Asian Music and Dance

SAMYO – 10th Anniversary Bouquets and Brickbats

On the eve of their tenth Anniversary concert, SAMYO Director Alok Nayak confides that ‘we expect admiration and criticism in equal measure’. Pulse examines the achievements of the UK’s first orchestra devoted to the classical music of India – North and South

‘This is going to sound really cheesy, but in many ways being a member of SAMYO has been life-changing. At an age where I possibly could have wavered away from Indian classical music … the sitar could have easily been replaced with a guitar, SAMYO appeared, almost miraculously.’ This tribute from Raaheel Husain, a former SAMYO member, best sums up the foremost success of the Orchestra.

“…being a member of SAMYO has been life-changing.”

The South Asian Music Youth Orchestra, SAMYO, is groundbreaking in too many ways to count: just to have Indian classical music composed for an ensemble is unusual, but not only does the orchestra blend both Hindustani and Carnatic genres, it also encourages Indian classical musicians born and trained in the UK to explore traditional raga music in a dynamic way. A generously-funded project, it has been able to secure the services of top musicians like Shashank Subramanyam, Rakesh Chaurasia and Bombay Jayashri, whose inspirational example and personal contact give the young musicians the catalyst they need to see the value and relevance of keeping the genre alive.

All great endeavours begin with a small seed: in this case it was the realisation of Milapfest that the excellent young musicians whom they helped to support and promote across the UK were confined to presenting their music in local communities and private settings, without the opportunity to progress beyond annual school performances at most. SAMYO’s Administrative Director, Alok Nayak says: “Although young people were receiving excellent training locally, beyond a point, we felt that they could not fully develop their talent or fulfil their potential. If a student were to complete their Arangetram, or play a starring role in a concert locally, that was a great achievement, but what next? How would they grow, widen their horizons, challenge their skills and improve?”

“I …  learnt from some of the world’s best musicians … [and]  gained skills in playing within an ensemble/orchestra…”

SAMYO sprouted in 2002, in partnership with national charity Youth Music; performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and The Lowry in Greater Manchester were followed by the first Summer School programme – now an annual, eagerly-anticipated event. At first, musicians were recruited from local Milapfest teaching partners in London and Leeds. One of those was young sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun, who recently appeared on BBC 2’s Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment series, which headhunted twelve young musicians nationwide to be mentored by top musicians and perform at Buckingham Palace. He credits his SAMYO experience with giving breadth to his musical training: “SAMYO has had a massive influence on my musical development. I not only sat and learnt from some of the world’s best musicians, but also gained skills in playing within an ensemble/orchestra – something which is not taught in the standard Indian classical music training. I also had the opportunity to work with other western orchestras (such as the National Youth Orchestra and Aldeburgh Young Musicians), which helped broaden my awareness of Western music.”

Jasdeep is just one of many whose musical lives have been transformed through the SAMYO experience. Today, SAMYO conducts national auditions and places in the orchestra are open to people of all backgrounds trained in either Hindustani or Carnatic music. Promising members often graduate to join TARANG, the UK’s National Ensemble for Indian Music which boasts alumni such as Soumik Datta, Bhupinder Singh Chaggar and Jesse Bannister. Nayak says: “It is proven in SAMYO that the experience gives our members better social skills, confidence and improved ability to be creative. At the very least, SAMYO musicians will become future audience members for Indian classical music; at best, they are our future ambassadors of Indian arts!”

“SAMYO represents a dedicated commitment to nurturing the unique sound of Indian classical music made in Britain.”

Ten successful years prove the sustainability and demand for this type of project. The sound of SAMYO is unique. classical Indian music is characterised by its almost exclusive dedication to solo performance. Raga music plays with the manipulation of the spectrum of individual notes, whereas orchestral music calls for new structures, exploration of harmony, compositional devices such as counterpoint, and interlocking themes. And while the melding of Indian and Western musical influences has gone on for decades, it can often be heard in short-lived one-off concert presentations; brief collaborative flares that fade as quickly as they were put together. SAMYO represents a dedicated commitment to nurturing the unique sound of Indian classical music made in Britain.

