Berklee Indian Ensemble

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As in 2022

Nov 27, 2022: The Times of India

■ Congrats on the Grammy nomination for ‘Shuruaat’ under the Best Global Music Album category. How does it feel?

Getting a nomination the first time that you submit is a very big deal. ‘Shuruaat’, for us, means a new beginning. And it is the beginning of a new chapter on many different fronts — as a touring ensemble and being able to get out a debut album. This is the first album at Berklee that has been released commercially. The college is an educational non-profit entity. 

■ You recently posted that it took a village to get the album out. Take us behind the scenes.

We have 98 musicians from 39 countries represented on the ten songs on the album. We have at least 60 other people who have worked with us behind the scenes including designers, photographers, engineers, producers, folks who are helping with getting the word out to figuring out our strategy in pushing the album out, videographers, animators (we also have an animation video) and lawyers who helped us procure the rights. It took us about two and a half years to procure the rights of a few of the songs. We also took a year and a half, to figure out how to design a pro-rated revenue share system for all the participants. We wanted to ensure this is done the right way because a lot of times, people are not able to get a share in the revenue generated from a commercially released piece which means that if the song has a billion views, whoever owns the song is the only one enjoying the success of that song. We created a system to define the role of each participant and, accordingly, defined the share that they received. Many of these things had no precedent — both in the industry and at Berklee. So, yes, it took close to 150 people to get this out. 

■ The album has singles in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sanskrit, Urdu and Scat (using improvised syllables and sounds). What went into its curation?

We wanted it to represent the entire ensemble which is always focused, of course, on the core of Indian music but also allowing for all these multicultural sounds and flavours. So, we have four originals, two tributes to ‘Shakti’ and four reinterpretations of existing songs. There are multiple languages. And we also have one song in Scat syllables and a non-vocal song. In terms of style, there’s Indian classical, Sufi, folk elements, progressive rock, jazz, choral, gospel elements and Middle-Eastern flavours. 

■ You were the first Indian musician to join the faculty at Berklee. What led you there?

As a student in Delhi, I had heard about Berklee but it took me two years to convince my parents. I told them: “What if I get a full scholarship? Then, can I go?” They said “Absolutely”. Finally, I got a full scholarship and I was able to go. Berklee felt like a parallel dimension of musicians from over 100 countries. The doors kept opening. Before I graduated, I got the offer to join the faculty. I didn’t know at the time that I would be the first Indian musician to join the faculty but once I was there, I got this beautiful blank canvas. They asked me if I could do anything new, what would I do. And I immediately knew that I wanted to have this global group that was exploring Indian music in all its forms. And eleven years later, here we are. At the Grammys. You’ve earlier described BIE’s attitude as slightly “rogue”. Whether something’s been done or not been done is of no consequence to us. We don’t wait for permission or precedent. We create new precedent. When I started it 11 years ago, there were two questions that came to my mind — “What if?” and “Why not?” Each one of our milestones has been an answer to these questions. What if we design a safe space for musicians from all over the world to explore Indian music? What if we start doing artist residencies and have collaborations with legends such as A R Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan, Shreya Ghoshal, Shankar Prakash and Indian Ocean among so many others? What if we start doing workshops? What if we started online education? What if we began touring? What if we get this album and submit it to the Grammys? And why not win a Grammy? (laughs) If you think very big, it leads to incredible opportunities. BIE has propelled Berklee to become the most-viewed academic YouTube channel of the world. We now have nearly 300 million organic views. We also have very loyal non-Indian fans. BIE is now Berklee’s first band in residence. 

■ You have become quite a saree ambassador. How many do you have?

Not enough. I wish I could go on an India tour to find sarees from every state. Even if I was not Indian, I would probably gravitate towards sarees. It is one of the most sophisticated, graceful, and also sensual, piece of clothing. I love wearing my culture. 

■ What will you wear to the Grammys?

Not yet (laughs). But I am 99% sure that I will be wearing a saree.

■ How does BIE plan to celebrate if it wins?

We will celebrate by making a lot more music. Over the years, we have had 500 musicians and some of them have stayed in the Ensemble for over ten years. What keeps them coming back is that there is so much to learn within Indian music. Our violinist, Layth Sidiq, for instance, is Jordanian-Iraqi. And he just brings beautiful flavour and interpretation and delves into Indian influences.

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