With Shuruaat, the Berklee Indian Ensemble Begins a New Chapter
Depending on how you look at it, the road to the Berklee Indian Ensemble's first album, Shuruaat (Hindi for "beginning"), was either impossible, or it was inevitable.
On the one hand, there were countless hurdles. Take, for instance, the business challenges of a small academic institute working out an international music distribution deal with Sony Music India, or developing fair revenue-sharing contracts with some hundred collaborators. Then there's the sheer unprecedented trajectory of this homegrown college ensemble evolving organically over 10 years into a YouTube phenomenon with close to 300 million views, now ready to enter yet another new stage as a professional 11-piece collective.
But on the other hand, there's the music itself, with all its inevitable charisma. Watching any one of those performances that have attracted so many millions of viewers, seeing how skillfully the ensemble flows through styles, collaborators, languages, and moods, balancing immense talent with serious fun, it's no great mystery how the group, led by Berklee India Exchange Artistic Director Annette Philip B.M. ’09, found the conviction to persevere through those seemingly impossible challenges and arrive at this new beginning.
"The main thing that has always driven us are two questions: what if? and why not?" Philip explains. "We were constantly told by industry professionals, especially those who work in India: This is going to be an uphill task. When we got to the 10-year anniversary [of the ensemble], however, we felt that it being tough was no longer a good reason to hold back. We had to at least try."
From a Blank Canvas to a YouTube Phenomenon
Those two questions—what if? and why not?—have been with the group from the beginning, when Philip was given "a blank canvas" to create a new ensemble or academic offering at Berklee. She knew the answer immediately: "There were these little pockets of Indian music that were being studied on the theory or composition side, but no performing collective that was exploring Indian music in all of its varied forms." So she founded the Berklee Indian Ensemble as a vocal group in 2011, and over its first few years, the ensemble blossomed into a full band that students returned to term after term.
Part of the group's appeal has always been its inclusive spirit. It's "a porous collective," Philip says, "a space where no matter what your cultural or musical background is, you are able to bring your perspective and your voice into the music, and this flavors the overall sound.... Right from the beginning, the goal was: yes, it is Indian music, but it is a global Indian sound that we are going to create together."
That was a sound that audiences around the world—and across the internet—responded to. The group's second-ever YouTube video, 2014's interpretation of A. R. Rahman's "Jiya Jale," went viral overnight, and within a week had racked up more than a million views. As of today, the song is approaching 53 million views, and is the most popular video on Berklee's YouTube channel. And as the millions of views on subsequent videos have proven, that early success was far from a fluke.
Watch the Berklee Indian Ensemble's viral hit "Jiya Jale":
A New Beginning
Ten years on, much has changed for the ensemble. In 2021, the group, which had organically developed a core lineup of 11 musicians—some of whom had been playing with the ensemble since its inception—transitioned from an academic offering to Berklee's first professional touring outfit. The ensemble will now focus on raising the school's global profile through its own performances, workshops, and outreach. Meanwhile, students will have access to the ensemble's spiritual successor, the South Asian Ensemble, which they can participate in without needing to square the demands of a full-time touring band with the rigors of a Berklee education.
Shuruaat, which collects 10 of the group's most memorable performances into a cohesive musical journey, is a monument to what the ensemble managed to accomplish through its first decade. Featuring four original compositions alongside covers and collaborations with legends including tabla master Zakir Hussain ’19H, singers Shankar Mahadevan and Vijay Prakash, and Bollywood icon Shreya Ghoshal, "it really is a full spectrum of what the ensemble has created as a team, as a family, over the last 10 years," says Philip. "It includes 98 musicians from 39 countries. And this 98 is only a glimpse—a small glimpse—into the almost 500 artists who've been part of the ensemble over the years. We're also excited that Shuruaat is being submitted for the Grammys this year. Another first for Berklee!"
We want our students and our alumni to know that they have rights, and they have to be treated correctly, no matter who their collaborator is.
The album also marks a milestone in ethical music business practices. "We have set up Berklee's first—and probably one of the world's first—equitable, just, and fair revenue sharing systems," Philip explains. "We've talked to many music supervisors and music rights activists to find a really fair way for everyone who is part of the album—not just the performers, but also the producers, arrangers, and any engineers who are not already paid as a work-for-hire—to share in the album's continued success through a prorated revenue share. For life." It's a radical model that Philip says she hopes sets a precedent for the rest of the music industry. "We want our students and our alumni to know that they have rights, and they have to be treated correctly, no matter who their collaborator is."
