Flash Review: Berklee Indian Ensemble

By Priya Florence Dadlani

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Attending the Berklee Indian Ensemble’s show in a room full of devoted fans at National Sawdust was a treat that tasted like home, and their romantic, spirited performance provided endless inspiration. Being part of the expansive South Asian diaspora, not speaking my ancestral language or growing up around many South Asian families always left me feeling disconnected from my ancestral home, India. However, music has been a gateway for me to span time and space connecting more intentionally with my culture, and the sounds of Berklee Indian Ensemble that spanned rock-n-roll, hip-hop, classical, jazz, and Sufi influences were no exception. Most importantly, though, I witnessed the beauty of making music in collaboration, which gave me a deeper sense of community and connection that I was longing for. 

It was the first standing-room-only show I had been to at National Sawdust, and folks of all ages, from toddlers to elders, made up the electrified and excited crowd. The Ensemble opened up to an attentive audience with a classic tune shaped by the distinct, hypnotizing sounds of the tabla, flute, and manjeera. Mixed with the guitar, keys and sultry vocals of the lead singers, it all took me back to childhood when my dad would play devotional Hindu music in the mornings as he prayed. The Ensemble’s music was at times theatrical and told us a story like a Bollywood blockbuster, with the conversation not just between the two lead vocalists, but also between the sharp tabla taps and singer's staccato vocals, as well as the silky vocalists tune and the flute’s airy, ethereal song. 

When the bass player stepped to the front to cover For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica, I was shocked by how seamlessly it fit into a set composed of classic and new age Indian music. The freedom with which these musicians melded their sounds and skills to create a unique experience for the audience was deeply powerful. They even invited us to participate with them through a konnakol, or rhythmic clapping exercise, during which they split the audience into two groups and asked them to clap different beats in order to create a new rhythm they could perform with. It was a reminder of how playful and joyous creating something in collaboration can be—which is definitely something the Berklee Indian Ensemble represents, having had over 100 people part of their Ensemble over the years.

Growing up, my favorite treat was jalebi, which is a type of mithai or Indian dessert. Jalebi is a bright orange, spirally shaped, sticky sweet that is made by deep-frying batter and soaking it in sugar syrup. Seeing Berklee Indian Ensemble was just like biting into a warm jalebi, tasting the burst of sweet flavor and having just enough stickiness on my fingers to enjoy on the car ride home, humming their tunes and awaiting the next time I’ll get to experience something as soul inspiring.

About Priya Florence Dadlani

Priya Florence Dadlani (all pronouns) is an Indo-Caribbean, queer cultural worker from Silver Spring, MD. Dedicated to liberation from the oppressive boxes white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy work overtime to keep us in, Priya's work is rooted in constantly standing on the edge of transformation, believing in the possibility of a new world. Their toolbox consists of political education, zine making, strategy, and storytelling. Priya currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where she organizes with SPICY, a collective she founded led by and for queer people of color working at the intersection of art, justice, and cultural archival. In addition, they are the Communications Associate at Third Wave Fund, a member of the Jahajee Sisters grassroots action team, and a member of Media Sutra to support the dreams of Black and brown creative entrepreneurs. You can follow her on social media at @priya.florence.