Carrie Newcomer's Indian project 

Newcomer performs in New Delhi, India, on behalf of the arts outreach program Music Basti.
  • Newcomer performs in New Delhi, India, on behalf of the arts outreach program Music Basti.

Carrie Newcomer has always had an adventurous spirit.

It's evident in her perceptive folk music and collaborations with everyone from Quaker theologian Phillip Gulley to environmental writer Scott Russell Sanders. Then there's her work leading songwriting workshops and serving as a cultural ambassador for the American Embassy in India.

It's that last role that's facilitated her 15th album, Everything is Everywhere, a collaboration with the famed Khan family of Indian classical musicians. It's a project even Newcomer admits is unusual for her.

"It's very singular," she recently said by phone from Delhi, India, while on her second visit to the country as a cultural ambassador.

The idea came about in 2009, when Newcomer was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the American Embassy School in Delhi. There's a section of the American Embassy called the American Center, which brings cultural events like music, art and literature from the United States.

"It's not so much for expatriates," Newcomer said. "It's really to bring a variety of American culture to India."

The Southern Indiana-based singer spent a month traveling all over the country, playing concerts at night and performing community service during the day. Mostly she worked with young residents, leading workshops on songwriting and creative writing. That's something Newcomer had done for years, though never internationally. She described the experience as wonderful and life-changing.

"I really fell in love with India when I was here," Newcomer said. "I've had the opportunity to meet wonderful musicians while I was here."

That includes the Khans, a family of classically-trained sarod players that includes Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan. As Newcomer describes it, if the sitar is the violin of the Indian classical world, the sarod is the cello.

"It still has those beautiful, resonating strings and that drone we associate with the sitar, but it's lower," she said.

In an email exchange, Ayaan says the sarod has become one of India's most popular musical instruments.

"It has reached out to diverse and mainstream listeners all across the globe," he wrote. "Post the sitar boom, the sarod has managed to carve out a special niche in the hearts of music lovers."

Newcomer met the Khans in their home, where they have a studio. One thing led to another, and they began to play music together.

"It was just a beautiful experience," Newcomer said. "We were both so touched by one another's music, and touched by the spirit that was contained in the music."

Like Newcomer, the Khans have facilitated plenty of interfaith dialogue (Amjad is Muslim while his wife Subhalakshmi is Hindu).

"There's a spiritual current in my work," said Newcomer, a practicing Quaker. "They really appreciated that. We felt like we had a common well that our music was pulling from."

There were other factors that drew the Khans to Newcomer.

"(She has) one of the most appealing voices we ever heard," Ayaan wrote. "The lyrics also were truly a connecting thread between what was to become Everything is Everywhere."

Transcending barriers

There was enough of a kinship that the next time the Khans were in the United States, they recorded with Newcomer at Bloomington's Airtime Studios. Newcomer wrote a collection of songs specifically for the collaboration, working from notes she kept while in India.

"I came home with notebooks filled with images," Newcomer said. "It was such a busy schedule and so much happened in that month that it was hard to process it all. I didn't have time to write about it, but I did have time to write little reflections and images."

Newcomer was keenly aware of the cultural differences while in India. But she also noticed the similarities.

"When I started singing songs for Indian audiences, what I found is if you're singing a song about love or family, or grief or struggle, or particularly about hope, it's recognizable everywhere immediately," she said. "I was touched encountering that beautiful thread that pulls between us as people."

Both sides went into the project having little idea of what to expect.

"We were all stepping out into uncharted territory," Newcomer said. "I don't know if a collaboration like this has ever happened."

Ayaan isn't aware of another one. His family has worked with Western artists before, including Derek Trucks, but no one of the folk persuasion like Newcomer.

"It is very rare for [performers such as us] to record an entire album together as opposed to recording just a track," Ayaan wrote. "In this case, it was the meeting of minds, hearts, spirituality and the common goal that music transcends all barriers."

For Ayaan Everything is Everywhere is an opportunity to expand the creative boundaries of his native music.

"There's a very fanatic audience that would like Indian music [to be as it's always been]," he wrote. "But now it's time to give new meanings and dimension to Indian music and even offer [new] music forms. Respect tradition and not convention. As they say 'everything is everywhere.'"

Proceeds from the album, which will be released Nov. 1 on Available Light Records, benefit the Interfaith Hunger Initiative. Based in Indy, the organization unites a number of spiritual traditions with the common goal of helping the neediest.

"It's all coming together to alleviate hunger in children and families," Newcomer said. "Here in Indiana, but also abroad. It's very much in keeping with the spirit of this work."

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