I play oud in the Chicago/Kolkata-based music group East Meets Middle East (EMME) along with Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla), Abhisek Lahiri (sarod), and George Lawler (percussion). In September 2016, we performed for the Eye on India Chicago Festival at the Fulton Street Collective Gallery. Our group, which blends musical influences from the Middle East and South Asia, was well received by the Chicago audience and especially garnered the attention of cultural programmer, Avik Roy, from Teamwork Arts, an Eye on India partner. One month later, Roy invited us to perform at the prestigious 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajasthan and to share the bill with acts from around the globe, including the Aga Khan All Stars, Titi Robin, and many renowned Rajasthani musicians.
In Jaipur, the world came together through music and literature. Artists and attendees enjoyed musical performances throughout the day amid lectures and readings by world renowned authors. EMME’s morning performance on the final day of the festival was well received by an enthusiastic audience who felt it was refreshing to get a more in-depth look at the South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures through music. Others commented that they enjoyed hearing the diverse instruments and the way they complemented each other.
Our group capped off the festival with an evening performance in collaboration with other artists at the closing ceremony. We especially enjoyed reconnecting with musician friends Nathulal Solanki (Nagara) from Rajasthan and Homayun Sakhi (Rubab) from Afghanistan/the U.S.
EMME’s journey began in Chicago with a chance meeting between myself and Bhattacharya in January of 2016. Upon discussing music and current affairs of the world, we stumbled upon the topic of a recent attack on a Sikh temple in Milwaukee in which the perpetrator thought it was a mosque. This led to a discussion about how our respective regions, Middle Eastern and Indian, are both very rich in culture, yet often mischaracterized through a Western lens.
As a group, we discussed ways to respond artistically through music rooted in our culture, but also remain open to the collaborative nature of music. Hence, the East Meets Middle East project was born. We came together for rehearsals in Chicago and recorded our self-titled debut album with Intercultural Music Production, a company I run with Lawler. The songs are a result of improvisations and composed structures EMME arranged in the studio.
EMME is trying to raise awareness of the similarities and distinctions between the traditions we represent. Both Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures have robust pluralistic traditions consisting of many religions and philosophies that tend to be homogenized in the West, but also misunderstood in the East amongst the people themselves.
EMME’s hope is that music can bring humanity closer in a dialogue. As a group, we espouse a message that while it is important to celebrate our differences, we also need to come together to face similar issues that affect us all.
Touring India was an exhilarating experience. A major highlight for Lawler and I was visiting three major cities on this tour: Kolkata, Jaipur, and Delhi. In Kolkata, we were able to get a closer look at one of India’s cultural capitals and learn more about its folk music and rich history of literature and poetry, including icons such as Rabindranath Tagore.
It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to do some music research for a play. I did sound design and original music composition for an adaptation of Great Expectations (by Charles Dickens). This adaptation by Tanika Gupta is set in colonial Kolkata. In addition to telling the classic tale of a rural young man’s path to self-discovery, the play explores the dynamics of 19th century Bengali culture and resistance juxtaposed with the presence of colonial English rule. The score is greatly informed by my time in India and also features music by EMME. In a collaboration between Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising theatres the play is running now through July 2nd at the Silk Road Rising Theatre in downtown Chicago.
In Delhi, Lawler and I met with the folks from the One World College of Music and performed at People and Co. in Gurgaon, Delhi as part of a world music series.
The next day, we culminated our tour performing for a Republic Day Celebration at Desmania Design with musician friends and masters of Carnatic music, Sudha and Raghu Raghuraman.
EMME is currently working on our second album and we have recently begun recording in Chicago from this past May. We hope to tour and perform in the U.S. in the fall of 2017.
Eye on India is a young and dynamic organization whose role is to serve as a facilitator and integrator. Promoting appreciation for diverse programming in the cultural landscape of Chicago, the festivalâ€™s uniqueness lies in its ability to create and inspire collaboration among various cultural, community and business organizations across Chicago and other cities in the US and India.