East meets west when musicians join forces

By Dionne Christian

Sargam Fusion's Basant Madhur (left) with lead vocalist Ashish Ramakrishnan (centre) and APO principal percussionist Eric Renick who are exploring the music of the east and west. Photo:  Dean Purcell.
Sargam Fusion's Basant Madhur (left) with lead vocalist Ashish Ramakrishnan (centre) and APO principal percussionist Eric Renick who are exploring the music of the east and west. Photo: Dean Purcell.

One was born in India, the son of a music professor who counselled him to learn drumming rather than singing; the other is from Indianapolis and showed a knack for counting the beat from an early age.

Now Basant Madhur, who founded and teaches at the Sargam School of Indian Music in Blockhouse Bay, and Eric Renick, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's principal percussionist, are opening the door for a unique musical collaboration.

At this year's Diwali Festival, Auckland's largest celebration of contemporary and traditional Indian culture, musicians from the APO will join classically trained Indian musicians from Madhur's band, Sargam Fusion. The East-meets-West project sees the musicians combining their talents to perform five pieces in a cross-cultural combination of traditional classical Indian music, Western orchestral chamber music and - for good measure - a touch of Bollywood.

Madhur, the Diwali classical programme director, started Sargam Fusion in 2011 to bring together contemporary and classical Indian musicians living in Auckland.

The group includes vocalist Ashish Ramakrishnan, who won India's equivalent to the TV singing show NZ Idol - Zee TV's Sa Re Ga Ma Pa.

The project had its genesis some six years ago when Renick, newly arrived from the United States and a tad bored and lonely, decided to learn tabla - the drums used in traditional Indian music.

He bought a set via Trade Me and the seller told him, "if you want to learn to play properly, call this guy" and handed him Madhur's card. Renick tried to teach himself; after all, he'd become the principal percussionist for his junior high school orchestra because he was quick to learn to play percussion instruments and seemed to have innate rhythm. But it wasn't working, so he called Madhur and started lessons.

He did about a year's tuition before life got busy and he had to stop. During the years, the men have kept in touch with Renick, becoming part of Sargam Fusion about a year ago.

Renick acknowledges he's forever in search of new percussion experiences and even once performed a piece on flower pots.

Meanwhile, Madhur arrived in New Zealand in 2002 and was taken by his sister to play tabla at a local temple. Parents asked if he could teach their children, something Madhur was reluctant to do because he didn't think he was experienced enough. This was despite the fact that he trained with a tabla maestro, the late Pawan Kumar Verma, and received numerous awards from festivals throughout India. Madhur has trained hundreds of students, including Renick. He travels and performs all over the world and is becoming noted for his collaborations with Western musicians.

The trio says the main challenge has been to learn the way the others perform music. In the West, it's written down, but Indian musicians tend to play by ear. Ramakrishnan says it means no performance is ever the same.

"But music is here to bring cultures together," says Madhur, "so we learn from one another and it's really enjoyable learning other people's music."

They hope this weekend's performance will be the start of many - and, perhaps, there will one day be a full orchestra concert where the APO is joined by Madhur's musicians.

"We're taking it slowly to find out what works and what doesn't work so we get it exactly right," says Renick. "This sort of thing takes time to perfect."

What: Sargam Fusion with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where & when: Diwali Festival, main stage; Saturday, 6 - 6.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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