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Musical Trades on the Modern Silk Road

The tabla’s appeal set Sandeep Das on a quest to explore the linkages between Indian and Western classical music.

It was his father who first spotted the unusual sense of rhythm in Sandeep Das and decided that he must learn the tabla, from the best of gurus. At 16, Das had his debut concert, accompanying sitarist Ravi Shankar. Later, as a performer in his own right, the tabla’s appeal set Das on a quest to explore beyond the linkages of his standing as a disciple of the late Kishan Maharaj of Varanasi. 

The first stop on this wider journey occurred in 2001, when he joined American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble in collaboration with The New York Philharmonic orchestra. Before being introduced, Das did not know who Ma was. That is how far Das was from Western classical music. Yet, he says, one mellow tone from the maestro’s cello during the first rehearsal had him hooked.

This experience was a musical tsunami for the Indian tabla performer schooled in an oral tradition, where he had been taught to make a mental score of the music he hears and improvise for himself. On being handed his score by the orchestra, he pronounced confidently, “I don’t read music, but I can listen to you a few times and join in.” The musicians were aghast, but Ma acceded to this strange request and after three rounds of rehearsal, Das was in the picture. 

This concert opened doors: His album, “The Rain,” followed. Projects and concerts have not stopped coming. Das says it was at Ma’s request that he made his first composition, “Tarang,” for a performance on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2002. In 2005, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the Silk Road Project, commissioned an American fusion composer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology music professor, Evan Ziporyn, to write a piece with a solo for Das. As yet unable to read music, Das made aural notes from the music that Ziporyn recorded on an electronic keyboard. Before long, it was time for the tabla, pipa, cello, violin and viola to fuse in the premiere of “Sulvasutra” at Carnegie Hall, one of America’s premier concert venues.  

By the time Das started performing this piece all over the world, he had devised a musical score of his own, comprising such notations as “feel the fire,” “make it happier with tabla handling,” and “add tihais,” (build up to a crescendo with three rounds of repetitive notes). In 2007, the Seattle Symphony orchestra performed the piece before an audience of 5,000. “We played not as musicians but as a single human being and the result was an explosion, like a bomb of applause at the end,” Das recalls. He most recently performed on the Silk Road Project tour of 10 U.S. cities in August 2010. 

On Americans, Das says, “If they like your music, they send you e-mails and want you to come back and give you dates for collaborations right away. My wooden riser to place my tabla is always in place, so that the sound is not absorbed by the floor. Audiences come to my concerts aware of what to expect, having read up reviews in papers…having seen television broadcasts of concerts.”

From the other direction, Das’ own project, “HUM,” premiered in India in February 2010 with American percussionists John Hadfield and Mark Suter. 

In the bargain, Das has learned more than how to read music. “I have realized how important it is to curb that instinct to be upfront. It was (American folk musician) Bill Crofut who taught me an indelible lesson: ‘Forget identity, interact with them and your music follows on its own.’ ” 


Subhra Mazumdar is a freelance writer and All India Radio broadcaster.