Ultimately, these thoughtful business practices are of a piece with the overarching messages of positivity and unity at the core of Shuruaat. "The music we create is first and foremost to share joy," says Philip. "It's very easy to watch the news or go about your daily life, or even coming out of a pandemic, and just feel like the world is a dark and dreary place and that there's so much loss; so much to be sad, concerned, and anxious about. One main thing we want to remind people is that there is also so much good in the world and so many well-meaning people in the world. And positive change is possible when we work together."
Below, dig into the tracks and videos from the Berklee Indian Ensemble's (BIE) debut album, Shuruaat, out this week, and read track-by-track commentary from ensemble members.
1. Unnai Kaanadhu NaanBIE: "Unnai Kaanadhu Naan" is one of the ensemble’s most popular live videos to date, producing over 5 million YouTube views for its rearrangement of Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy’s original composition.... The Berklee Indian Ensemble, while honoring the original Tamil classic, takes the song to a different realm with an emotive swell of back-and-forth interplay between Berklee violinist Layth Sidiq B.M. ’14, M.M. ’16 of Jordanian and Iraqi heritage, and bouzouki player Yoel Genin B.M. ’16 from Israel.
2. Sundari PennaeBIE: "Sundari Pennae" is a grunge-inspired take on a Tamil film song foregrounding Shreya Ghoshal’s crystalline vocals. Recorded during Ghoshal’s artist residency at Berklee, the track sees a fusion of progressive rock, konnakol [South Indian rhythmic solfege], and jazz over intricate Indian classical rhythms. On "Sundari Pennae," Ghoshal (who sung the original version for composer D. Imman’s soundtrack to the 2014 Tamil film Oru Oorla Rendu Raja) is seen deconstructing and experimenting along with the 11-member-strong Berklee Indian Ensemble in her bespoke transformative style, while Berklee vocalist-percussionist Rohith Jayaraman B.M. ’15 recites intricate konnakol rhythms. It is the only song on the album in five, and to date, is the most collaboratively rearranged cover the ensemble has ever produced. It's also the first time the ensemble used as megaphone as one of their instruments.
3. Arz-E-NiyazBIE: "Arz-E-Niyaz" is an original Berklee Indian Ensemble song, composed by Berklee composer, sarod player, and vocalist Sashank Navaladi B.M. ’15 from New Delhi, India, who drew heavily from Sufi and Hindustani classical music for this track. Featuring the Grammy Award–winning virtuosic Indian vocalist Vijay Prakash, "Arz-E-Niyaz" was notable for many reasons. This song marked the first time a renowned artist performed on an original ensemble composition; while the lyrics were inspired by a poem written by the preeminent Urdu and Persian Sufi poet of the 19th century, Mirza Ghalib. Written in the form of eight couplets, "arz-e-niyāz-e-ishq" literally translates to the "supplication for the blessings of love".... The ensemble’s video features Kathak dancer Meera Seshadri along with Arabic calligrapher Parham Haghighi ’15, from Iran, and is the first Sufi-inspired original to have evolved in the group.
4. Lady LBIE: "Lady L" features Grammy-winning tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain ’19H and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the iconic Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti, which originally released this song in the 1970s. The Berklee rendition came about when Ustad Zakir Hussain was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music and collaborated on this iconic piece with the ensemble. The track represents the stylistic mission behind Shuruaat, which pays tribute to Indian traditions while transforming the songs with a variety of multicultural rhythms and nuances. The ensemble’s version was arranged by Berklee Iranian pianist Amir Darabi B.M. ’20 and produced by Israeli cellist Emanuel Keller B.M. ’20. Annette Philip shares, “[The song's] soulful melody piqued our curiosity, and in true Berklee Indian Ensemble style, our featured musicians from Israel, Iran, Brazil, India, Poland, Australia, and Norway each brought their unique influences to the table. Having Zakir Ji himself play with us on this Shakti tribute and BIE reinterpretation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; simultaneously awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking."
5. SatiBIE: "Sati" was first performed in Salim-Sulaiman's session on Coke Studio @ MTV season three. Featuring an interesting collaboration on percussion with Taufiq Qureshi and the highly emotive vocals of Vijay Prakash, the song inspired the Berklee Indian Ensemble several years ago, and the themes behind "Sati" have played an important role in the ensemble’s foray into exploring society, movements, and the future. Each time the song has been played, it’s taken a different shape… in the arrangement and in the live performance. The album version of the song was recorded entirely during the pandemic—almost every musician recorded in their own homes. Notably, BIE’s version includes a solo on GeoShred [a software instrument for multi-touch devices] and a lot of dense vocal harmonies, including vital whisper tracks, a signature element in a lot of our arrangements.
