By Nimmi Raghunathan
If you are an aspiring musician, the Berklee School of Music in Boston is something to aspire to. If you are Indian-American and have a finer taste in music, the Berklee Indian Ensemble is something to intrigue and delight. A decade old and with millions of YouTube hits, its unique choral arrangements and exemplary collaborations with exceptional artists, it was all spearheaded by Annette Philip. To the onlooker, she’s the one with the big smile, sparkling eyes, and colorful sarees that effortlessly convey a sense of joy.
Philip is Keralite and has spent years in Singapore and Delhi, where she started an artist collective for the first time. The ups and downs, failures and revelations from each of these experiences brought her to college, where she not only founded the company but is also a faculty member. Fresh from the release of the ensemble’s debut album, she told India West:
Q: You have worked with AR Rahman and Shankar Mahadevan. How different were their styles and what did you learn from them?
A: Rahman Sir has always been a musical hero of mine and is one of the most introspective people I’ve met in my life. He is a wonderful mentor and a true genius as a musician, composer, arranger and musical director. He’s obsessed with sound yet very playful, and I’ve learned through my interactions with him at Berklee and subsequent touring with him to be even more demanding as a producer.
Shankar Mahadevan is such a virtuoso improviser, master singer and composer. He is so extroverted, always keen to experiment and also playful when making music! He’s wonderful at working with crowds and every time we create with him he surprises us with truly unique variations – it’s a wonder to see how his brain works and his artistry never ceases to amaze us .
Q: How was the response to your debut album?
A: The reactions to “Shuruaat” have been heartwarming and overwhelmingly positive! First of all, after a decade, our loyal fans are excited to finally stream our music on Spotify, JioSaavn, Apple Music and other platforms worldwide! It took us a long time to get the rights for it, so our content has only been on YouTube so far. Secondly, fans and serious musicians from the arts industry are amazed that the album features 98 musicians from 39 countries with 10 tracks, representing such a diverse mosaic of genres, languages, global cultural nuances and energy!
Q: Why did you let Shreya Ghoshal reinterpret the track “Sundari Pennae”?
A: The Berklee Indian Ensemble artist residencies always focus on exploring both our guests’ classic hits and relatively unknown works. Shreya Ghoshal’s discography is so extensive and when we stumbled upon Sundari Pennae we immediately fell in love with two aspects. First of all we love odd time signatures and this was a song in 5! And the harmonium hook inspired us to experiment a lot with it. It’s such a sweet song, but we were wondering what would happen if we completely deconstructed it and added a progressive rock feel to it. Shreyaji loved our reinterpretation and we are so thrilled to have worked with her on this project! (https://berkleindianensemble.com/)
Q: Does playing around with iconic tunes ever scare you? Have you ever gotten a kickback for it?
A: It doesn’t scare us because we know we always approach new arrangements with sincerity and respect. We honor the composer’s original intent by studying their music, analyzing the lyrics and really diving deep into their artistic choices. From there we start experimenting, and as long as we remain authentic to ourselves, creative freedom is an artist’s right. We’ve never received negative feedback on our reinterpretations because I think audiences understand that we pay homage to the original and stay true to ourselves.
Q: It’s almost magical when melodies and movements pop out of composing minds. Can you explain how the creative process works for you?
A: I draw inspiration from my surroundings (food, nature, colors, textures, paintings, film) as well as my emotions (childhood memories, sensory memories of smell or taste, or even the sense of relief of hugging a loved one). The technical aspects come from the study but most important is the taste developed from listening to tons and tons of music from all over the world. My approach depends on the day, the goal of the project or my mood. Sometimes while free improvising, an idea comes up that you fall in love with, and then it’s easy to be non-resisting and allow the song to tell you where it wants to go. Other times you feel stuck and test different ideas until the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and hope you like it the next day. As creators, we don’t always love what we make, but it’s about showing up again and again to create.
Q: Is there anything about Indian music that uniquely positions it for exploration?
A: Indian music sits at a delightful intersection of freedom and rules; rhythmic and melodic complexity contrasted with harmonic simplicity. This shaped the unmistakable sound of the Berklee Indian Ensemble. Honoring Indian folk, classical and Sufi traditions while allowing chords, harmonies and non-Indian stylistic elements to be mixed in.
Q: To Indian Americans, you are this wonderful ambassador bringing us a cultured and sublime art form! Are you aware of this? Is it a burden?
A: If I could choose to do it all over again, I would choose to be Indian again! Since 2011, I have dreamed of finding a way to bring Indian music into our Berklee community (and beyond) in a way that allows musicians from ANY cultural or musical background to express themselves. Our Indian culture is so rich and ever evolving! To be able to convey the joy that we Indians feel (not only through our music but also through our food, our textiles, art, a certain kind of humor or literature and poetry) is a joy and a privilege. Everything I do is for love and to connect people through art. There are endless opportunities to revel when we simply ask “what ifs” and “why nots,” and this is truly where each of our Berklee Indian Ensemble dreams were born (and subsequently realized).
Q: Wearing elegant saris on stage – how did that develop? Who chooses them?
A: I was fascinated by sarees as a child, watching my mother gracefully drape them. I asked her to teach me and I even had 1-2 “practice” sarees that mom pretty much gave me to try on over and over! I think sarees are the most sophisticated, sensual and comfortable garments in the world. A saree hugs you, and I even teach saree draping workshops every now and then! I am always happy to help people from all cultures try on sarees and learn how to feel confident and wonderful in them! For those I wear on stage, I lovingly select saris from my personal collection, which I have built myself, and through many that I have borrowed permanently from my mother. If I could be a world ambassador for sarees, my life would be infinitely better!
favorite musician – How to choose? Inspired by AR Rahman, Karen Carpenter, Billie Eilish, Anoushka Shankar, Bobby McFerrin…
A must before stepping on stage for a concert – Have a huddle with your band and remember what a privilege it is to make and share music.
Last visit to India – March 2022, Kerala and Bangalore
meaning of family – Where you can be yourself, love and be loved unconditionally.
Favorite Indian dish – Appam and stew, fried fish (mothers) and biriyani
One day off – sleeping, reading, walking in nature and playing with a cat (if I can find one)