100 Indian Music Nights

By Sandor Slomovits

Earlier this year, on the second Saturday night in May, the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room was crowded by 8:00. It was Indian Music Night. (Indian Music Night # 95 to be exact, but more on that in a minute.) A quintet of musicians sat in chairs at the front of the room, their backs to the windows that look out on Main Street. John Churchville, the founder of Indian Music Night, was warming up on the tabla (the traditional Indian hand drums), while Dan Ripke picked out notes on his acoustic guitar. Bidisha Ghosh, who would soon be singing, sat serenely in the center. Nearby, Lucas Atkinsmith tuned his violin, and Scott Brady was readying his bansuri, the traditional Indian bamboo flute, as well as his soprano sax. Ghosh was dressed in a white Punjabi, the traditional dress of Indian women, while the four men wore informal Western clothes. The audience ranged in age from school-aged children to adults of all ages, reading, conversing, scanning smart phones, or sipping tea. At 8:30  the musicians, with no introduction, simply began playing. At first, just the bamboo flute spinning out plaintive arhythmical phrases, then gradually the rest of the musicians joined in. The crowd quieted, their attention focused on the exotic sounds. 

After the first tune, Churchville welcomed the audience and then asked, "Is anyone here hearing Indian music for the first time?" One hand went up. “One person,” Churchville announced. “When we started, half the room would have raised their hands.” By “When we started,” Churchville was referring to Indian Music Night #1, which was in July of 2007, on the Saturday of Art Fair weekend. “I remember the load-in being a bit chaotic with everyone tearing down from Art Fair,” says Churchville. “It was a packed night!” IMN at the Tea Room became a monthly event that fall, beginning on October 26, 2007, and has continued ever since.

Randall Beek, who used to book the musical acts for the Tea Room, invited Churchville and friends to perform at the Crazy Wisdom booth at the 2007 Ann Arbor Book Fair and then proposed making IMN a monthly event at the Tea Room. At first it was just Churchville on tabla and Meeta Banerjee on sitar. Churchville elaborates:

We were joined occasionally by Atmaram Chaitanya, now the director for the local Kashi Nivas Meditation Center, on tanpura, [the Indian drone instrument]. Then we would also bring in performers from India if they passed through town at the right time. We also worked with musicians from the Michigan Indian Classical Music and Dance group at the U-M [now called Michigan Sahana]. That is where I met some of the musicians that would later become Sumkali [Churchville’s Indian music fusion group]: Prashanth Gururaja on violin, Vishrut Shrivastava on harmonium and vocals, and Mahesh Ganesan on kanjira [another traditional Indian hand drum]. Early on I was also joined by my friend Scott Brady. He and I took an educational trip to India in 2006 and I was there when he bought his first bansuri flute in Old Delhi. It wasn't long before he learned all the songs Meeta was playing on the sitar and he became a regular at IMN and a leading member of Sumkali. We usually have at least one Carnatic violinist, Anoop Gopal, and a bass player, Dave Sharp. We also welcome in people who are interested in performing on a piece or two…. We have also had Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth join us on harmonica and jaw harp. He even recorded on our last album.

At IMN #95 in May, Churchville noted that there were only five of them playing that night, “So we have a little more elbow room. Some nights we have had as many as twelve.” He went on to say that in the early days of IMN they used to talk more than they would play. “We would play a tune, then answer questions about the music and instruments for an hour.”

In an email a few days after the concert, Churchville wrote:

I would like to think that in some small way, all of that talking and explaining has   gotten around town and now everyone has a general idea of where the music comes from and the instruments making the music are more widely known. When we ask now if anyone has any questions, we don't get any, so we end up playing music for the full two hours, most nights without a break. Lately we have also begun to sit up on chairs, rather than the traditional position of sitting of the floor. It is easier for the audience to see, easier for us to hear, and it is easier on the hips. Other than that, it has always been centered around the music and making it as good as possible. That has never changed.

Churchville was born in Marquette, Michigan, and attended college at the California Institute of the Arts, which is where he was first exposed to Indian music and the tabla. He began his studies with world-renowned tabla maestro, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, then studied the fusion of tabla with Western musical styles with John Bergamo and his protégé, Randy Gloss. He moved back to Michigan in 2001 and has continued studying with Pandit Samar Saha, who comes through town every year on his North American tour. “With him I continue to study the classical tabla tradition. I am always drawing on that training to harvest my favorite ideas and fuse them with the music that moves me most... whatever it may be.”

Churchville has been teaching music at the Go Like the Wind Montessori School since 2006. In fact, one of the musicians at IMN #95, violin player Lucas Atkinsmith, now in high school, was a shy second grader in his class when Churchville first met him.

The music at IMN is all inspired by Indian traditional and classical music, but it incorporates many elements and styles of Western music. At Indian Music Night #95 they even played a Sonny Rollins tune, St. Thomas,” but of course the Indian instruments and the musical sensibility the members of Sumkali have developed gave the piece a very different sound and feel than it would have if played by jazz musicians. Throughout the evening, the audience applauded appreciatively—and occasionally even raucously—after every tune, as well as after particularly exciting or inspired solos. 

“In the beginning our rehearsals were mostly educational workshops with the people we were playing with,” Churchville writes. He continues:

The Westerners in the group all worked very hard to learn the structures and styles of the various musicians we would play with. The music scene in India varies greatly and depending on where people were from, there would be a new vocabulary and theoretical framework to understand in order to execute the music properly. As the music nights went on, we all started to settle on a style of playing that incorporated everyone's strengths musically while at the same time keeping true to the roots of the music… Nowadays, Sumkali is rehearsing, recording and gigging so regularly that IMN has become the venue to loosen the belt and be a little more free in our approach. 

In response to a question about whether he or Sumkali has ever gotten negative feedback from traditionalists about them playing this mix of genres of music and instruments of the two cultures, Churchville writes:

Speaking first for myself, as a tall white man born and raised in Michigan, simply sitting at the tabla strays from the traditionalist idea of what Indian music is supposed to look like, which in turn lowers the expectation of what it is going to sound like. I suppose if anyone has had a problem with it, they have kept it to themselves and/or remained very polite when speaking to me. The overwhelming response to my playing is an appreciation for the time spent learning the instrument and music. I am not expected to sound like the traditional tabla player, so when I play something that is good (but different), it is appreciated in a way that may not be for a tabla player from India.

I have no doubt that we have turned certain people off with our approach to fusing the traditional with...whatever it is we bring to music as individuals. At our core, however, are the melodies and rhythms that characterize music from India. I try to think of going to India and walking into a jazz club. Sure it would make me feel at home to see a standard trio playing jazz standards, but wouldn't it be great to see them interpreting the standard tunes with the instruments and sonic colors that hearken back to the core of what the musicians understand? It is this idea that people respond to the most, the idea that we all have a past, present and future self that we are constantly trying to identify with.

IMN #100 will be on Saturday, October 15. Churchville and his fellow musicians are still finalizing plans for the evening, which include a live recording of the event and an attempt at live-streaming it. “We are planning for a packed house of both musicians and audience members…. Musically we will be doing a sort of ‘History of Indian Music Night’ theme, telling the story through the music of how we all came together, got to know each other and learned to play music together at Indian Music Night.”

Then in November, IMN will begin its tenth year at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room with Indian Music Night #101. 

John Churchville can be reached at johnechurchville@gmail.com. For more information, visit his website at johnchurchville.com.