6. PinhaBIE: "Pinha" is a Berklee Indian Ensemble original written by Berklee composer and vocalist Dhruv Goel B.M. ’15, from Lucknow, India, with vocal arrangements by Annette Philip. Based on a ghazal written by the late renowned poet Fatima Wasia Jaisi, the Urdu lyrics are very poignant. It celebrates the victory of the human spirit over adverse conditions that arise due to prejudices against gender, religion, and ethnicity. Born in a conservative family in Lucknow, Fatima Wasia Jaisi grew up at a time in India when women were not usually educated. Her husband noticed how much she loved poetry, even though she couldn’t yet read or write, and encouraged her to learn! Fatima began formal education in her 30s. She went on to get a Ph.D. and ultimately became one of the literary giants of her time, paving the way for other women to pursue careers in the arts. The word "pinha" means "hidden within" and reminds us that our inherent gifts may not always be immediately apparent.
7. 5 Peace BandBIE: "5 Peace Band" is a Berklee Indian Ensemble nod to their musical heroes from Shakti. This Berklee tribute features renowned Indian composer and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. Written by the legendary guitarist John McLaughlin ’17H, "5 Peace Band" was first performed by Remember Shakti, the reformation of 1970s Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti. Led by John McLaughlin (guitar) and Zakir Hussain (tabla), Remember Shakti included U. Srinivas (mandolin), Shankar Mahadevan (vocals), and V. Selvaganesh (kanjira, ghatam, mridangam). Several Berklee Indian Ensemble members consider themselves Shakti fanatics, and had "quoted" an astounding vocal improvisation originally sung live by Shankar Mahadevan, which band members vocalist Rohith Jayaraman (U.S./India), guitarist Aleif Hamdan B.M. ’15 (Malaysia), and bassist Guy Bernfeld B.M. ’17 and drummer Yogev Gabay B.M. ’16 (both from Israel) arranged for the ensemble. Shankar Mahadevan was floored when he heard the band play this piece and decided he would only do a short percussion solo at the end, because he didn’t want to mess with the ensemble’s intricate arrangement. The song is extremely high energy; it was recorded live around 8:00 a.m. on a weekday!
8. DuaBIE: "Dua" is a track the Berklee Indian Ensemble had the honor of collaborating on with the incredible duo from India Shadow and Light. Arranger and producer Anindo Bose and vocalist and lyricist Pavithra Chari make up this contemporary classical duo that Rolling Stone India deemed "the new faces of fusion music".... “Dua” is a song from Shadow and Light’s second album, Elements. Written about the never-ending cycle of desire that pervades human existence, “Dua” may be summed up in a single question: Do we ever stop asking for more? The Berklee reinterpretation infused new piano interludes by Israeli pianist Yotam Ishay B.M. ’18, as well as a mammoth choral arrangement for the song in signature style by founder/director Annette Philip.
9. AakashBIE: "Aakash" is a Berklee Indian Ensemble original written by Berklee vocalist, bassist, and composer Sharon Renold B.M. ’18, from Switzerland. The song is uplifting and energetic, mostly sung using scat syllables chosen by Renold, and features a multilayered, vocally dense bridge arranged by founder/director Annette Philip. "Akash," meaning "sky," is a song of hope and resilience. Life occurs in cycles. Everything on our planet goes through experiences of destruction and rebirth, continuously. Just as nature adapts to cycles and phases, and even calamities befall it, we too learn from every disaster that wreaks havoc on our lives, allowing us to weather through the next storm more calmly than before. "Aakash" reminds us: We will rise looking toward the sky! Just as dusk welcomes the dawn, and winter its spring, we will rise and rebuild.
10. Jaago PiyaBIE: "Jaago Piya" is a Berklee Indian Ensemble original written by the ensemble’s first Bangladeshi member, Armeen Musa, with founder/director Annette Philip. The Bengali lyrics were penned by Armeen’s mother, Dr. Nashid Kamal, and the ballad showcases the ensemble’s obsession with lush choral elements. "Jaago Piya" is a gentle, loving reminder to stay present, in the moment, to always be hopeful, and live a life filled with gratitude. The song is a collaboration of soundscapes; the melody has a semi-classical Indian flavor, with vocal harmony that is rarely used in such a tune. The song being in Bangla inspired the ensemble to use Bengali colors and clothes for the visual to showcase a bit of Bengali culture. The primary theme incorporated the gamucha (local checked cloth used as a towel) as clothing, scarves, and hair pieces inspired by Bangladeshi fashion designer Bibi Russel, who brought the gamucha to the international fashion industry. Released on the Bengali New Year—a truly colorful occasion with parades, daylong musical concerts, and festivals held in every home both in Bangladesh and West Bengal—the ensemble’s video was intended to capture that beautiful spirit with its own diversity and colors.