A spinoff group from the Silk Road Project brings music and ideas to India.
For the second year running, the Hum Ensemble, a group of musicians from across the globe, played to packed halls in the Rhythm of Life concert in Delhi. This week the show moves to Mumbai.
The Ensemble’s music is familiar, but neither wholly Indian nor Western. Asian and Western instruments come together in a “classical crossover”, as the Ensemble’s leader tabla master Sandeep Das calls it.
“It is neither the famous fusion music nor the lesser-known world music,” he says.
Das was nominated for a Grammy Award this year, and won one in 2007. He did not win this time, but he says the recognition is the result of his mastery of the genre. His album Off the Map, in which the popular number “Sulva Sutra” put him in the nominee category, was scored as a classical crossover.
“The idea of bringing the Ensemble to India,” says Das, “took root three years ago while I was performing at the Millennium Park in Chicago before a 65,000-strong crowd, as part of the Silk Road Ensemble.” Having been with this troupe for over a decade and performed around the world, he says the next logical step was to plant the seeds of this music in his own country. “I even discussed the idea with Yo Yo Ma, the famed cellist and leader of the Silk Road Project,” Das says.
The initial purpose of the Silk Road Project was to bring together musicians from countries along the ancient Silk Route. Over time, Das explains, it has grown into an assembly of musicians from countries well beyond the limits of those lands. The Hum Ensemble is thus a step toward bringing young Indian musicians in contact with musicians and current from around the world.
Big ideas aside, Das says, it was not easy to persuade world musicians to join in the Hum Ensemble concept. The logistics of juggling schedules so all these musicians would be available to perform on this untried platform were a challenge.
Finally, says Das, “It was the super artiste and talented Chinese musician Wu Tong who came forward. He plays the sheng and the bau, instruments of Chinese origin.”
As other artistes signed up, Das found himself face to face with an unexpected difficulty. “The problem soon became whom to choose and whom to eliminate. Ultimately I settled for the idea of giving listeners a flavour of the music of the Silk Road, without limiting ourselves to any particular category of music. Thus our bagpipe player, Cristina Pato from Spain, who plays the Galypso bagpipe and not the Scottish bagpipe, came on board. The two percussionists, Shane Shahanan and John Hadfield had played with me at concerts in the USA and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and we soon launched our project of sharing music and not national identity through music.”
So is the Hum Ensemble playing in India from the repertoire of the parent Silk Road Ensemble? Das says there are differences. “No doubt the Hum compositions, too, have been made keeping the specific instrument in mind, but its music has other ramifications. It is all-embracing of the musician community.”
Some of the proceeds of these concerts will go into a scholarship fund for specially challenged children who want to enter the performing arts. Therefore, in India the Ensemble is joined by two blind children. “The two girls now sing along with us at the current concert,” Das says.
Another portion of the money raised by the Ensemble “will provide a lump sum premium payment as health insurance for aged Indian artistes, to lighten the burden of their twilight years.” says Das. “Thus the spirit of Hum translates into the power of We, and the music we play is that of a common identity beyond narrow national identities.”