MANSFIELD - In Indian food restaurants, the music always sounds exotic, strange and captivating. Apparently, however, to people who live in India, the music is analogous to elevator music or Top 40 pop music. Sandip Burman, who is an Indian tabla master, will bring his mixture of educational presentation and performance to Mansfield University at 7 p.m. Friday.
Burman's online biography said, "Sandipji is the first generation of musicians in his family and without the backing of a reputed musical heritage, it is an unyielding dedication and enthusiasm that has driven him to continually challenge himself as a student and to grow musically."
The tabla is a set of squat drums that are played sitting cross-legged and barefoot, with different hand strikes that create different sounds. And the music Burman presents is known as Indian classical music. While the scale is the same 12 notes most places in the world, the Indian classical music system uses some specialized language to name and manipulate those notes.
There are two main components to Indian classical music: Tala and raga. Raga is a melody form, but is not the same as scale. Tala is a system of rhythm. Burman also incorporates vocal percussion - this is the practice of reading out the notation of what he plays as he plays it. He engages his audience in the practice.
The Sun-Gazette got in touch with Burman by proxy. Do to his grueling road schedule and an unfortunate headache, he was unable to speak before deadline, but his tour mate and harmonica player, John Gardner, answered questions by phone.
Gardner is a western blues harmonica player who has been studying with Burman. He plays the ragas on his harmonica, while Burman plays the talas on the tabla. He calls Burman "Sandipji."
Gardner sits in awe of Burman. This is not some kind of requisite, starstruck, "Bieberesque" fandom. It is a deep respect and admiration.
Beneath Gardner's excitement for the music lies this sense of gratitude and honor that he is able to tour and study with Burman.
Gardner explained that the reason he refers to Burman as "Sandipji" is that the suffix -ji, in Hindi, is an informal term of respect.
Gardner said, "It can be added to a first or last name."
Nothing analogous exists in English, the nearest equivalent would be Mr. or Mrs.
Gardner explained his relationship with Burman by saying, "It's obviously a close relationship. We tour together and make music together. You'll see he's very, very, very down to Earth. I still wouldn't feel so comfortable calling him by just his first name."
He explained further that there's a sort-of reverse way of showing admiration, where someone who is distinguished with the -ji suffix would address someone younger, who is less experienced - like a younger brother - with -dai at the end of the name.
Burman has played with musicians as notable as Ravi Shankar and Bela Fleck and many others. He is distinguished with the title "Pandit," notated as Pt. in English. Pandit is the Hindi word for scholar. It's similar to the way in which people with academic PhDs in the U.S. are doctors.
Burman contributed to the soundtrack for Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" and has even composed a bit of western classical music. He has played all over the world.
Perhaps these accomplishments explain the amazement in Gardner's voice, but Gardner himself studies Indian classical music and his awe goes deeper than that.
He said, "You spend all this time studying something and it gets inside of you. I studied blues and yeah that's in my heart, too. But you see the mathematics and the centuries this music gets passed down."
For Gardner and for Burman, it's about sharing that knowledge and history, not about correcting wrong perceptions of Indian music or culture.
When asked about road stories, apropos of the recent anniversary of 9/11, Gardner talked a little about some of the challenges of traveling with an Indian Visa. He was careful to couch his assertions in a disclaimer of sorts.
"Just by laws of numbers, we travel more than most people, so, naturally, would get stopped more," he said. "I get a performance visa, which I can get overnight on a Saturday for Australia. For Sandipji, it's more of a process."
He also explained that for their upcoming tour of Sweden, they'll have to go to Washington D.C. to get fingerprinted, and that they would have to go to D.C. regardless of where they're headquartered.
Still, he was good-natured about it and explained that Burman is, too. He recounted a brief story about being stopped in Vancouver, British Columbia, and how the officer didn't recognize the cases of the sitar or the tabla, and Burman took it out and started playing for him. "It's an instrument!" He said, and got the sitar out on the side of a mountain road in Canada.
On the anniversary of 9/11, the group was scheduled to cross the Canadian border. Always enthusiastic and devoted to the journey, in a text message, Gardner said, "We'll see what drama awaits!"
For more information about Burman, visit www.sandipburman.com.