Over the past decade, the Berklee Indian Ensemble has been studying and creating music influenced by Indian culture — from collaborations with renowned Indian artists to reinterprations of Metallica. Founder Annette Phillip joined GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the group’s history, the release of the first album, and her musical background. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Arun Rath: The Berklee Indian Ensemble is one of our local treasures. As a product of East-West fusion myself, I might be a little biased.
Based at the Berklee College of Music, over the past 10 years, the group has achieved a truly global sound inspired by Indian roots, but incorporating all the best of modern music from across the world. They’re celebrating their 10th year with the release of their first album, “Shuruaat.”
Annette Philip founded the Berklee Indian Ensemble in 2011. She was the first Indian musician appointed as a faculty member at Berklee. So when we talked, I was surprised to learn that her first musical training wasn’t in the Indian tradition.
Annette Philip: So my family was living in Singapore and I got hooked to this show and I didn’t know who it was. It was Luciano Pavarotti, turns out, with a pianist — and I just got mesmerized. And I would do air piano, table piano all day. And my parents are not musicians, but they observed that penchant for, you know, whatever this mysterious instrument was and enrolled me in piano lessons. And that’s where it began.
In Singapore, I also picked up the trumpet and the recorder besides playing piano. And I used to sing at home, sing in church.
When I came to came back to India as a teenager, that’s where my music teacher at school, So Samuel [ph] discovered that, oh, you can sing like sing, sing. And then from there, jazz acapella, creating my own performing arts collective. And also being a professional, you know, voice over and recording and performing artist. That’s where the Berklee idea came in. Could I go to Berklee for a semester or two and just get some experience, some exposure? And then the rest is history.
Rath: Was the intention from the beginning for it to be as much fusion as it is? It’s the Indian ensemble, but the music is just wonderfully taking in from all traditions.
Philip: Right. Right. I think the intention was first and foremost to create a space that was for us, artistically, and that would allow for a confluence of cultural flavors to play together. If you can design a playground that is safe for musicians from many parts of the world, you still have a thread — a common thread — and the common thread is Indian music in all its forms. So what’s going to happen? It’s like a human experiment. What’s going to happen when you have a safe space, you get along with each other? You spend time outside of music-making to just get to know each other, and food is a big part of that.
What happens when people feel like they are seen and heard and that what they have to say is important? I think beauty happens. Surprises happen. Scrumptious, you know, artistic things come together.
Rath: So the ensemble has been together more than ten years now. Tell us about how it’s changed. I have to imagine with the permeability that you’re talking about, there’s probably been some evolution over the last ten years.
Philip: Absolutely. We’ve had 450 musicians be part of this family from 54 countries, I think is the current count. And I think what is different about the Berklee Indian Ensemble is that very quickly, within the first two or three semesters, the students understood that this was not something that they joined for a grade. This was a community. This was a family. People reached out and said, “You know, when I first heard this arrangement, I knew I had to be in this class. I had to be in this group.” And so what’s been really wonderful is that ever since we started creating videos, we realized that there was such a huge global, loyal fan base for this music, which we didn’t know existed. And we are currently at 280 million views — [I’m] dumbfounded.
Rath: That’s so cool. Yeah, that’s awesome. So tell us about the song. You have some great guest artists working with you.
Philip: The single we released is called “Sundari Pennae.” It’s in Tamil, which is a South Indian language. And we featured Shreya Ghoshal, who is arguably India’s most prolific and beloved female Bollywood singer of all time. She is just an incredible artist with an unbelievable instrument, but also someone who’s really open to experimentation. And she came in 2017 and just did this amazing residency with us and was game to join us in experimenting and really deconstructing her songs. And so the song “Sundari Pennae” is a progressive rock meets semi-classical, semi–Indian classical music.
Rath: And let’s talk a bit more about the album. One of the collaborations was with Ustad Zakir Hussain, the great tabla player, percussionist composer Zakir Hussain. I would say this for people of our generation, you know, for Indian East meets West fusion music. He’s kind of a god, you know, him for us. What is it like working with him?
Philip: We we were in disbelief when, you know, he said yes. And he was so immersed in it from day one, he came to Berklee to just sit with us and talk through the repertoire. And how we usually do things is that we take sometimes six months to a year to study the discography — the entire discography of the artist that we are inviting to be our master artist for the year — and then we deconstruct and reinterpret it so that when they come in, it’s not just that they’re playing it with a new band, they’re reliving sometimes relearning portions that, you know, we’ve kind of stretched and pulled. I think my favorite thing about Zakir Hussain was his playfulness. You know, he’s a hard taskmaster, as he should be. He’s incredibly wise. It was really inspiring. And and we’re hoping we get another chance to play with him and maybe write music together.
Rath: I have to imagine just all the experimental stuff that he’s done. He probably he probably loved that, what you’re talking about.
Philip: Yeah. Yeah, it was fun. The piece that I mentioned where he we transform the tabla into many instruments, it was an improvised piece with a VR artist called Teek Mach. It’s a virtual reality painting tool. So she was on stage with an Oculus, and we hosted this at the Harvard Business School because they have something like a 60-foot LED screen at the back of the stage. And so she’s painting, he’s improvising based on what she’s doing, and the audience is seeing this image come to life.
Rath: So this album is coming out as we’re all coming out of this awful situation where we’ve not had much live performance. Indian music — especially of this type, and I think that’s still true for this ensemble — so much of it is about live performance that that that kind of thing that you have with the audience when you’re doing improvised music, that that will only exist in that kind of space at that time. Are you starting to perform again and what do you see for the next six months?
Philip: We are also looking to tour internationally. We have toured. We’ve headlined festivals in India and in Canada before. We have really amazing super fans, loyal fans that we want to meet in person, but also take this group out to different countries. And we have a list of about 48 musicians — not necessarily Indian, many of whom are not Indian — that we’d like to start collaborating with.
Rath: It’s been so great talking with you. Thank you so much.
Philip: Thank you. And really appreciate it. Thank you.
Arun Rath is the host of GBH News’ All Things Considered.
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