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CHAI for 6, a music group with members based in four states across two continents will perform on June 17 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The group traces its origins to the Berklee Indian Exchange founded in 2013 to celebrate and share Indian music and culture with the Berklee student body. Assistant manager Rohith Jayaraman says, “Just because we play Indian music doesn’t mean we all have to be of Indian origin. We have had students and collaborators from 42 countries (and counting!) work with us over the years. Just this past semester, we had students from Australia, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Spain, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, China, Israel, Singapore, Bahrain, the United States and more! The stamp on your passport does not matter.”
A significant item on the Exchange’s agenda is to ensure that there is a cultural connection with India, through the Berklee Indian ensemble. Thus, the group has worked with the likes of A.R. Rahman and Clinton Cerejo, both stars in Bollywood music, working on originals and rearrangements with these masters.
It is at Berklee that Jayaraman, who’s also the voice of CHAI, met up with Layth Sidiq, (violin) incidentally the only musician of non-Indian origin in the group, along with Shubh Saran (guitar), and Sashank Navaladi (sarod). These four musicians first performed a piece called “Shuruaat,” written by Navaladi, which they intend to play in the upcoming show as well. M.T. Aditya Srinivasan (tabla) and Vignesh Venkataraman (mridangam) found their way to Boston briefly and “something just clicked.”
Music, literally, is what brings the group together: Sidiq and Jayaraman live in Boston, Saran lives in New York, Venkataraman in the Bay Area, Navaladi in Los Angeles, and Srinivasan in Chennai.
The Berklee spirit of exchange seems to drive the sound for CHAI as well, as Jayaraman puts it, “I think it’s less of a conscious effort and more of just happy experimentation. We get together and throw ideas around. What comes out is what comes out. If we think too much about it, we would never get there. The key is finding the similarities and using them to highlight the differences.”
One can argue that given the backgrounds of these artists, there is no other way to make music: Navaladi is a film/tv composer as well as a sarod player, Sidiq is a classically trained Arabic violinist, Srinivasan is a tabla player but also a percussionist who has studied in Spain, Saran is a contemporary American/jazz/Indo-world guitarist, and Venkataraman is a Carnatic mridangist extraordinaire. Jayaraman is a Carnatic trained vocalist who claims that he cannot claim an exclusive musical foot in any one world, even though he has had rigorous training from his mother Asha Ramesh, who is an Indian-music brand in the Bay Area.
While the six joke around and are prone to watching funny Youtube videos (even during rehearsals!), they have serious musical chops, as the videos on the Ensemble’s site will prove. Sidiq picked up the violin when he was four and now is a sought-after composer and directs the Arab music ensemble at Tufts University. When asked if the Indian quotient gets overwhelming when they get together, he said, “The more Indians I have around me the more I know I’ll be surrounded by good food, beautiful music, and a profound culture!”
Saran is an official Reunion blues artist and has played alongside several international artists. He confesses that he is somewhere in between a Blues man and a Rock guitarist. He has his own album, Hmayra under his belt and has set his eyes on Bollywood next. Navaladi has been the ensemble’s star composer and released Zikr, a musical, inspired by and based on a Mirza Ghalib poem of the same name. He says, “I started with one tune for the first couplet and kept revising it for days until I finally started feeling a solid melody that worked well with the rhythm of the first two couplets. Zikr taught me how the subtle rhythms embedded within each sentence influence composition and texture.” Srinivasan’s band was the winner in an all-India band hunt organized by A.R. Rahman and in a TEDx session, he talked about how there is a rhythm in everything, “The Rhythm of Intent.”
Jayaraman has a degree in music therapy and co-directs the ensemble. Being introduced to Shakti, (the epic multi-cultural group/album starring Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram, among others) was a high point in his life. Venkataraman is “Boston Strong” and talks about the city, basketball, and music with equal passion. He would be unable to pick between a game and concert, saying, “If it was an NBA finals game, it would probably be basketball. If not, I might choose the concert!” He is a columnist for the Stanford Daily.
Chai for 6 promises a new sound, maybe even a Shakti-esque sound, given Sidiq’s international flavor, Saran’s jazz tones, and Indian classical from the others. After individual pursuits and success, these musicians are attempting to discover perhaps, live, a sound that they can own. We shall have to see!
CHAI for 6: A fund-raiser for Vibha, June 17th, 8 p.m., Santa Clara Convention Center, 5001 Great America Way, Santa Clara.
Tickets: $25, student $15. http://Vibha.Yapsody.com
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks inbtersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.