But despite the noble aspirations of SAMYO’s leaders, the musical path has not been smooth. As much as praise is due for their inspiring of hundreds of young musicians, the artistic success of their attempts to transfer Indian classical music into the orchestral genre is questionable. A Pulse reviewer, a student of Indian classical music and dance, heard SAMYO at Alchemy last year and was disappointed to find that, “though the raga may have been different, the compositional structure did not vary much and nearly always had all the musicians playing at once.” Our reviewer noted that the collaborating Western ensembles – The National Youth Brass Band and Youth Jazz Orchestra – “brought SAMYO out of the regimented one-dimensionality… enabling harmonies to develop and individuals to show off their skills as soloists.”

Nayak says: “Unlike Western classical music, there is no existing repertoire for orchestras, and there are very few composers worldwide with the experience or skills to compose for an all-Indian instrumental orchestra. Over the years, we hope that our compositions and arrangements have improved, and we have become a bit more adventurous.” One would hope that as the repertoire matures, it can become all substance and no filler, unlike the “stop-start medley of Bollywood songs over the last 80 years’ used as a finale piece in the concert reviewed. It was also noted that the young performers ‘sounded in need of more rehearsal time that focuses specifically on ensemble skills”.

The orchestra has been guided through its evolution by artistic directors Ustad Dharambir Singh and his successor, Srimati Manorama Prasad. Both are highly respected in their respective musical traditions, but the orchestra is yet to be guided exclusively by a conductor who combines raga knowledge with Western-trained compositional skills. In 2009 they appointed a Principal Conductor, eminent sitarist and composer, Gaurav Mazumdar. It remains to be seen whether his conductorship will be able to transform the project into something of real artistic innovation. Ensemble playing is challenging even for professional soloists, and orchestration of Indian classical music has yet to catch fire — perhaps the most well-known attempt is the work of the late Ravi Shankar with Philip Glass. Internationally-successful productions like theatre director Roysten Abel’s Manganiyar Seduction (though featuring Rajasthani folk, as opposed to classical music), prove that it is possible to have a large ensemble of musicians, playing ‘set’ compositions, led by an Indian-trained conductor, that offer a vibrant, layered sound. 

That said, ultimately the project has a primary set of aims, which can still be achieved, no matter the orchestral sophistication. ‘We still maintain a strong emphasis on training, personal development and performance opportunities for our young musicians,’ asserts Nayak. “SAMYO is essentially a developmental or educational orchestra, to train young musicians and give them confidence, training and hope for the future. There’s no financial benefit or potential for business growth in this; it has to be a labour of love.”

In these tricky times for all arts initiatives, SAMYO has been lucky to receive Arts Council funding; last year deemed an official ‘National Youth Music Organisation’. The mentors and supporters have the challenging task of balancing the creative and business interests of the orchestra. “While we consider risky compositions and adventurous music in our repertoire, essentially everything about SAMYO is risky and new,” says Nayak, “…we expect admiration and criticism in equal measure. The orchestra’s uniqueness can be both a huge benefit and a hindrance, and this can have a range of opposite effects on our ability to attract audiences, sponsorships and investment from funders. Promoting the orchestra as an unusual, new and attractive artistic product may help us in our cause.”

“…one wishes to be young again and be a part of something as magnificent as this…”

Musicians who have worked with the orchestra share unanimous praise for the project: ‘When one sees the opportunities and excitement in SAMYO and TARANG, one wishes to be young again and be a part of something as magnificent as this,’ says veena artist Jayanthi Kumaresh, herself the creator of a similarly-inspired Indian National Orchestra in 2011.

In March the orchestra will put on a special anniversary concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall featuring a selection of works by some of India’s most famous contemporary composers, including Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, Gaurav Mazumdar and Ranajit Sengupta, all of which have been specially composed and arranged for the orchestra. This year they will also record their second album and premiere a film that documents their past milestone year.

Having forged connections with a range of youth music projects over the past decade including the National Youth Jazz Collective and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the future holds broad prospects for the project. The team hope that in the future SAMYO members will come from all ethnic backgrounds of England, proving that Indian music can be learnt and enjoyed by anyone. They also hope to see their young members finding success and stability in professional musical careers over the next decade. We look forward to hearing bold new commissions which can help build on their considerable achievements and take SAMYO to the next level.



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