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India at the Grammys

Updated on: 21 November,2022 07:12 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sonia Lulla |

Berklee India Ensemble makes its Grammy debut, Ricky Kej could cinch third win, Anoushka Shankar earns two nods; India preps for the gala

India at the Grammys

Zakir Hussain

The decade-old Berklee India Ensemble has bagged Berklee its first Grammy nomination for Shuruaat, a collection of 10 of the group’s most memorable performances to create a cohesive musical journey that establishes their accomplishments. By bagging a spot among the nominees of the Best Global Music Album, the ensemble, comprising 98 artistes from 13 countries, has evidently made its mark. 

“The album was a combination of original [songs], tributes, and reinterpretations, which is what we are known for. We have four originals, written by our former students. One belongs to Lucknow, another comes from Delhi, one from Hyderabad and one from Switzerland. 

Also Read: Grammy Awards 2023: Here's the complete list of Nominees 

‘Everything started with a wish’
Nominated for: Best Global Music Album (Shuruaat)

Since we have been fans of [the band] Shakti, we knew that the opportunity to work with Ustad Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan would be great. Featuring them is a humble tribute to our heroes. Then, it includes reinterpretations of our existing Indian pieces,” says Annette Philip, the founder of the ensemble.

While their collaborators are mavericks, Philip says the revisited pieces are always composed by the ensemble. “It always [stems] from us. We deconstruct a piece and see what instrumentation we haven’t used so far, and work with that. For Sundari pennae, with Shreya Ghoshal we used the megaphone. We ask our collaborators what they think of our interpretation, and are glad that so far, everyone has liked our approach. She was so passionate while working on that collaboration! We usually spend several hours to bring the reinterpretation to life. So, to see how she respected our ideas and honoured what we created made us feel grateful. We loved her interpretation of our interpretation.”

Philip admits that everything that the band has achieved began with a wish. In consistently asking two questions — what if, and why not — they’ve brought the ensemble to the Academy’s stage. And even as they gear up for the music industry’s biggest night, her future plans for the ensemble are also defined. “I want us to be a touring ensemble, and want our music be commercially available. We’re also [completing] our second album, which will include originals. We also head on our world tour in 2023.”

Also Read: Shreya Ghoshal to embark on global tour to celebrate 20 years in music industry

‘Every nomination is special’
Nominated for: Best Global Music Performance (Udhero na), Best Global Music Album (Between Us)

Between Us includes songs from those clusters of Anoushka Shankar’s previous albums that “exist in a cross-cultural, cross-genre, ancient-modern space”. “The album began as a commission from an orchestra to have my work rearranged for orchestra. I was a fan of Jules Buckley’s work [in] arranging a staggering array of artistes’ music, and therefore, turned to him. Manu Delago is a central figure in this show, as a key collaborator and co-writer of mine across several of these albums. The pieces we play together are at the heart of the album,” the musician tells mid-day. If pressed to name an important offering from the compilation, she says Jannah holds a special place in her life. “I’ve been performing it live for a decade, but have not released it. I’m happy that it is finally out for people to listen to on record.”

‘A Grammy win is truly life-changing’
Nominated for: Best Immersive Audio Album (Divine Tides)

While growing up, Ricky Kej would frequent the USA, and attend concerts of Indian artistes. He admits that while the shows were always sold out, the attendees were almost always Indian music aficionados. “But, at the age of 19, I attended a Ravi Shankar-concert in San Francisco, and noticed that the demographics of the audience was a replica of the demographics of the residents of that area. So, if there were 80 per cent Caucasians in an area, there would be 80 per cent Caucasians in the audience. And that was a revelation for me. This man had truly broken cultural barriers by playing Indian music alone, and not commercial music. It wasn’t even fusion,” says Kej, lamenting that today, most Indian musicians attempt to gain attention in western countries by playing English music.

Kej aims to make his mark by finding an audience for his music instead of “sitting and crying, claiming that no one is listening to it”. With two Grammy nominations, and two wins behind him, he obviously need not worry about lacking an audience. Being a Grammy winner, he admits, has indeed changed the trajectory of his journey. “All of my music has a strong message; usually it is about the environment, but it can also be about other issues of social impact, like those on refugees or children’s rights. I look at the Grammys as the platform [that will help me create] more collaborations, and enable me to spread the message. In the past, when I would approach people, sometimes I would be taken seriously, sometimes, I would not. Now, more people take me seriously. I feel, awards are essential because they give you a direction that is important.”

At this year’s gala, Kej will compete for the immersive version of Divine Tides, his collaborative album with Stewart Copeland that also earned him the Grammy Award, last year. “Stewart and I always knew that we wanted this album to be immersive so that a listener could be transported [to another world] while consuming it. It took us longer to create that version, which is why we were nominated this year. This is going to be a tough win, because we compete against mainstream artistes like Christina Aguilera and The Chainsmokers. But, simply having an album with Indian music pitted against music that’s traditionally mainstream in western countries, is special.”

While he has been on a touring spree since the past few months, visiting 13 countries and performing 50 shows, Kej will soon return to the studio. After 18 years, he gears up to work for films. There are two in the pipeline. “One of them is a Hollywood film with Frank Grillo. It is a spy film which sees a south Asian actor play the lead. For me, it was interesting to be part of it because a south Asian guy was the hero, and the western actors were villains. It was cool to see that the Asian actor wasn’t represented as a sidekick or the villain. The other movie that I am working on is the Malayalam film, Adrishya Jalakangal, with Tovino Thomas.”

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