Hitting the high notes, with the Berklee Indian Ensemble
When Annette Philip dreams, she dreams out loud. Her genre-bending, border-blending music collective dropped its debut album this year. It’s up for a Grammy award. Milestones matter, she says; but so does doing right by artists.
In 2010, when Annette Philip became the first Indian musician to be offered a faculty position at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she says the prestigious contemporary-music college gave her a “blank canvas” to start something new. “Immediately I said I’d like to have a performing ensemble exploring Indian music in its different forms, where musicians from across the world can bring their own cultural flavour in the co-creation,” says Philip, 42.
She set up the Berklee Indian Ensemble (BIE) in 2011. A little over a decade later, Philip is counting down the days to February 5, 2023, for the Grammy Awards to be held in Los Angeles. The Ensemble’s debut album, Shuruaat (Beginning, released by Sony Music India), is up for a Best Global Music Album award.
Think of Shuruaat as a dense, intricate palimpsest of Indian music that is global in ambition. Its ten tracks feature 98 musicians from 39 countries. The opening track, Unnai Kaanadhu Naan, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s original Tamil composition, joyously accommodates a Jordanian-Iraqi violinist and an Israeil bouzouki player. South Indian rhythmic solfege, konnakol, fuses effortlessly with progressive rock patterns on Shreya Ghoshal’s rendition of the Tamil film song, Sundari Pennae. Zakir Hussain’s tabla blossoms alongside guitar, cello, piano and the Carnatic violin on Shakti’s Lady L, which brings in musicians from seven countries. Lush orchestration and vocal arrangements serve as a foil to the ghazal-inspired Pinha, written by Berklee vocalist Dhruv Goel.
The BIE itself has 11 members. Only two musicians, including Philip, are from India, with another being of Nigerian-Indian origin. Other members are from Israel, Indonesia, Brazil, Armenia and Jordan. How did she pull off and album like this? “It took a village,” says Philip, speaking over the phone from New York.
She may well have meant a global village.
Philip has a knack for identifying common chords among diverse sounds, diverse people. “There is a two-three phase audition process,” she says. “We check if the members can vibe with the culture. There are a lot of spoken and unspoken values the group upholds: intentionality, kindness, discipline, reliability, the willingness to collaborate and cooperate being some of them.”
For Armeen Musa, Bangladeshi singer and Berklee class of 2014 graduate, being at the college and part of the Ensemble was like, “being home”. She’d been creatively lonely for decades. In BIE, she says, she found a “community of people who loved this art form the way I have”. Musa’s Bengali song Jago Piya is the final song on Shuruaat. Her mother, the academic Nashid Kamal, wrote the lyrics. That contribution is making headlines in their home country. The daughter-mother duo are the first Bangladeshis to be featured on a Grammy-nominated album.
Philip has been interested in Western music since childhood. She learnt to play the piano, recorder, and trumpet. She taught herself singing and worked as a jingle artist while doing voiceover work for the Discovery Channel. But her underlying interest lay in community building. As a journalism student at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College in the early 2000s, she co-founded Artistes Unlimited, an a cappella ensemble. It roped in more than 50 members for its first album, En Route, 2007.
“It was very natural for my creative endeavours to involve large groups of people and ambitious productions,” she says. “I love the ethos, conceptualisation and execution of a massive production.” Over eleven years, BIE has worked with close to 500 musicians from 52 countries. She’s planning a stadium concert next year, with tour dates likely in India.
The scope is wide, but the Ensemble’s principles remain high. “Before releasing Shuruaat, we had to make sure every single person involved was respected,” says Philip. The team spent two-and-a-half years procuring rights to original Tamil film songs and tracks by the revered Indo-jazz fusion band, Shakti, and its later avatar, Remember Shakti, which BIE covered. Philip also painstakingly drew up “an equitable pro-rated revenue sharing system” for the album’s 98 musicians and technical crew. “This is probably the most transparent contract possible,” Philip claims. “I’m pretty confident that it’s the only one of its kind in the world.”
Shuruaat also marks the first time that the Berklee College of Music will be represented at the Grammys. Alumni from the 77-year-old institution have collectively won 320 Grammy Awards. Steve Vai, John Mayer, Esperanza Spalding, Quincy Jones and Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab are among those who have been feted for their individual work. “I’m glad that it is the Indian Ensemble that has brought this honour to the world’s best known music institution,” says Philip with the kind of distinct cheerfulness that has become the signature of the Berklee Indian Ensemble sound.