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Modern Drummer Review

East Meets Jazz - Steve Smith and Sandip Burman Mix Two Different Worlds
by Michael Bettine

Indian tabla virtuoso Sandip Burman is recounting calling Steve Smith to recruit him for a band project he was putting together.


"This is Sandip Burman."


"Okay. What do you want?"


"Steve, I'm not from the phone company, I'm not trying to sell pizza. I'm trying to interest you in playing some Indian music."


"Oh, yeah, I love Indian stuff."


"That works for me. I have a gig for you!"

The energetic Durgapur, India navtive, who has worked with John DeJohnette and John Scofield, used this direct approach to recruit a band to play his own challenging music. Besides Sandip and Steve, the all-star group features Howard Levy (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report), violinist Jerry Goodman(Mahavishnu Orchestra), and saxophonist Dave Pietro (Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra).

MD caught up with Sandip and Steve at the third gig of their month-long East Meets Jazztour. During the soundcheck, it was evident that the musicians were still coming to terms with the difficult music they were presented with. Many of the charts were eight to nine pages long. "Under the circumstances, the first two gigs went well," Steve says. "We only had one five-hour rehearsal."

Everyone's busy schedule made rehearsing difficult. Victor was in Germany and Dave came back from Japan. "The music is very difficult for Western musicians to play," Steve admits. "It's incredibly complex, rhythmically, and hard work for all of us. Right now, we're really concentrating on reading the charts and getting comfortable with the music. So, it would have been nice to have at least four days of rehearsal."

So why did Steve take on such a challenging gig? "The main attraction is the novelty and the opportunity to learn something new," he replies. "We're doing it because we love the music, we love to play with each other, we like to learn - just the whole experience of it."

The music that Sandip writes is based on ancient Indian raga and tala systems. Unlike Western music, the rhythms flow in a way that doesn't let the band just hold a groove and jam on top of it. As Steve explains, "This material is rhythmically complex. It involves odd meters in a way that Westerners don't normally deal with. In the Indian style, which I'm just learning, there's something similar to what we call 'displacement.' For example, one song we play in 5 1/4!" 

Sandip explains it this way: "It's 16th notes divided 12-6-3: four groups of three, three groups of two, and three single beats."

Even though these Indian rhythmic ideas were new to Smith, he feels that his studies years ago with master teacher Gary Chaffee gave him the necessary tools to understand the music. "From Gary, I learned a lot about rhythms, subdivisions, and groupings - the raw materials that make up the rhythmic stuff or Indian music," Steve says. "So, I can relate to it on that level of beats, rhythms, phrases, and phrasing over four or odd times.

"It's been a very serious process with math equations," Steve continues. "Sandip is trying to expand one thing and contract another. It all has to make sense in a mathematical way. There's a symmetry to the music. So it's real different from how we think of rhythm. It's been very educational so far, and it's only been a few days. It's like going back to school."

Sandip has likewise been inspired by working with Smith, and combining their different drumming styles. "It's fantastic," he enthuses. "Steve plays a groove. I play a groove. Sometimes he plays a melody, then I play a melody." 

Burman, who first came to the States in 1989 under the sponsorship of Maharishi Yogi, now divides his time between Chicago and Calcutta. The busy drummer has students spread out in places like Mexico City, San Diego, and Tampa. Unlike in the West, he explains, in India, you don't just listen to recordings and decide to be a tabla player. "To learn tabla in India, you have to stay in a gurus house," Burman explains. "The guru is very respected. I was 6 years old when i started. My parents wanted me to play. In India, it's a very disciplined life, and you go through your parents. This is called 'Passing the Tradition.' From guru [teacher] to shishya [student], the parampar [tradition] is passed and then repeated."

The road to tabla is one of devotion. "Discipline and practice - you have to eat it, drink it, and dream it to be able to play," Burman says emphatically. "There is nothing in the short way. Don't learn it because you want to be a star. Get your ego out and give yourself to that. You have to work hard and be very disciplined. Learn, practice, learn - that's the way I learned. This is no, 'Why am I doing this?' You just follow the guru, and you'll find the answers. I met Bela Fleck at a concert, and then we started to play. Then I was on his record. You do your duty, you know? You don't do it because you're going to get a gig."

The tabla themselves are a pair of small drums played with the fingers, palm, and heel of the hand. The specific drum played with the right hand is also called the "tabla." It is cylindrical and carved out of a solid piece of hardwood, with a single head about 5 1/2 inches in diameter. The drum played with the left hand is called the "bayan." It's bowl-shaped, and usually made of metal, with a single head approximately 9 inches in diameter. The sound is melodic and delicate. "As long as we're close enough together, and I play soft enough," Steve says, "It feels pretty good, and locks up. I altered my setup so I can have the right sounds to accompany the tabla." For the tour, Steve used a Sonor Jungle Kit with mainly Zildjian flat-rides and splashes to keep the volume down.

"Sandip doesn't have the sort of Western concept of 'grooving hard,'" Steve says. "It feels more ethereal. So, I have to be very sensitive, and try to play underneath him, because it's a very delicate sound. I try to play a real supportive role, and get underneath as much as I can, because he's playing so much on top. It's interesting to listen to a lot of the things we play, because he's playing things that are thousands of years old."

Tapping out these ancient rhythms, Burman's fingers are often a blur. "Sandip really gets a lot of momentum going," Steve offers. "He creates this forward motion. Within that, he plays some nice phrases that he pulls off with ease, no matter what the time signature."

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