Arts & Events

Silk Road Revisited by Sandeep Das & the HUM Ensemble

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday October 09, 2018 - 11:24:00 AM

On Sunday, October 7, under the aegis of Cal Performances, world-renowned tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das brought to Hertz Hall the HUM Ensemble, a group of four musicians who performed music that, as the concert was dubbed, spanned from “Delhi to Damascus.” Sandeep Das, who often performs with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silkroad Ensemble, here traced the musical and linguistic interchange between India and Syria. It is indeed a rich heritage, one that includes a Syrian origin of the ancient Indo-Iranian and Indo-European Sanskrit language. Musically, the nod to Syria came in the form of the oud, played here by Syrian artist and composer Issam Rafea, who chairs the Arabic music department at the High Institute of Music in Damascus. The other members of the HUM Ensemble were, in addition to Sandeep Das on tabla, Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi, and Rajib Karmakar on sitar. The sarangi is of the same family as the Persian kamencheh. It is held upright and bowed, producing an eerie, often ethereal sound. Suhail Yusuf Khan is from a musical family in India, and he is an eighth generation sarangi player. 

The opening number featured all four instrumentalists, while the second was a solo by Sandeep Das on tabla. Next came a lyrical piece that featured Issam Rafea on oud. In between musical pieces, Sandeep Das spoke engagingly of his search for music that would involve an outreach to the world as a whole. He announced that the fourth piece was dedicated to Yo-Yo Ma, whom he lovingly praised for helping to open his own eyes to the universality of musical language. As Sandeep Das put it, 

“I started out as an Indian musician proud of my national heritage. Then I discovered the universality of music, and I stopped being Indian and became human.” 

One item on the program featured Suhail Yusuf Khan on vocals as well as sarangi. Sandeep Das introduced it by saying it was a traditional Indian song now on the wane in contemporary Indian music, but worthy of inclusion in his group’s repertoire. Another song was introduced as a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi. As much as there is to admire in Sandeep Das’s virtuoso tabla playing, it must be said that the repetitious quality of most of the songs began to grate. Over and over, a song would start out softly and lyrically, then gradually become rhythmically complex as the tabla joined in. Little by little, in piece after piece, there was the same pattern, culminating in a frenetic series of pops, stops, and more pops from the tabla, as the song exploded in a crescendo altogether worthy of Rossini. Often, the tabla was accompanied in these crescendos by jangly upbeat passages on sitar. It became all too predictable. In spite of this reservation, I found Delhi to Damascus an enjoyable, often instructive concert of music rarely heard in the West.