As the curtain separates, the audience hushes. The lights gradually brighten to reveal a stage filled with college students, mostly Caucasian, some Asian, with an assortment of “foreign” looking instruments. The music begins with the mystical strumming of the sitar strings and the beating of the congos. They are joined by more familiar instruments, including the cello and violin. Soon the entire stage is playing, creating an exotic and alluring sound. The music comes to a standstill, and the light focuses center-stage on two men. One brown professor, one white student, wielding the same instrument: the tabla. They exchange glances, smiles and let the steady rhythm of the tabla captivate the audience. Back and forth, they beat the Indian drum, until the entire room falls under the hypnotic spell of the reverberations.
An American student and Indian professor playing the tabla side-by-side on stage? WHITE college students playing African and Indian instruments? And playing them well? Thanks to Srinivas Krishnan (the professor), founder and artistic director of the up-and-coming world music ensemble Global Rhythms, this is a not-so-shocking sight at colleges and music festivals around the country. Global Rhythms, located at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, combines instruments from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe to produce a beautiful eclectic harmonization of exotic world instruments with a Western twist that is pulsating across the nation.
“Three-hundred years,” he answers, smiling mysteriously. Ask Srinivas Krishnan how long his music career spans and his answer may surprise you. Coming from a long line of musicians, music is deeply embedded in Krishnan’s culture. “One in every family studies music. In my family, my mother was a vocalist and a teacher,” he says. Growing up music was more than a hobby. It was a way of life.
At the impressionable age of 5, Krishnan began his education in North and South Indian music. He began studying the tabla when he was 9 years old. He studied under four master musicians in India and became a featured artist in different venues by the time he turned 21. Over the years, Krishnan mastered the tabla, ghatam, mridangam, Middle Eastern dumbek, and the Irish bodhran. His amazing ability to adapt to any musical situation makes him a valuable performing artist to over 1,000 concerts worldwide with acclaimed artists including LA studio musician Emil Richards, Grammy award-winning percussionist Glen Velez, and famed Indian sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. Krishnan has been invited to perform with an artist of XAOS, led by George Lucas; artist of Real World, directed by Peter Gabriel; and artists from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Krishnan’s growth as a musician was strongly influenced by the holistic view that Indian culture takes towards music. By viewing music as a process with new sounds and changing chemistry, he found that intuition and memorization made the music more accessible. In fact, he built Global Rhythms on these key foundations. “Global Rhythms has no defined formula. We’re not afraid to mess up,” he says.
The vision for Global Rhythms began in the early ’90s when, as a master’s student in environmental toxicology, Krishnan noticed the lack of musical diversity at Miami University. After working as an engineer in Columbus, he returned to Miami University’s campus to pursue a second degree in environmental management. This time Krishnan took the decisive steps necessary to create a formal organization to promote diversity through music. “You have a music department. You have an interest. It just boiled down to someone taking charge.” Global Rhythms began with just three members and was known as the “Music of India Ensemble.”
Fall of 2001 welcomed a total of 82 members to Global Rhythms, mostly Miami University students. In addition to growing instrumentalists, they work closely with the Miami University Collegiate Choral, and they aim to involve dancers in the upcoming years.
Global Rhythms benefits from the experiences of music professors Ethan Sperry and Roger Davis, co-directors. Davis’ experiences lie in the bass guitar and musical arrangements while Sperry specializes in vocals. The talent these instructors possess echoes in the unique and beautiful sound Global Rhythms plays for its audiences.
An accomplished musical arranger and electrical bass player, Roger Davis initially turned down Krishnan’s offer to become a part of Global Rhythms due to his lack of recent experience. However, he quickly changed his mind, purchased a new electric bass, and began composing the music for which Global Rhythms has become widely renowned. “Indian music doesn’t have a counterpoint or harmony. It needed to be arranged into a Western form,” he explains. “When adding Western instruments you need to put the music into an organized form. It doesn’t mean there is no improvising, but there is structure for the other instruments.”
Ethan Sperry is the most recent addition to the Global Rhythms family. An assistant professor of music at Miami University, Sperry is the conductor of the Men’s Glee Club and the Collegiate Chorale. “I went to a Global Rhythms concert and it was amazing,” says Sperry. While Davis had initially been responsible for conducting rehearsals he is now able to focus on perfecting the musical arrangements since Sperry became a part of the ensemble. Like Davis, Sperry compromised between the two musical worlds of West and East to accommodate Global Rhythms sound. “The rhythms are really complicated. Western music places a tremendous emphasis on melody and harmony. Indian and African music rhythm as their basis,” explains Sperry. “It’s far more complex.” Despite the fact that Sperry has no experience with Indian music, he has been an exceptional member of Global Rhythms. “He has never conducted Indian music, but he has been very successful. Sperry is a talented and skilled conductor,” says Davis. Sperry was recently appointed artistic administrator of the Arad Philharmonic Chorus in Romania.
Global Rhythms reflects Krishnan’s philosophy of expanding one’s cultural experiences. This belief is personified through student participation. Krishnan encourages all students, even those with no musical experience, to become involved. “I find one reason to include somebody on the team,” he says. Non-music majors for instance are given technical responsibilities, such as working the sound, or are given minor musical roles. Students radiate Krishnan’s contagious enthusiasm for music. Regardless of background, culture or experience, they are warmly welcomed into the Global Rhythms community. Students play various instruments ranging from the ghatam and sitar, to the flute, trombone, clarinet, cello, congos, djerido, and trumpet.
Davis promotes Global Rhythms by inviting students to attend performances both on campus and at other universities. “We show them the product; hopefully they’ll like it and want to play it,” says Davis, “The recruiting tool is the music.”
