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A Different Drummer


Indian tabla player Sandip Burman has a knack for cutting through the red tape of the music business: His celebrated hands are as fast with a phone dial as they are on the drums.

"Hi, this is Sandip."

"Who's Sandip?"

Many of the prominent musicians Burman has performed with hadn't heard of the drummer before their phones rang. He's been brushed off and overlooked, but in the end fellow musicians - and audiences - are no match for his enthusiasm.

This is how, from Ravi Shankar to Bela Fleck (and even a hand in the Mars Attacks! soundtrack), he has landed gigs with the world's most celebrated jazz and world musicians and converted a legion of fans.

"Sandip called hundreds of times," says Paul Bollenback, a jazz guitarist from New York playing on Burman's East Meets Jazz tour. Bollenback knew nothing about Burman's credentials and reputation as a guru of the tabla, so he kept telling the drummer he was busy. A year later, he heard Burman play in Washington - and his schedule cleared.

"I was just totally amazed by what he could do," Bollenback says.

Burman, now 32, moved from Durgapur, India, to the United States in 1989 with no address and no English. His mission, to introduce the tabla - a pair of drums played with the fingers, palms and wrists - to Western ears.

Forget the constant meters of Western compositions. Indian music divides tunes into shifting groups of notes. At a gig last week at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Burman tutors the audience in Indian music's two ancient elements, clapping and singing the rhythms to help listeners discern the raga (the melody facet) and tala (the rhythm form).

"These are things that are constant, and then you improvise," Burman says. "It's rhythmically simplistic and mathematically complex."

And it can be a blur.

"[Burman's] is the only band I played in that you need a degree in math to get in," says saxophonist David Pietro, also touring with East Meets Jazz.

Later this month, the Chicago-based Burman again sweeps into Maryland with a performance and workshop at the Peabody Conservatory and a concert at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

But back at the Rams Head, Burman is sharing his secrets for an eclectic union between musical hemispheres, among them ... keep up.

The set is grueling for Bollenback and Pietro. While the audience shakes its head at the relentless speed of Burman's drumming - his hands blur like hummingbird wings - Bollenback and Pietro race to maintain form while inventing jazzy interludes.

"With Indian music, there's a lot of it, and it's all tricky," says Bollenback. You can't just groove through the tune, bracing for the tough spots.

"My mother says to me, 'What kind of gig are you doing that when you get home you have to sleep all day?'" says Pietro.

To the Western-trained musician, dissecting Indian meter is a John Nash-ian equation. To Burman, it's a lifelong exercise.

Burman's tabla training began at age 6, when he was accepted as a disciple by distinguished tabla maestro Pandit Shyamal Bose of Calcutta, India.

"Discipline, discipline, discipline," Burman says of his youth with guru Bose. "There's no joking around, man. Wake up. Practice. Eat. Practice. Help your guru practice. ... You have to sleep it, dream it, eat it, feel it."

Burman says he is still learning from Bose, but these days, he is also a tabla guru for American musicians and audiences. For Burman, mastering tabla is not a competition with other musicians. His talents are wasted, he says, if he's not passing on his knowledge of Indian music and philosophy.

Since his arrival in the United States, then, Burman has done just that, reaching new audiences through associations with jazz giants like Jack DeJohnette, Glen Valez and Al DiMeola. He's played with genre-benders Fleck and the Flecktones on the Grammy-winning album Outbound and contributed to the soundtrack of Tim Burton's film Mars Attacks!

At Peabody, Burman says, he will let his students dictate the subject matter of the workshop. Because he believes the tabla must be heard and seen for listeners to comprehend and grow, both the Peabody and CCBC concerts will be free.

Percussionist Nick Holmes, 23, from Wichita, Kan., first heard the tabla when Burman visited Wichita State University. Holmes was fascinated by Burman's technique and wanted to learn more. "Sandip said, 'OK, pick me up. Bring the tea.'"

Holmes graduated in May and now travels with Burman. "I basically take what he teaches me and apply it to the drum set," he says.

Burman tours constantly, organizing concerts and workshops with new lineups on a regular basis. No record company, no tour manager, no publicist - no red tape.

"I call people up, and I look at the map," he says. "Activity is better than inertia. You can go to the moon. It's just figuring out what to play and the mileage."

Free concerts

Sandip Burman performs several free concerts this month in the metropolitan area.

Kennedy Center: 6 p.m. Saturday at the Millennium Stage.

Peabody Conservatory: noon, Sept. 19 in Friedberg Hall. (Burman will hold a workshop at 10:30 a.m.) Call: 410-659-8100, Ext. 2

Community College of Baltimore County: 12:20 p.m. Sept. 20 in the Humanities and Arts Recital Hall on the Essex campus. Call: 410-780-6521.

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