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The Berklee Indian Ensemble (BEI) has spent the past decade mastering the historically rich fount of Indian music and amassing an audience of millions in the process. The band is led by 11 full-time members representing India, Jordan, Israel, Nigeria, Indonesia, Norway, the USA, and other regions across the globe.

Their founder Annette Phillip says, “The questions, ‘what if’, and ‘why not’ have been at the core of every chapter.” The pioneering Ensemble released their first collection of transnational, genre-bending music on their hotly-anticipated debut album Shuruaat (Hindi for ‘beginning’), which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Global Music Album.

In an exclusive interview with India Currents, BEI talks to Anuj Chakrapani just ahead of the 2023 Grammy Awards on February 5th.

AC: Congratulations on the nomination for Best Album at this year’s Grammy awards.

BIE: Thank you so much. We are so grateful that Berklee Indian ensemble’s album “Shuruaat” has been nominated for best global music album this year – it’s an honor to be speaking with you.

IC: Could you tell us a little bit about your group, its founder Annette Philip, and what inspired her to start it?

BIE: Annette Philip is a musician, composer, educator, and arts entrepreneur from India who was the first Indian musician to be invited to join the faculty at Berklee College Of Music. She founded the Berklee Indian ensemble in 2011 when she was given a blank canvas to create a new offering at the college that would expand our community. Ten years hence, the Berklee Indian Ensemble has become a global viral sensation with over 300 million views. We have had over 500 musicians from 52 countries be part of this family. The music we create is a new global Indian sound that honors Indian traditions while welcoming cultural nuances from around the world including jazz, progressive rock, middle eastern, and gospel elements.

Annette Phillip, Artistic Director, Berklee India Exchange and afaculty member at Berklee College of Music (Annette-Philip-Ryan-Nava-photographer-credit-MMB-scaled.jpg (image courtesy: Berklee Indian Ensemble)

AC: Within just a couple of years of its founding, your group became a viral sensation on YouTube with the rendition of the song from the 1998 movie “Dil Se”. Did you foresee that?

BIE: We were so delighted when Jiya Jale went viral in such a short time. While we didn’t foresee it, we were committed to creating music that inspired and challenged us, while still remaining accessible, soulful, and full of heart. We were so happy that our loyal audience from around the world related to it and have continued to support us by listening to our music.

The Berklee Indian Ensemble (BIE-Clinton-Cerejo-PC-Dave-Green.jpg -image courtesy: Berklee Indian Ensemble)

AC: Shuruaat, the album nominated for this year’s Grammy awards is your debut album. It’s getting the highest level of recognition in the international music arena. Tell us about its conception.

Shuruaat album cover. Design by Nikhil Kaul (image courtest: Berklee Indian Ensemble)

BIE: For many years, we had toyed with the idea of releasing an album. It felt natural to call our debut “Shuruaat”, which means beginning in Hindi. We wanted to make sure it included not only original music written by our members but also a tribute to our heroes from Shakti and Remember Shakti, as well as some of our collaborations with iconic artists from India like Shreya Ghoshal, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Vijay Prakash, and Shadow and Light. The languages include Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Konnakol, and scat syllables. There are 98 musicians from 39 countries who are featured on the album and in total about 200 people helped bring this project to life! We are so delighted and feel honored it has been nominated for a Grammy this year! 

AC: There are several talented music groups that operate in the fusion music space. Could you tell us what sets BIE apart from the others?

BIE:  When we arrange a song, the first thing we do is think about the story that the composer intended. From there, we reconstruct it based on the musicians who are playing it now, today. We encourage our members to bring their cultural influences, flavors, stories, and musical nuances into the arrangement so that there is a fluid exchange of ideas and signature musical elements that everyone is able to imbibe and offer as a whole. It is not just about fusing cultures together, but rather we focus on learning and expressing ourselves through the shared vocabulary that is born out of deep, collaborative connections, built over years of making music together. The core values of the group are kindness, intentionality, adventure, and attention to detail. Audiences feel the joy we experience while making the music, whether it’s a live performance or a music video. I think the energy and the willingness to not just make space for another’s culture but our commitment to learning and speaking each other’s musical “language” is what sets BIE apart. 

Berklee Indian Ensemble: Various Artists (BIE-Band-Collage-2022.png -image courtesy: Berklee Indian Ensemble)

AC: You switched to becoming a professional band in 2021. What has that meant to you, and how you operate?

BIE: The Berklee Indian Ensemble celebrated its ten-year anniversary by launching a professional touring unit that will host productions, and concerts around the world, along with workshops, as well as other industry collaborations. We are already planning Album two! In 2023 we will embark on a pan USA tour from March through mid-April. Meanwhile, our academic wing is renamed the “South Asian Ensemble”, and the current Boston-based students will have opportunities to interact and be mentored by the Berklee Indian Ensemble members.

Rohith Jayaraman, Associate Director, Berklee India Exchange, was born and raised in San Jose, California, Rohith Jayaraman is a vocalist, composer, and educator known for his soulful voice, speed, precision, and infectious energy. Jayaraman was trained in Carnatic music under his mother and guru, Asha Ramesh. (Rohith -Blue-01-Praneeth-Reddy-scaled.jpg-image courtesy: Berklee Indian Ensemble)

AC: You’ve achieved so much in ten years – a burgeoning fan following, collaboration with top artists, a debut album that is nominated for the Grammys. What’s next for the group now? 

BIE: More music, of course! Bolder dreams, a stadium show, and tons of new creative adventures!

Anuj Chakrapani

Anuj Chakrapani loves music and cinema among all art forms. He believes their beauty lies in their interpretation, and that the parts is more than the sum. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a...