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Where ‘bhajan’ meets gospel song

Tabla player Sandeep Das and cellist Mike Block set the tempo with a blend of East and West in their debut album

Tablaist Sandeep Das (left) and American cellist Mike Block.
Tablaist Sandeep Das (left) and American cellist Mike Block. (Luke Zvara)

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Tabla maestro Sandeep Das and American cellist Mike Block, both 2017 Grammy award winners, have collaborated on their first album, Where The Soul Never Dies, which released on 11 June.

The Boston, US, based musicians are also part of American cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble (they won the Grammy for the ensemble’s Sing Me Home). Das trained with Pandit Kishan Maharaj of the Benares gharana and made his debut at the age of 17 with Pandit Ravi Shankar, while Block did his master’s from The Juilliard School, New York. He is also the founding director of Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop, which aims to foster a community of globally minded musicians.

The title track of the album, which released on Bright Shiny Things, brings together a bhajan (Raghupati Ragava Raja Ram) and a classic American gospel song (Where The Soul Never Dies). The 12 tracks include Glory In The Meeting House, an adaptation of a traditional American fiddle tune; Vaishnava Jana To—another of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajans; and Fight Or Flight, an original composition.

In an email interview, Das, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow, and Block, an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music, talk about how we are shaped by our culture. Edited excerpts:

Also Read: Listening to music in a pandemic year

Tell us about the process of collaboration for the album. How much of it was spontaneous, organic?

MB: We have been playing together for more than 10 years, so not only do we know one another's music, we also know each other as human beings, and are able to be vulnerable and experimental in our rehearsals. There isn’t any music for tabla and cello that already exists, so we have the burden of starting from scratch, while at the same time having the luxury of exploring new territory for both of us. Sometimes things come together surprisingly easily, and it’s really fun for us to just react to each other’s playing spontaneously. There were also other tracks that we sat down and painstakingly composed, note by note, for this album.

Would you call it a conversation between two soloists or different cultures?

MB: We are shaped by our cultures in so many ways beyond our awareness, but we feel this duo is very personal in its focus. We are drawing on our full spectrum of personalities and artistic ideas, so in concert it feels more like we are playing music by Sandeep and Mike, as opposed to music for “tabla and cello”. We aren’t even solely drawing on American and Indian traditions, but engaging with the broad world of music that inspires us.

You are both part of Silkroad Ensemble, the underlying philosophy of which is that culture has the power to transform lives and forge a more connected world. How has that influenced your own music and collaborations?

SD: Before I joined Yo-Yo's Silkroad Ensemble, I was an Indian classical musician, very proud of my culture and heritage. As I dove deeper with the ensemble, I lost my Indian-only identity in a very transformative way, and realized that nothing that I thought of as only mine was actually only mine. It is a shared heritage—culture, music, and tradition—paths have crossed, ideas have been exchanged, and where one starts and where one ends is just a matter of perspective. Thus, I personally feel a responsibility to my own Indian heritage to keep it alive and pass it forward, not just for myself, but for everyone else. That has shaped not only my music and collaborations, but also who I am today as a human being.

MB: I joined Silkroad Ensemble in the early years of my career, so it opened up my eyes and ears to a broad range of musical traditions that I felt compelled to learn more about. Ever since, my favourite thing to do as a professional musician is to work with musicians of other cultures, and learn more about how my musical voice may evolve depending on who I am playing with. This duo with Sandeep has been my longest running platform to continue this exploration.

Also Read: ‘Ravi Shankar was obsessed with asserting the dignity and integrity of Indian classical music’

Recently, Yo-Yo Ma dedicated 'Sarabande' from 'Cello Suite No.4' to India, which has seen a crushing second wave of coronavirus. Has music been a salve in these times of the pandemic?

SD: I lost my first guru (Shiv Kumar Singh) of tabla and a lot of very, very close friends and master musicians in India, so it has been a very personal experience for me in many ways. Recently, I was able to put together 70-plus musicians and artists for a marathon fund-raising concert, and was able to raise over $35,000 (around 25.5 lakh) for covid-19 relief efforts in India. So not only has music been a balm, it has also been a way to do my bit.

MB: This pandemic has forced many of us musicians to think creatively about how we can directly serve other people with our art, and I was very grateful that Sandeep put together this online fund-raising concert to help India, as it was a very tangible and direct way to use music for good, even without having a normal concert experience.

The album, 'Where The Soul Never Dies', has 12 tracks.
The album, 'Where The Soul Never Dies', has 12 tracks.

How did the title track, with a ‘bhajan’ melding into a gospel song, come about?

SD: As most Indians know, this song was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, and was almost like a freedom song during the Indian independence movement. Its ultimate message is essentially a prayer for God to give everyone common sense, which has become very relevant even in our modern times. When I brought this song to Mike's notice and shared its meaning with him, he immediately loved it and said he knew another song that talks about the human spirit in a similar way. Thus was born this beautiful mashup of two powerful songs.

MB: This combination of two spiritual songs really came to symbolize the best of what we hope to accomplish with our duo. Neither of us would have been able to put this music together by ourselves, and so it represents the spirit of our collaboration. Sandeep’s flexibility in allowing me to add an English song to the arrangement of the bhajan is a great example. I am so glad, too, because initially I was not confident to sing in Hindi next to him, so giving myself English words to sing helped me take more ownership of the music in our performances.

And the 'Vaishnava Jana To' track...

SD: Like the song above, Vaishnava was also one of Gandhi's favorite songs. Amongst other things, this prayer song talks about knowing the pain of others, doing good to others without pride entering your mind, and many other virtues like respecting women and speaking the truth. It is full of meanings and messages that are very relevant today, and could help us all make this world a better place for everyone.

What is the significance of 'Glory in the Meeting House' where was it filmed?

MB: This is a traditional fiddle tune, learned via source recordings played by (mountain fiddler) Luther Strong. A “meeting house” is actually a southern term for a church, and “glory” is referring to the emotional lift that a churchgoer may experience during a service. It’s an energetic song, and we though it was appropriate to film it in a beautiful church in Boston, where we both live.

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