My very first conversation with Sandeep Das began as though we had known each other for years. If you need proof that “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet,” Sandeep is that proof. Re-listening to our half-hour-long Communicast session brought back all the smiles, emotions and positive passions this humble man brings out in the people he connects with. Sandeep Das is a human who cares greatly about giving back and helping others. He will transform the way you think and act.
FRIENDSHIP WITH Yo-Yo Ma
He calls Yo-Yo Ma ‘the greatest human being I have ever met” and tells the story of their first encounter. This was the rehearsal before Sandeep’s first performance outside of India. It took place in New York City with the New York Philharmonic. In India, 4 musicians on stage is a lot. The piece to be rehearsed was 28 minutes long and not anything he had seen before. He spurned both the sheet music and stand, stating, “Play it once and I will memorize it.” He also wanted to be sure he would be able to look out over the audience. This left an aghast orchestra in silence until YoYo Ma whispered to the conductor then turned to his fellow musicians and said “I know these Indian musicians. They do weird stuff. Why don’t we just play for him.” And so they did play for him and his response to Maestro Kurt Masur was “OK, I am ready.” This is just not something that would ever happen with an Old World German conductor or the New York Philharmonic. As Sandeep tells it, “you don’t tell the NY Philharmonic when to play” or how he would play, but somehow he did.
Indeed the very heart of the friendship between Yo-Yo Ma and Sandeep Das is steeped in humility and deep respect.
Although that incident took place more than 21 years ago, Sandeep tells it with the freshness of a person who lives the experience every day. Together with Yo-Yo Ma, these two musicians, during a yearlong residency in Chicago, started a program called Silk Road Connect. They went into schools in some of the toughest areas, the most impoverished communities, and they gave those kids a chance. Like the famous Silk Road itself, they brought together musicians from those countries and created opportunities for innovation and exchanges of ideas and cultures.
After Chicago, he went back to India and started HUM – a program that transcends barriers one musical note at a time. HUM is an acronym for Harmony, Universality and Music. More formally, Harmony and Universality through the idiom of Music is the first organization run by musicians that has opened new career possibilities for visually impaired, impoverished children. Previously, girls were only taught sewing and boys learned to make candles. Today, the very first child helped when he was 5 years old, is now 15 and he is playing tabla. HUM sponsors the musical instruments, finds and pays travel fees for mentors and gives them different and better opportunities in life. Sandeep is hopeful that he can get funding and bring that now 15 year old out of India to continue his musical education. He talks about engaging Berklee and the Boston Conservancy in the cause. While the number of children currently being helped is modest, the personal, human touch is powerful.
The resulting HUM ensemble has amazing stories to tell. The acceptance of the gifts offered and received has led to a series of concerts, programs, and explorations. The programs have titles like: Delhi to Shiraz, Delhi to Kabul/Damascus/Istanbul and have taken place at venues like Lincoln Center, RIT, DePauw University and most recently at the Nebraska Corssroads Music Festival.
Sandeep says he only writes music today that translates into action.
Look him up as a member of the Silkroad Ensemble and you’ll find Sandeep Das, Tabla, Composer. The first sentence in his bio continues “A Guggenheim Fellow, Sandeep Das is one of the leading Tabla virtuosos in the world today. Since his debut concert at the age of 17 with legendary Sitar player Ravi Shankar….” You can read more by clicking the link.
The Sandeep I met is clear that his purpose today is to “harness the power of music to create positive social change.”
He is a refreshing contrast to the numbers-driven “how much money did you raise? How many clicks do you get?” metrics and outcome-driven world around us. He says “just because I don’t know the outcome shouldn’t stop me from acting now.” He is a catalyst who is excited to pack his tablas and go wherever there can be meaning and a message for hope.
This tabla concert that he is going to play with Symphony NH is not just another gig.
“I am so grateful that the NH Symphony and Maestro Kalia are thinking about this. This is important.”
He feels strongly that this is a way to start opening small windows into the hearts of people who come to listen. And that these musicians who have always played Bach and Beethoven [as they have trained well to do] open those windows to the world of music and the joy and connections that can be made directly by the music. Without words.
Sandeep references Yo-Yo Ma often throughout our conversation. “What is your goal?” is a frequent and important question as a point of reference to action and results desired. When it comes to teaching children, he is immediate in his answer. He is not going in there to turn them into a tabla player, or a musician or big music fan. Rather, he hopes to give them that positive life experience to make good decisions at every juncture down the road of life.
“My only hope is that I am leaving them with a very positive experience. So that ten years from now, 50 years from now, when they are at a juncture in their lives, when they are at that decision where what they do is going to affect many other people, hopefully this positive [music-related] experience will help them make a positive decision [and if that happens] I will die a happy man.”
Like Pete Seeger’s banjo and Yo Yo Ma’s cello, Sandeep’s tabla is a tool to rally people around a cause. These musicians break through self-imposed artificial barriers and open doors to opportunities to connect and change communities for the betterment of all.
THE TAKEAWAY – EMPOWERMENT
There is a single word that describes what Sandeep Das does – EMPOWERMENT
Sandeep touched my inner 8-year-old self. My first music teacher, Mr Gates, saw certain strengths in me and communicated that to my parents and eventually, I realized them myself. The confidence he saw in how I touched the keys set me on a path that allowed me to recognize the power of all that Sandeep Das brings to the world.
He recognizes that music opens doors and creates connections even before words are spoken. I shared with him my article Art as the Authoritative Voice because we are saying the same thing in similar ways. In these strange times, music and all the Arts go right to the soul. We have more in common than we are different. Reaching the right people, in the right places, at exactly the right time for them, is facilitation and empowerment.
The work (and joy) Sandeep Das is doing is important to the future of our world. He is helping others find their way.