Asian Music and Dance

Samay – Different Journeys, One Destination

The British music scene is alive with cross-cultural collaborations bringing together genres spanning time and space. Kulbir Natt talked to members of Samay, a ‘unique collective of musicians exploring new ways of understanding and making music’, to find out how they arrived at the common space that they all occupy: traditional Indian music.

Listening to Samay’s music takes you on a journey across the globe: the departure point is Indian classical music; stopovers include jazz, flamenco, Latin melodies, folk and soul, and the final destination is improvisational music that spills beyond the confines of one genre.

Samay is Jesse Bannister on saxophone, Giuliano Modarelli on guitar, Bhupinder Singh Chaggar on tabla, Kenny Higgins on bass, and Soumik Datta on sarod. Aside from the bass player, all are grounded in Indian classical music. Influences include leading musicians like Dharambir Singh, Pandit Sharda Sahai, Buddhadev Das Gupta, and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty. All, however, have learnt their musical art in different ways.

Take Jesse Bannister, a north London Tottenham boy. Musical influences: dad’s record collection that included Gurdjieff, Avro Part, Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Vilayat Khan. First musical instrument: saxophone bought at 15 from the proceeds of working at Woolworths. Early musical training: Dingwalls in Camden and busking. Then, years later in the 1990s an encounter at Leeds College of Music with Dharambir Singh (a respected UK-based sitar player and music teacher) and Bhupinder Singh Chaggar led to a slow but sure change towards Indian music. 

“I listened, I learned, I copied and eventually I transformed the raga into a living sound on the saxophone.”

“There was not a specific moment at which I felt I was being trained to be an Indian classical musician,” says Jesse, “the process simply evolved. It was a new experience for Dharambir and me. But somehow our dedication allowed something to blossom. I listened, I learned, I copied and eventually I transformed the raga into a living sound on the saxophone.”

Today, regular input continues from Dharambir and visiting artists like Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty. Work is varied. It includes working with instrumentalists, singers, filmmakers, dancers, storytellers and schoolchildren. And depending on the day of the week Jesse works as a musician, composer, administrator, lecturer, recording artist or video producer.  

An accident of a different sort began Soumik Datta’s introduction to Indian classical music. “It happened in London while my brother and I were playing indoor cricket and I sent my brother’s off-spin attempt flying into the corner of the room where it crashed into my grandmother’s antique instrument with an unearthly resonance that still rings in my ear today. My dad returned home and found me jumping around, twanging about with it. Patiently he explained to me that the instrument was a sarod and not a rock guitar. It turned out he used to play too, and after a few lessons with him he took me to Kolkata to see his guru, Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, a legend of a man.” 

The relationship with his guru, which began in the mid-1990s, continues to this day. Soumik sees him for several weeks every year and says it is like being part of his family. Aside from teaching his father, Buddhadev Das Gupta performed with his grandmother. “Before I knew it,” he says, “I had fallen in love with a sound that I knew would stay with me for the rest of my life. Going to back to India every year allows me to learn from my guru, but also opens up a whole community of musicians that I keep contact with throughout the year. They are a source of inspiration, support and learning.”

Giuliano Modarelli’s background is far removed from Indian classical music. He came to Leeds College of Music from a background of classical, rock and Latin jazz. Things changed when he met Dharambir Singh and Jesse in 2002. 

“Sometimes you find something that you can relate to easily, and it suits your personality, and that is what I felt since I start learning my first raga,” says Giuliano. “It was an emotional and intellectual journey that I felt I had experienced before but couldn’t place where, maybe in past life. To me playing Indian classical music just made sense, more than any other style that I approached in my past.”

In the early years, Indian classical music formed just one part of Giuliano’s music, but it has increased to virtually take over his entire musical output. “I realised that committing to this art form is a lifetime challenge, which will change my musical future. This year I spent several months in India, touring with Bikram Ghosh and Pete Lockett. It was a learning experience that changed my outlook. I firmly intend to continue going back to India in the future.”

Giuliano also has to face up to coming from a non-Indian background. “For a westerner to learn and perform Indian music there are many challenges that need to be accepted if one is going to reach a high level. Foremost among them is regular training with one’s teachers accompanied by a desire and respect for real knowledge and truth in music. As important is a real commitment to find new techniques for playing ragas on a western instrument. Finally, there is a need to accept destiny, God’s grace and the goodwill of the supportive Indian music community.”

Unlike Giuliano, Bhupinder Singh Chaggar was already part of the community. He learnt tabla in Britain through the age-old ‘guru-shishya parampara’ way through Pandit Sharda Sahai of the Benares gharana. Traditionally, in India this involved the student or shishya living with the guru to learn about the music over many years. Slowly, bit-by-bit the student is drawn into and then immersed into the guru’s musical world and his gharana. These days live-in arrangements are rare, but it still involves students learning from one guru over many years to establish a thorough understanding of music as seen through the eyes of the teacher.

“I often listen to the legends. Sometimes I feel like giving up but more often I am inspired by the dexterity, repertoire, sound and depth of thought that has gone into creating the music.”

And it’s a relationship that Bhupinder firmly believes is the cornerstone to building a solid foundation for anyone serious about learning Indian classical music: “When one sees the glow of a master musician who is guiding you, those feelings stay forever and reveal many layers of musical perception. Tabla is a tough instrument with enough depth to frighten most people. I often listen to the legends. Sometimes I feel like giving up but more often I am inspired by the dexterity, repertoire, sound and depth of thought that has gone into creating the music. For me there are no short cuts other than years of hard work to create the bedrock of understanding.”

For the members of Samay, all of whom are quite young, their journey into understanding Indian classical music is, relatively speaking, only just begun. How they continue to deepen that understanding will differ. And while they may well pick up an assortment of musical bedfellows along their way, they all seem, at least for the time being, to be on the same train and heading in the same direction. 



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