“THERE IS NO east or west. It is a globe.” I don’t know if this is an original quote. But there is a moment in Morgan Neville’s documentary The Music of Strangers, which tells the story of the band Silk Road Ensemble, when a musician uses this expression to articulate the idea behind the band and its music. The Silk Road Ensemble—made up of artists from such diverse traditions and genres and parts of the world that it was once referred to as the Manhattan Project of music where nobody knew what was going to come out of it—was founded by the legendary Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Since 2001, it has brought out several exceptional albums.
Each of its albums has been about what happens when strangers meet. Where does each one of us fit into the world. About—as the band likes to describe itself—departure and explorations and new encounters. But as much as we may journey forth, making distinctions like the East and West are mere geographic terms of little real value. As flat as the world may appear, the emotion of root and home has perhaps never been more palpable.
The Silk Road Ensemble’s latest album Sing Me Home, which won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album a few days ago, is about the memory of home. Every piece in the album invites listeners to explore the music of home through the individual experiences of its members. There are traditional and original songs made afresh with new twists in compositions. There are Iranian string instruments, Japanese flutes, Chinese pipas, Irish fiddlers, cellos and jazz guitars. And amongst them is the heady percussive rhythm of Sandeep Das’ wondrous tabla.
With the Sing Me Home win, Das is now one of few Indian musicians who have won a Grammy Award. Some other Indian classical maestros who have been awarded in the past include Pandit Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Apart from Das’ win, a Hyderabad-born percussionist, Abhiman Kaushal, was part of an album White Sun II that won an award in the New Age Music category.
The preoccupation of the Silk Road Ensemble and its music is perhaps most well encapsulated in the story of its Indian tabla player. The 46-year- old Das, who now lives in the US and travels the world working on well-received experimental and collaborative projects, started off as a child prodigy in Patna. He would learn the tabla from local teachers in the city. And during weekends, by the time he turned nine years old, he would travel by train from Patna to Varanasi so he could learn from a well-known guru, Kishan Maharaj, of the Benaras Gharana. Once he was through with school, his father, a post office employee, took a transfer to Varanasi and moved his family there, so that Das could study the tabla more dedicatedly under his guru. “Sandeep was so impressive that [the] late Pandit Kishan Maharaj tied him a ganda [thread] when he was just 13,” Raj Kumar Nahar, a tabla player and childhood friend of Das told the Telegraph. A ganda is tied by a guru when he is convinced that his student has reached a level of excellence. By the age of 15, he had made his stage debut with the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. Das now travels the world working with well-known musicians in various collaborative projects. Apart from his work with the Silk Road Ensemble, he has also performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
After he won the Grammy, he expressed the pride he felt as an Indian musician, but also offered a lament. He told the Times of India, “I am very proud of who I am and where I come from, be it culturally or musically. I wish there was more acknowledgment from my own country for the music that is deep- rooted and in our blood over glitz and glamour… It is not a complaint, but merely a wish. I hope there is more awareness about traditional music.”