Phil Collins, and Genesis), Josh Lopez (Black Eyed Peas), Zack Baird (Korn, Beyonce /Jay-Z), keyboard player Dileep Palakkad and Neel Agrawal (tabla) feature in the album.
“They recorded their bits in their studios and sent it to me and I put it all together,” says Shenkar, whose dream is to put Kerala on the world music map.
The Grammy-winning violinist has a deep connect with Kerala where he spent a good part of his young days, though he also grew up in Madras and Jaffna. Learning vocals at the age of two, violin at the age of five and mridangam at seven, Shenkar gave his first public concert at a Ceylonese temple when he was just seven. So it’s difficult to believe that a young Shenkar had to seek divine intervention to pursue his career as a musician. “My father wanted me to be an engineer in case I didn’t succeed in music,” says Shenkar. Fearing that would deprive him of his true calling, Shenkar promised to break 108 coconuts at Luz Pillayar Koil if he didn’t get an engineering seat. “When the result came, my father was shocked I didn’t get admission, but I was thrilled,” he says.
He then headed to the US as he wanted to marry Indian music with different traditions of music. There he met British guitarist John Mclaughlin, and along with him, Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram, formed the band ‘Shakti’ and toured the world. Five years later, they disbanded. “I felt enough time wasn’t given to rehearsals and I wanted to do it right,” says Shenkar.
This desire for perfection led him to begin designing the double violin in 1978. Besides numerous classical albums, he did the musical composition of the 2005 Oscar winning documentary, Born Into Brothels. His pop DVD, One In A Million, became the #1 DVD in the US, spending four weeks on top of the US Soundscan/ Billboard charts. Shenkar has worked on numerous soundtracks, including The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese for which he won the Grammy. He composed and performed vocals on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and collaborated with the Wendy & Lisa (Prince) on their original score for NBC’s hit TV series, Heroes.
It was his desire to give back to India as well as his devotion to Sri Thirumeni Guruji that prompted him to return home. About three and a half years ago, he established Shiva Conservatory at Chepleeri, conducting master classes for musicians. It now has branches in Chennai, LA and Hosur. With technology bridging worlds, his work schedule is busy — next on the anvil is a classical album with Rajesh Vaidya, several Hollywood projects and a book.
WORKING WITH THE LEGENDS
Michael Jackson: Worked a lot with him on vocals. He was an incredible dancer, a very simple guy who was a child at heart. But it was like he was in prison; every time he went out he had to be in disguise.
I related to him as my father also wouldn’t let me play with other children in case I broke my arm or injured myself. So, I didn’t have many friends or have a regular kid’s life
Madonna: She is very smart, and strong. When she came on to the music scene, it was a maledominated but she made her mark