He just wants to bang on his drum all day

Asked what future plans he has, Sandip Burman simply replies, “Nothing but playing the tabla.” And, for once in the course of our phone interview, I’m sure he’s not joking.

“For the last 10 years I didn’t have a booking agent. No father-uncle, no big brother helping me for my back,” he says in accented English. “But somehow, I’m doing okay.”

In fact, Burman, who performs at UNCA on April 18, has collaborated on film scores with composer Danny Elfman (Mars Attacks), has been showcased on the L. Subramaniam album Global Fusion (Elektra, 1999), and was a guest on Bela Fleck’s Outbound (Sony, 2000).

And that’s just a partial list of his accomplishments since coming to the U.S. in 1989 — but it’s also a good example of Burman’s mission, which seems to be to introduce tabla (India’s native drum) to as many types of music as possible. The Sun painted him as an ambassador of sorts, asserting that in his quest to educate the masses about Indian music, Burman “… won’t take no for an answer.”

Mission: possible

The percussionist laughs at this grandiose quote. “My mission is to educate myself,” he insists.

In 2001, Burman made an unusual move for a classical Indian musician, hitting the road with a group of jazz-leaning artists. The tour, East Meets Jazz, featured pianist Howard Levy (Flecktones), drummer Steve Smith (Journey), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report), guitarist Paul Bollenback, and saxophonist David Pietro (Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra), among others.

Burman shrugs off the cultural chasm between jazz and Indian music, pointing out the component of improvisation that unites the genres. Pietro, however, once quipped to the Sun, “Burman’s is the only band I played in that you need a degree in math to get in.”

For the tabla player, the challenge does lie in rhythmic complexity. Take his remake of the Mission Impossible TV theme — a 5-meter song: Burman recreated the tune in 8-1/2.

When I ask him if he has any other world-music-fusion plans, he laughs. “What’s left? Bluegrass? Irish? I like Irish.” He pauses to mull this idea over. “Sima likes Irish,” he adds, as if his younger sister’s approval seals the deal. And that may be the case, since she’s currently traveling with her brother, providing vocals and harmonium.

“Sandip and Sima,” he laughs. “I like the alliteration.”

Of Grammys and graham crackers

It almost seems as though Burman can make something happen — a band, a tour, even a new musical genre — just by willing it into being. He’s known for calling musicians up, out of the blue, and asking them to do a project with him. That’s how he met Bela Fleck. That’s how he met Smith.

Modern Drummer recounted that phone conversation in a 2002 article: “‘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.'”

Surprisingly, it worked.

But the percussionist isn’t easily impressed by big names. “A name is just a stop,” he says. “They have to be a good musician. If you’re on the road, you get some recognition. Maybe a Grammy or a graham cracker, who knows.”

All of the jazz and movie-soundtrack work aside, Burman’s straightforward classical sound is every bit as mesmerizing as the more showy fusion offerings. His 2001 self-release, Indian Classical Music (with sarod player Rajeev Taranath), is a moody journey through exotic notes and syncopated beats.

“The melody is called raga and the rhythm is tala [a recurring time measure],” the musician explains. “I now play melody, too. I actually need a drummer to play with me. Tabla tarang is one thing I do — it’s like a gamelan [an Indonesian orchestra] in sound.”

He adds, “It doesn’t fit in orchestra and jazz [music]. You can’t program it into a computer. I have to program it into my brain.”

Forget Ritalin, try tabla

The percussionist got his start at age six, studying with Pandit Shyamal Bose of Calcutta. Unlike American kids, who take a music lesson here or there, Burman was sent by his parents to live with his teacher, or guru.

It was another guru — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (teacher of the Beatles and founder of Transcendental Meditation) — who sponsored Burman’s initial trip to the U.S. “I was interested in meditation … and playing music for world peace,” the tabla player recalls without irony.

“You have to work — [playing music] is like yoga: you meditate, you sleep, you practice. And you have to be unattached.”

Another yogic (by way of Newton) philosophy he applies to his life is that “every action has a reaction … you do good, good comes back to you.”

Which is how Burman explains the transition from his early, penniless days in California, where he worked in a hotel, watered plants and even slept one night in a gas station, to his current digs in Chicago.

“I have a home and an office. But I still have to deal with the lawyers and go back and forth [between India and the U.S.]. They should give me the green card.

“I’m a pretty interesting guy, right? You must think I’m hyper — but hyper people get the job done.”

Sandip and Sima Burman perform classical music from India as well as East-meets-West fusion (with the Arizona State University Chamber Orchestra) in an 8 p.m. concert on Monday, April 18 at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. $15/general, $12/kids 12 and under. 232-5000. (Sandip Burman offers a free workshop on India rhythms at 10 a.m. the same day. Held in the Highsmith Center, the event is limited to 60 participants. It’s first-come, first-served, so arrive early and bring a drum.)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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