Sushma Soma’s Carnatic music album invokes environmental concerns

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Carnatic music vocalist Sushma Soma. Photo: courtesy Sushma Soma

HOME, a new album of Carnatic music by award winning Vocalists Sushma Soma (shortened from Somasekharan) and Aditya Prakash, was released April 8th. Home features Soma with her emotional renderings in Carnatic music evoking the earth and the environment. HOME, a concept of Soma, is produced by Prakash, and created together by both Soma and Prakash. This second album of Soma features a number of U.S. based vocal artists including Aditya Prakash, Mythili Prakash, Rumi Prakash-Gollapudi, and Kiran Gollapudi.

Soma’s first album SA has won accolades for creating a confluence of Carnatic music with other musical influences. Born and raised in Singapore in a house full of Carnatic music, Soma began learning Carnatic music at the age of four, and went on to win the prestigious Young Artist Award of the National Arts Council of Singapore. Born and raised in Los Angeles amidst a house full of Indian classical music, producer Prakash is the founder of the acclaimed performing group Aditya Prakash Ensemble, which creates original compositions inspired from the styles of Indian classical, folk, jazz, funk, and hip hop.

This is the second album which both Soma that Prakash are collaborating on. Both Soma and Prakash have shared their music journey for over ten years as disciples of the same Carnatic music mentors and going on music tours together, according to Prakash. As a producer, Prakash was impressed by the quality of Soma’s voice which he described in an interview with News India Times as full of “honesty, rawness, emotion, discomfort and beauty”. “I think this music tells a very visual and visceral story, if the listener gives the album some investment and patience, which is needed for this type of work,” Prakash said.

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The themes of HOME are based on her introspection on relating to nature, wildlife, and sustainability, Soma told News India Times in an exclusive interview. Admiration and wonder at Nature as a child changed for sadness and horror as an adult at seeing so much violence against Nature, she said. Much thinking led to awareness of her own responsibility towards Nature, and these emotions are the center of the musical exploration of HOME, Soma said.

Cover of Sushma Soma’s new Carnatic music album ‘Home’. Photo: courtesy Sushma Soma

Soma’s story is similar to stories of artists who are born to immigrant parents in foreign countries. Soma’s parents who immigrated to Singapore in the 1980s, and wanted to make sure their children were exposed to and learned Indian culture, according to Soma who said her parents wanted to make sure she learned Carnatic music and Indian culture through it.

Carnatic music runs for generations in Soma’s household, Soma said. “My maternal grandmother studied Carnatic music in her college and my paternal grandmother can still sing in pitch and remembers lyrics at the age of 92 now,” Soma said. She said she did get attracted to other art forms and sports like her friends in Singapore. “But as an adult now, I am so immensely grateful that I was made to continue learning in this path,” Soma said.

After much recognition in Singapore in early years, Soma went to Chennai to train in Carnatic music under Lalita Sivakumar first, and then R.K. Shriramkumar, both stalwarts in the particular music form. Since then, she has been performing in various cities including San Diego, Brussels, London, Luxembourg, and Kuala Lumpur.

Today, Carnatic Sound is what attracts her as an adult. Attributing her keen interest in sound to her mentor and teacher and her friends, Soma said her earlier feeling that Carnatic music was only meant for a specific audience has undergone a change to now appreciating the limitless possibilities within the music. “From expressing grief, to rage, to shame, to wonderment – the spectrum that the music allows to be explored, has left me in awe,” Soma added.

Elaborating on a specific element of Carnatic music, Kampita Gamakam, which, Soma said, is a ‘specific movement and exploration of space between the swarams’, Soma said this would come across as off-pitch to untrained ears. She said it is that element that she was drawn to, and it features in the songs Ma, The Elephant’s Funeral and Ivory Game in her current album HOME. Ma Dhara explores the emotions of frustration and rage not often explored in the Carnatic voice. Nature is about the overwhelming beauty and wonderment that is nature. Man uses everyday sounds that impact our environmental landscapes. Grief is an expression of grief and shame.

Love of music for Soma also involves much practice and strict daily regimes. “I do breathing exercise every morning. I also do vocal warm ups before starting on the actual practice,” Soma said. Soma said her journey will continue on the same musical path. Music, for her is a way to express her personal story, she said. “The marrying of my everyday life with the art form that I engage with everyday is a very special and intimate space for me,” she said. Soma said she is toying with the idea of creating an album like HOME for children.

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