With a swing of his bow, Mike Block, a cellist, prompted the audience to hum a single note in unison. Using this sound as a foundation for the next piece, Block began to play “Lieutenant Maguire’s Jig,” a traditional Celtic song. Sandeep Das improvised a colorful rhythm on the tabla, a percussion instrument, as Block progressed through the song. The combination of the audience’s humming, the flowing melody, and the spontaneous drum beats created a trance-like effect in the overall tone of the song.
The duo concert, featuring Block and Das, was held in the Timken Room last Friday night. The performance showcased a variety of songs from India, Scandinavia, Nepal, the Middle East, and many other places. The duo met while playing in Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble in 2005 and have been playing as a duo since 2013. “[Yo Yo Ma] did the role of the instigator… and [Mike and I] met and we said, ‘Let’s share some music!’ We played for 15 minutes in his apartment and we immediately knew that we could have a great time together,” said Das.
The duo focused on blending both Western and Indian classical music to show the audience how to have respect for different cultures, according to Das.
“I come from Indian classical tradition and Mike, as you all know, comes from Western classical tradition and the repertoire we chose was kind of a meeting in between… It’s not about diluting myself and turning into a Western classical musician or turning him into an Indian classical musician; [it’s] to show the people that… once you have learned one thing well enough, you can really branch out and do anything you want, and it will still sound great because you have tremendous respect for each other’s cultures and then [whoever] you collaborate with is very pure,” said Das.
In a fusion between Das’s Indian culture and Block’s American culture, the duo performed a mashup of a “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram,” a traditional Indian prayer song and “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” by Hank Williams, an American gospel song. Beginning with a stirring melody, Block played with long, graceful bow strokes as Das gradually entered the song with steady and powerful drumbeats. Block then began to sing alternating lines from both songs, creating one unified melody. Halfway through, the mood shifted as Block quickened his bow strokes and Das began to play with more fervor, both musicians grinning as they played. To end the song, Das played a resounding thump as Block’s bow concluded with a flourish.
“[My favorite piece] was the piece where they did the mash-up between the Indian song and the American folk song. It was a really interesting fusion of cultures. I really liked how they incorporated [Sandeep’s] heritage and the culture that comes with it and they made it more accessible, especially to an American audience… by incorporating the Western elements, so I thought that was really interesting. The musical and auditory effect was really impressive, especially when [Mike Block switched] between languages [while singing]. I thought the contrast was a little jarring, but it was also very interesting and it added another dimension towards a piece that was already very complex,” said Adrienne Zhang ’18, an audience member.
During the concert, the duo set aside a portion for Das to showcase his tabla playing. Das played a series of rapid, resounding drum beats that gradually increased in speed and sound. He also explained the process of his tabla training. According to Das, learning tabla was more about a way of life rather than learning a particular instrument.
“[The way I began playing the tabla] was more by accident. My class teacher called my father when I was eight-years-old to complain that, ‘He disturbs the class by tapping on the desk, he’s constantly tapping on the desk, and when he’s not or when I ask him not to, he starts tapping with his feet. You should probably take him to a doctor.’ Instead of taking me to a doctor, my father bought me my first pair of drums and my first lesson, and that’s how the journey began. My first guru was Shiv Kumar Singh and then my father took me to a maestro of tabla playing, Kishan Maharaj, and [I] learned from him,” said Das.
Block said, “There’s no existing music intended for cello and tabla so we had to create everything ourselves. It’s a mixture of drawing on our traditions and also finding inspiration from a numerous amount of traditions like folk styles and music from across the world so that we could really find our voice as a cello and tabla duo. We had to search the whole world for music that felt right.”