It was a journey that started out as a class at Berklee College of Music in 2011. Today, it is one of the most sonically fulfilling acts to have emerged from Boston. Founded by Indian Berklee alumna and faculty member Annette Philip, the Berklee Indian Ensemble has been hitting the correct notes for a long time, and that has led to its album Shuruaat, which features quite a few legendary names — Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Vijay Prakash and Shreya Ghoshal. The Telegraph spoke to Annette about the making of the album (and the Ensemble).
QIf Berklee Indian Ensemble wanted, the debut album could have come earlier. Were you looking for a certain sound, or a phase in the Ensemble’s journey before putting out Shuruaat?
In 2013, we began creating music videos. Our goal was to showcase the amazing musicians in the Berklee Indian Ensemble, and share our unique originals and reinterpretations of classic Indian songs. When our reinterpretation of Jiya jale composed by the prolific A.R. Rahman went viral, we were overwhelmed by the positive response from global audiences. In 2016, several viral videos later, we began to dream of an album.
However, we were discouraged from trying to release an album that included any Indian music covers as the general feeling was that procuring rights would be very tedious, and next to impossible. We also wanted to have a whole selection of original songs to choose from.
Years later, during the pandemic, we decided that it was important for us to at least try to procure the rights and explore this option. It took us two years from 2020 to 2022 to identify a music label willing to distribute an unusual album like Shuruaat and sign internal contracts with our 98 musicians, as well as launch a publishing wing for our originals, and finalise a global distribution deal with Sony Music India for the album that honoured all rights holders, and was a long-term equitable process from Berklee’s point of view. It is also extra special to release it as the Ensemble turns 10 years old, because it marks a whole new chapter for the Ensemble as a professional touring entity.
In way of a connecting thread, how are the tracks held together and do the tracks need to be heard in a certain order to be enjoyed?
Oooh, I love that you asked about the order. We have always been very conscious and attentive to the aesthetic flow of anything we create; whether it’s a live concert, an online workshop, or in this case, a journey through the Berklee Indian Ensemble’s first decade as a family.
A team of around 15 musicians from the Ensemble debated and discussed the order of the 10 songs for several days. We even voted on it and the order you hear it in now is what the majority loved. The entire process was very intentional and a lot of fun. A listener can certainly dip in anywhere if they so choose, but our goal was to take them on a journey. There is a certain ebb and flow to the tracks, where some are energising and uplifting (Unnai kaanadhu and 5 Peace Band), others are mysterious and edgy (Sundari pennae). There are hard-hitting impactful messages (Sati and even Dua), as well as songs that soothe and calm (Pinha and Jaago piya). There are songs that will make you feel like dancing (Aakash) and songs that pay homage to Sufi music and Shakti (Arz-e-niyaz or Lady L).
As for the thread, I believe it is our signature global Indian sound, and the energy that is palpable when so many different cultural influences come together for one purpose — to collaborate, create, and build positive energy.
Berklee is obviously home to some of the best musicians in the world and the ensemble has to live up to a certain image. What kind of help did the ensemble receive from teachers at Berklee? Who did you use as a sounding board before putting out the album?
I will say, the goal is not to ‘live up to a certain image’ but more importantly, to challenge ourselves creatively to keep evolving, while staying true to ourselves, the art that we create together, and the myriad cultures we represent in our music.
As a Berklee professor myself, and the first Indian musician to be invited to join the Berklee faculty in 2010, I felt it was my responsibility to create a space for Indian art, music, and culture to be shared with our Berklee community and beyond. It led me to create the Berklee Indian Ensemble in 2011, and serve as artistic director for the Ensemble and Berklee India Exchange institute ever since.
Over the years, I’m delighted to have created pathways for several of our Ensemble graduates who are professionals in their own right, to have been inducted as staff and faculty members at the college. They continue to perform live with the Berklee Indian Ensemble in our tours and live productions, and this album would not have come together without them. These include Rohith Jayaraman, Yogev Gabay, Yoel Genin and Harshitha Krishnan. Other prominent graduates who played a vital role in the pre- and post-production of the album include Guy Bernfeld, Sashank Navaladi, Emanuel Keller, Kaushlesh “Garry” Purohit, Jett Galindo, Michael Borgida, and Andrés González-Cardona. Additional Berklee faculty who supported and brought their gifts to the album include Stephen Webber, Mark Wessel, Ian Kagey, Jonathan Wyner, Alejandro Rodriguez, and Tarik Mahrour.
Annette Philip, the founder of Berklee Indian Ensemble
What was the idea behind the formation of the ensemble and how has the vision of the ensemble evolved?
I was the first Indian musician to be invited to join the faculty of Berklee College of Music in 2010. I received a wonderful gift; a blank canvas and an interesting challenge: If you could create anything that doesn’t currently exist, what would you do? I was inspired to share Indian culture with Berklee (and beyond) and envisioned a performance collective that explored Indian music in all its forms. A space that allowed for cultural influences from all over the world that would ultimately create a global Indian sound.
I founded the Berklee Indian Ensemble in 2011. Over the last decade, we’ve had 450-plus musicians from 52 countries be part of this family. There is a unique power when musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds make art together with vulnerability and openness in a space that celebrates their similarities and differences.
The music that gets created in this space comes across viscerally and allows a song in a foreign language to feel completely relatable because of the human connection, making you want to be part of it. Over the years, the Ensemble has become known as an innovative, diverse group, and I believe we’ve earned acclaim for our unique style that honours Indian traditions while boldly experimenting with a cross pollination of genres, cultures, and multidisciplinary art forms. But mostly, it’s the vibe that people find is palpable. The energy. The joy.
An entire institute, Berklee India Exchange, was born in 2013 out of this momentum that began to focus on artiste residencies (including legends such as A.R. Rahman, Indian Ocean, Clinton Cerejo) scholarships, workshops, teacher training modules, and community service.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how were you introduced to music.
I grew up in a family that wasn’t musical per se, but did love listening to music. Somehow, my parents observed my fascination for the piano (inspired by watching a Pavarotti masterclass on TV) and enrolled me in lessons when we lived in Singapore for a few years. That was the biggest gift, and the turning point, and I’m forever grateful to my parents for leaning into an instinct about me at age five, despite not knowing anything about music pedagogy. From there, I discovered my own voice, my obsession for vocal harmonies, and my natural inclination to create community through music wherever I went. An amazing music director/producer, Julius Packiam, discovered my talent when I was in high school, and that led to my introduction to the exciting world of studio recordings, voiceovers, jingles, and professional singing.
I continued to work professionally throughout my college years (studied journalism and media studies at LSR College) and in 2003, I created a performing arts collective, Artistes Unlimited, in response to the lack of a nurturing space for young musicians in New Delhi, where I lived, and it went on to become one of India’s most diverse Ensembles at the time. It was my first brush with arts entrepreneurialism, although I didn’t even know the term existed. Post epic productions with 60-plus artistes, tours, and an album, I was completely burnt out. I sought inspiration, and followed an instinct to apply to Berklee for higher studies.
My parents weren’t keen on the idea, but said if I received a full scholarship, they’d allow me to pursue this goal. I did land a full scholarship, and my plan was to do two semesters in 2006, and come back to my full time professional music career in India. But it seems the universe had other plans, and I ended up staying for a few more semesters. Before graduating, I was offered a faculty position, and a few months into this new role, the idea for the Berklee Indian Ensemble was born.