From the April, 2014 issue
The word fusion, when applied to music, is sometimes used dismissively or pejoratively. It implies that two or more genres have been mish-mashed for no good purpose other than that they can be. The resulting hodgepodge is imputed to be played by musicians not well versed in, nor respectful of, the genres they're mixing. While this is certainly occasionally the case, there is much great music that blends traditions in powerful, exhilarating ways, played by people with a deep affection for, and understanding of, the styles they're blending. Apparently, fusion too is in the ear of the beholder.
To my ears, the local group Sumkali plays fusion that works. Their music is a thrilling meld of Indian classical music, American jazz, and more. The musicians (a core of longtime members, both Indians and Westerners, plus others who join them for some recordings and concerts) have either grown up in those traditions or bring years of study to their playing. Sumkali's instrumentation embodies their mingling of traditions, ranging from bass, drums, saxophone, and violin (here played with the musician sitting cross-legged on the floor and the instrument held between foot and shoulder) to the less common sitar and tabla, to the rarely seen kanjira (a small tambourine-like instrument, capable of great complexity and subtlety), bansuri (an Indian bamboo flute), and glissentar (an eleven-string, fretless instrument that sounds like a cross between a guitar, a Middle Eastern oud, and a sitar). On stage members of Sumkali wear traditional Indian clothing--colorful saris for the women, kurtas for the men--with the occasional blue jeans.
Mainstream America first encountered Indian music in 1965, when George Harrison played sitar on the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." The distinctive sliding between microtones and the complex polyrhythms of classical Indian music quickly became a part of our musical consciousness. Sumkali's early focus was primarily on that music, played in relatively traditional fashion. (Indian Music Night, a longtime monthly staple at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room, began
with just Sumkali founders John Churchville on tabla and Meeta Banerjee on sitar.) As the group expanded and began incorporating other instruments and influences, the music began to change. Now, "it is all about taking our shared experience as musicians and making something new," says Churchville.
Sumkali's appearance at the Yellow Barn on Saturday, April 5 will be its first in Ann Arbor in over a year. The Yellow Barn should be an ideal venue for the group; in its relatively short existence, it's welcomed a wide variety of artists, teachers, organizations, and events. Sumkali and their fans' interest in unique, respectful, and joyous blending will be a perfect fit.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]