Coming Together, Understanding Each Other

The Naadaleela Ensemble at the Indian Summer Fest 2021

By Gabrielle Morin, Production Liaison at ISF

On filming day for the Naadaleela Ensemble, getting started takes time-locked entrances, obligatory covid screenings and cumbersome musical instruments fitted through narrow doors make for a staggered entrance. The morale is great, nonetheless. The joy of being together and the excitement of performing draws smiles on faces one must picture behind masks. On stage, Curtis Andrews checks in with artists and crew, ensuring everything is just so. Jared Burrows quietly tunes his headless electric guitar, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform covered in a richly adorned Indian carpet. Vidyasagar Vankayala, not too far, diligently organizes musical partitions. Calm and composed, Lan Tung waits patiently, her erhu resting on her thigh. Dailin Hsieh is warming up; her fingers run across the Zheng, notes cascading off her instrument and into the empty hall. Jonathan Bernard unfolds his percussion apparatus, the skins, gongs, and mallets multiplying as more cases are brought in. In a nook at the back of the theatre, Amir Eslami warms up, producing faint Ney melodies buried under shouted directives between crew members. Together, they form the Naadaleela Ensemble, whose music lives at the intersection of Hindustani, Chinese, and Persian traditions.

Once cameras and microphones are in place, the musicians reverently sit in a circle on stage, facing each other, ready to start. After a shared silence and an inward breath, they start playing – the notes merge and bounce, flow and halt. The musicians speak different musical languages, but there is shared ground. And where there isn’t complete understanding, there is profound respect and admiration. There is a communal, almost culinary quality to the way the sounds blend – as every virtuoso brings their own flavour to the rich, fragrant, and refreshing sonic creation.

Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise then that the project originated in a restaurant, as Curtis and Jonathan talked over a dosa meal. Long-time friends, the two were discussing a collaboration about a group of “dream players”, in the words of Jonathan. ISF couldn’t be prouder to be the home for their first work together. A few weeks after the filming of the show, the premiere of which is to air on Saturday, July 17th, we met with some members of the Naadaleela Ensemble to learn more about their experience performing at the Orpheum for the Indian Summer Festival 2021.

A Bite or Two of the Interview

On beginnings and communal sharing – of food, or music…

Curtis: I guess first, there was a meeting over food, I remember, at the Dosa Factory, with me and Jonathan. He mentioned the possibility of doing some kind of collaboration with the Orchid Ensemble, myself, and possibly some other musicians. Something that would involve South Indian or Indian music.

Sirish: This was the dosa talking.


Curtis: Then I suggested a couple of other musicians to expand it, Vidya, Amir, Jared. It was all a process. We have had rehearsals since February, we’d meet twice a month, two days consecutively, and traverse the musical peaks and valleys.

Jonathan: It was the best way to start. Curtis was the first choice. Curtis is always someone we want to work with more, and admire greatly, so it was just natural. Even at the first rehearsal, it was sounding great. I think we all sensed that this was not gonna be like a one-off. We knew immediately, “this is a new band”. There’s a bright future. 


On music as language…

Lan: Instead of some collaboration where people meet for a short time, we really wanted to learn from each other. We were interested in making this process longer, so we could meet regularly. I’m very happy that’s how we did it because, in this kind of musical exchange, it’s most beneficial to spend time together and figure out how the instruments work together and have individual voices in the creative process. 

Jonathan: It is a great pleasure not to have to cram it in and do it over a long period of time, but I’ll also add that certainly with the Carnatic tradition, this is necessary. It’s not only a pleasure, it’s necessary, it is a language. You have to become fluent in it. You sense the fluency because we took the time.

Lan: Of course, our musical traditions are quite different. I am interested in how different styles and traditions can mix within one musical piece, instead of one piece Indian style, one-piece Chinese, one-piece Persian, as you see very often in this kind of collaboration. To be able to do that, you need to allow time and allow space for each other.

Amir: People all around the world need to talk to each other, but the major issue is that we don’t have a common language. The only common language is music. Music helps people to have a dialogue about their cultures. 


On playing at the Orpheum…

Jonathan: The Orpheum is kind of a sacred space, in a secular sense. It’s the hall in Vancouver it’s so beautiful. The historic, the aesthetic, and all the experiences we’ve had there. Lan performed with the Dalai Lama there. I also had great experiences playing with orchestras over the years.

Lan: That’s where you saw me for the first time, at the Orpheum!

Jonathan: Oh yeah, Lan was on stage, performing Carmina Burana. So I guess that was the first time I saw her! Maybe that was the first time we were in the same room together.

Curtis: That adds sacredness to your Orpheum experience. I think because we were set up the way we were set up, in a circle, we were focussed on each other, it was almost like we were playing for ourselves as opposed to everyone in a line, facing an empty room, or empty chairs. We were facing each other so it wasn’t like it was going nowhere, the musical energy was going towards the other musicians, coming back to us. So, it was like our own little, you know, force field of musical joy. And the crew! We knew the crew was there.

Even if the Naadaleela Ensemble found pleasure in playing for each other in an empty hall, they are excited to play their newly arranged pieces for a live audience. Make sure to catch their concert during the Night at the Orpheum Finale, this upcoming Saturday, July 17th, 2021.

Link for more details about the upcoming Finale: