In a musical conversation with the world

A friend sends me a link of a video and I see this dusky, attractive, sari-clad woman with sparkling eyes being the music she is singing and playing on the piano. An infectious smile is never far from her face as she conducts an ensemble and, occasionally, dances too. Annette Philip, for that is her name, was leading the Berklee Indian Ensemble, founded by her in 2011 at Berklee College of Music. The musicians, drawn from all across the world, were giving new nuances and accents to A.R. Rahman’s songs. Another link showed Rahman himself joining the ensemble for a number.

A search on Google reveals more about this Keralite from Delhi, now a faculty member of Berklee College of Music, Boston, United States (U.S.). Facebook helps me in getting in touch with this composer, arranger, songwriter, academic and vocalist, who is taking Indian music to the world in her own way.

Finally we Skype one early morning when Annette is in the midst of rehearsals, becoming pitch perfect before the Berklee Indian Ensemble presents their next concert.

With music as her muse, Annette was soaring high in the universe of melody even before she decided to pursue higher studies in music at Berklee College. Perseverance, an Inlaks Foundation grant, and a scholarship from Berklee, helped her convince her parents, Kandathil Pothen Philip and Mary Philip, to overcome their initial reluctance to allow their only daughter to leave the nest for Berklee.

Although she was financially independent and had founded Artistes Unlimited, a performing arts collective in New Delhi, the move to Berklee, she says “gave me a different kind of exposure and widened my horizons and perspective in music.”

Before Annette graduated, she was offered a faculty position at Berklee. She adds: “Initially, as choral director for Berklee's education outreach City Music Program, I brought Balkan, African, and Indian music to high school students. The response was so amazing, that I suggested the creation of an official Berklee Indian Ensemble at the college level too. The Voice and Ensemble departments at the college were open to introducing classes on global music traditions. Within the first year, we had 18 to 19 students from 14 countries. For our first concert, our tiny recital space was overcrowded, with listeners from Harvard, MIT, Emerson, besides a large crowd from within Berklee.

“Since then, there has been no looking back... As a performer and composer/arranger myself, I find that this ensemble keeps me on my toes, and allows me to keep growing, which is so important for an educator. It's a two-way street – I share any knowledge I've acquired and also learn every single day from my students!"

YouTube clips featuring the Ensemble’s programmes went viral, with hits touching over 1.4 crores. Annette recalls that the response was phenomenal right from the first show.

“Over the last five years the Ensemble has grown to include students from 42 countries and is a great example of the diversity of Berklee’s student population. It gives the students an opportunity to learn about Indian music, and through this music, about the culture of India, while also allowing for cultural nuances from all over the world to be infused into how we collectively interpret Indian music,” she explains.

A ticketed show in 2012 at one of the biggest halls in Berklee, attended by the president of Berklee, Roger H. Brown, was a turning point. Impressed by the turnout and the concert, he wanted to take the Ensemble to the next level and encouraged Annette to invite the best musicians to work with the students.

“Clint Valladares, another alumnus of Berklee and my colleague, and I wanted to invite high profile, living legends of India as artists-in -residence.”

Under a programme they founded, known as the Berklee India Exchange (BIX), they first invited Mumbai-based Clinton Cerejo in 2013, then A.R. Rahman in 2014 and Vijay Prakash in 2015. In 2016, Berklee will host Shankar Mahadevan.

The artist-in-residence programme of BIX aims at helping students have a cultural and musical conversation with Indian maestros. It gives them unique access to work and perform with these legendary artists. Berklee also honoured Rahman with an honorary doctor of music degree while the Ensemble celebrated his life and music with a concert featuring songs representing every year of Rahman's career.

“What was difficult was to decide what to leave out!” laughs Annette.

Annette says the reason for choosing Rahman was “because he has single-handedly changed the face of contemporary Indian film music, while continuing to honour our traditions. His music has been the sound track to many of our lives – we grew up with it. Working in myriad Indian languages, he does not restrict himself to one kind of music.

“His repertoire includes sufiana, folk, classical, jazz, rock, rap… he does it all with ease, and also embraces modern technology. What better role model for our students, and what an effective way for our community to delve deeper into Indian culture.”

Annette says the effort of the Berklee India Exchange and the Indian Ensemble is to educate themselves and also educate their audiences. She allows the students to bring in their own cultural backgrounds and experiences to interpret Indian music and inspire them on new flights of creativity.

For instance, the Ensemble doesn't simply cover songs. A new flavour is given to each song that they perform, sometimes it is the orchestration, at times it could be the vocal arrangement… “Each of our guest artists has not only understood this approach, but supported it wholeheartedly! Often, they are surprised at our interpretation. Just recently we did a version of Rahman's classic ‘Rasathi’ and decided to feature harp, the greek laouto, the qanun, violin and percussion along with voice."

The proceeds from the A.R. Rahman Tribute concert in 2014 was used to set up a scholarship fund in Rahman’s name that will be awarded to talented students from India to pursue higher studies in music at Berklee. The first three full tuition Berklee A.R. Rahman Scholarships were announced at an event in Mumbai last week. Her dream, she says, is to help change the mindset in India about taking up the arts as a career, and she hopes more youngsters will give their dreams a chance to evolve. “Learning in an environment like Berklee is truly a wholesome experience that helps students grow as people and musicians; they get the opportunity to learn inside and outside the classroom, intellectually, spiritually, and musically.”

Short takes

- I love the sari. It is such an elegant, gorgeous garment and can be worn on any occasion. I sometimes conduct sari draping workshops at Berklee, and love to encourage students to learn the history and customs regarding their traditional costumes! One of my students from Sri Lanka always wears a mundu at our performances, and it's such a joy to see him teach other students how to wear one too!

- Many artists inspire me, and it is difficult to choose only one favourite. Rahman, of course. I am equally fond of Ilayaraja, K.J. Yesudas, Chitra, SP Balasubramaniam, Hariharan, Kailash Kher, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shreya Ghoshal... so many amazing artists to learn from!

- My advice to parents is to let their children chose and follow their own dreams.

- Yes, given the opportunity, I would certainly love to sing for a Malayalam film.

India tour

In June, Berklee College of Music will conduct a series of two-day clinics in Bengaluru and Chennai under the Berklee Tandon Global Clinics, made possible by the generosity and support of Ms. Chandrika Tandon, a Grammy-nominated vocalist herself, and a member of Berklee's Presidential Advisory council. “It will give students, parents and teachers access to teachers of Berklee, to get an insight into how classes function at the college. It will also help us understand what students are hungry to learn. The Indian music traditions and pedagogical systems are not only one of the oldest but also one of the most diverse. We are excited to keep creating avenues for a fruitful exchange of music, ideas, culture and perspectives between India and the world.”

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 10:33:17 PM |

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