In the past year the group performed at over 40 universities, including Duke, UCLA, Cornell, and University of Washington. “We have more offers than we can handle,” says Davis. The group charges a standard fee of $5,000, which covers traveling expenses, and accommodations. If a college is unable to pay the price, the group adjusts by taking fewer performers. Krishnan embraces a larger vision of education through music, and believes that money is not a reason to deny someone an enlightening musical experience. “If they have a smaller budget that’s fine, we accommodate and bring less people,” he says. “We never want to say no.”
The money that the organization receives through the school, donations, and performances is placed in a fund that is later used for students. “We create value within the group,” says Krishnan. Every December, students are given the opportunity to travel to India and study under different musical teachers and perform at various venues such as cultural shows and weddings. The U.S. Consulate in Madras, India shows their support each December by arranging a performance for members of Global Rhythms. Pat Hernley, a 2001 music major graduate of Miami, was invited to India by Krishnan in December 1998 and 1999. In India, Hernley studied the tabla and ghatam under the direction of three different teachers over the course of his visits to India. “The experience was life altering,” says Hernley. “I was forced to learn music in different ways than I would learn here in America.” The number of students Global Rhythms sends to India varies yearly depending on grants and donations, as well as the number of performances.
They’re Coming to America
With such enthusiastic directors and talented students, it is no wonder that musical performers are coming out of the woodwork for the opportunity to play with Global Rhythms. “We’ve been asked to play with several musicians including band members of Peter Gabriel,” says Davis. “El Negro Hernandez of Santana, named the best drummer of the century, comes all the way from Italy for a small fee just to play with us.”
Sathish Pathakota, a resident of Round Rock, Texas, is a regularly featured performer with Global Rhythms during performances in Berkley, Duke, and Cornell among others. By day he works as a manager of information technologies, by night he is a skilled player of the mridangam. Path kota received formal schooling in Karnatik classical percussion under acclaimed South Indian artist, Karaikudi Mani, through whom he was introduced to Krishnan in 1985. Since their introduction, they have played together at several different venues with the shared interest of spreading the beauty of Indian music. “Very few people know how good Indian music really is. We are bringing it to the heartland of America,” says Pathakota, “We want to take it to the masses.” Pathakota shares Krishnan’s vision of teaching through music, and hopes that more people open their mind to different world music.
Giving Back to the Community
Concerts are not limited to paid appearances. Musical performances for elementary school children in different parts of Southeast Ohio and Indiana have allowed Global Rhythms to spread the message of world music and diversity. In 1997 Krishnan arranged for seven free children benefit shows through the Cincinnati Arts Association at the Aronoff.
Krishnan also arranged several outreach projects for children living in the Cincinnati area and through Child Relief and You (CRY), which raised $5,000 for the association in 1999. “The key is to present a package palatable to what they can comprehend,” he explains. “You use existing tools to make it accessible.” The music was presented with a Jungle Book theme and encouraged audience participation. Krishnan found their excitement refreshing. “They sing along, they are a very unbiased audience,” he says. “There is no sign of any world there, it’s the biblical belt. Even a violin is foreign to them.”
“We are living in a society where children are frogs in wells,” Krishnan says incredulously. “This opens their eyes to the world.” Global Rhythms shows Indian music’s power as an educational medium for world cultures and plays a deeper message of diversity.
The music has also been important to the Indian American community says Davis. With a population of nearly 1 million, Davis reverberates the feeling that the Indian American population is culturally landlocked. Global Rhythms illustrates how their culture is growing. “They are hungry for some of their culture and they turn up in large numbers for these concerts,” he says, “These concerts allow them to see how their culture is seeping into America.” As a bonus, proceeds are donated to Indian charities, such as CRY.
Let the Music Be the Message
“Certainly if nothing else the music has an intrinsic beauty and that has its own worth,” says Davis. With the fusion of two different cultural musical styles, Indian and Western, Global Rhythms is becoming a pioneer in the music world. “Music is a living demonstration that different people can sit down on a stage and play together,” he says. “Underneath our differences we are really similar and share certain values.” Pathokota adds that audiences notice their equality as they perform. “There are no color limitations. Because of Global Rhythms we get to meet different people and break existing boundaries,” he explains. “The audience can see that.”
Sperry agrees, and finds that the music teaches culture to not just those hearing the music, but those playing it as well. “When the students play Indian music and they really understand it, they understand that culture.” Hernley exemplifies this belief. “I changed musically, but I also changed culturally,” explains Hernley. “I couldn’t help but be impacted in the way that I approached other cultures, including my own. I’ve been able to observe phenomena in Western society from a different vantage point.”
A Vision for the Future
Keeping with the Global Rhythms trend of musical innovations, Krishnan is working on new music for this fall, with a concentration on Hindi film music. “We are working on music from Jordan, Africa, and the award-winning Hindi films Lagaan and Mission Kashmir,” he says. “We take a lot of calculated risks and we’re not afraid of messing up.” These innovations attract and keep Global Rhythms listeners. “We bring a style of music that they’re not going to hear anywhere else. We plan to integrate guest ensembles, a drummer from Afghanistan, and the Indian ballet company,” explains Sperry.
The fusion of Indian and Western cultures is catching on quickly, Global Rhythms is getting more offers than they can handle. “The whole idea is pretty amazing,” says Sperry. “I always wonder why other universities don’t have it. But then I realize … it’s because they don’t have Srinivas.”
The group has received several offers to record, but is waiting to perfect their sound. Krishnan counts over 38 musical guests from Italy, Europe, Cuba, South America, and India. “When you create an attractive platform it is worth it for people from other countries to play with us,” says Krishnan. “That to me is value.”
Think of it as curry meets concerto.