Top Chefs: Sumkali's new album is a delicious fusion of East and West



Whether it's with food, art, or music, fusion depends on a natural blending to be successful. Adding cayenne peppers to cherry ice cream just ain't gonna work.

But the music of Sumkali works perfectly, an expert blend of East and West, the ancient and the futuristic.

The Ann Arbor band's fourth album, Dha Re Dha, is a particularly good fusion of sounds and working methods. Recorded over a three-year period, the band says the LP falls into three categories:

1). arrangements of traditional Indian folk melodies, 2) Improvised studio sessions with minimal editing, and 3) Fully composed 'hyper-realistic' original studio creations that were built from the ground up in the studio track by track.

In addition to Sumkali's core members -- John Churchville (tabla), Bidisha Ghosh (vocals), Dan Ripke (guitar), Rich Rickman (bass), Anoop Gopal (violin), and Will Ciccola (sax/flute) -- Dha Re Dha features 15 guest musicians, including tabla giant Pandit Samar Saha and local legend Peter "Madcat" Ruth on harmonica.

Sumkali has honed it sound through monthly gigs at Indian Music Night in Crazy Wisdom's tea room, but those shows focus more on traditional materials. Dha Re Dha extends the band's sound by adding studio manipulation to the mix, allowing Sumkali to turn traditional Indian music into a modern mash-up without ever killing the original roots of inspiration.

It's a legit tasty fusion.

I emailed with Churchville to discuss Dha Re Dha.

Q: How has having the monthly gig at Crazy Wisdom helped shape the band? 
A: The Crazy Wisdom Indian Music Night has been the primary venue for meeting new musicians, trying out new music, and networking with the community. All of the musicians that currently play in Sumkali started out at CW. The spirit of what we do and what we are about as a group can be felt in every Indian Music Night. We have also found that if the music is working at CW, it will work anywhere. Some of the best music we have played live together has been spontaneously created at CW. We also try ideas and many have made it to the album.

In so many musical circles musicians utilize small format gigs to try out their stuff. Whether it is a songwriter's open mic or a regular weekday gig, the musicians that are really working on their stuff is always looking to put themselves in public to hone their craft. Indian Music Night is in that spirit of a low-pressure public forum in which to try out new things. When a bigger festival comes up we rehearse the details of song order, solo order, arrangements and banter between songs. Every detail is scrutinized. We never rehearse for Indian Music Night, it is all done on the fly.

Q: Did you know going into the recording that it would fall into the three approaches that characterize the album, or did that happen naturally and you just went with it?
A: So the realization that we had these three approaches came about halfway through the process. We went through a time period where we combined rehearsals, recording, and writing new music.  We would record nonstop for 2-3 hours at a time and then go back and keep all the best stuff.  After about a year of doing that a few times a month, we took a look at the whole body of work and found these three approaches were our most fruitful. 

The improvisations mostly came from one long session when we had Pandit Samar Saha and Peter Madcat Ruth in the studio for just one day. We all set up and got ready to press record. No one in the room knew what was going to happen, and no one really wanted to know. We knew that we were about to go on a journey. When the record button was pressed and we got the thumbs up, Samar Saha looked around and said, "OK, bye!" signaling that we were all about to say goodbye to the set-up banter and begin the musical journey. We played an epic 20-minute piece. After it was over I edited it down, rearranged it, and we laid some new tracks on it.  It was all very organic, but at the same time, we were not afraid to use the technology to enhance every bit of it that we could, from giving the kick drum some extra kick to boosting the vocal solo climax -- nothing was off the table in regard to what it took to get the tracks right and sounding great. 

Q: Is this the first time you've created tracks piece by piece in the studio rather than play everything live? 
A: I personally have been recording track by track since the mid-'90s with a 4-track tape recorder. Doing one track at a time gives you total control over the sound and placement of every nuance of each track. The process can take much longer than recording live ... however, all the rehearsal and process of arranging the music for a live recording can be equally as hard on the front end.  Also, it takes a lot of microphones and a very powerful computer system to record a large group live, so we tend to do two to four instruments/vocals at a time and then just layer on the rest one by one. This method not only gives us control of the sound but also allows us to use our various home studio systems with little to no cost or time constraints. For some tracks, we would do 50-100 takes over the course of many months just to get it right.   

Q: Did the large cast of guests also come naturally, or did you know from the start that you wanted to feature a lot of other guests in addition to Sumkali's core musicians?
A: When you take three years to make an album, well, a lot can happen in three years. Musicians come for a visit, others move away, some move on, and others stay. One thing that we are very proud of as a group is that we have great relationships with all the musicians that have played, performed, and recorded as Sumkali, so our core of musicians is large. Since Sumkali's inception back in 2007, we have welcomed dozens of musicians to play with us. Collaboration and community are at the core of what drives us to keep making music. We love to collaborate with great musicians ... it will be something that we will always look to do. 

Q: I love "Awakening" and it feels almost like something from the English drone-rock band Spiritualized. The description says the tabla solo steps outside the classical format. Would you explain this a bit & talk about how this tune came about?
A: Cool! I am listening to Spiritualized for the first time while I write this. Thanks for the reference!

This tune actually came from the recording situation I explained earlier when Samar Saha waved goodbye -- we went on the journey that eventually became "Awakening." The tabla solo that begins it actually happened in the middle of the recording, but I isolated the mic and put it all by itself to begin the track, slowly fading the rest of the music in. Normally, in an Indian classical tabla solo, there would be a rhythmic composition played that would provide the thematic content used for improvisation. The style of soloing on this track is freeform, free from constraints of a pre-made composition. It is musically flowing over the other improvised music that is happening all around it. The soloing moves with the momentum of the other instruments and it is a beautiful and masterful example of freeform tabla soloing played by a master.

Q: "Tangled Root" was another nice surprise. The way it slides into the dub part is so natural and smooth. Since it was composed in the studio over the tabla composition, when did you realize you could add the dub and klezmer parts or was that the plan all along?
A: Generally speaking, we did not work with a plan for what was going to happen when we hit record, and this piece is a perfect example.  The klezmer style comes from Will Cicola. He has played in multiple outstanding klezmer groups and this tempo and style seemed to fit perfectly.  The dub section was simply an idea that got tossed out while we were recording -- it also worked, however, when we originally did it and it was almost three times as long. Will added the beautiful sax section -- one sax at a time -- and we cut the length down until it was just right. 

Q: Did Sumkali arrange "Ganga Tumi" to "Old Man River" or was that an existing work? It seems like such an odd pairing on paper, but the result is great.
A: When Bidisha brought that to the group, she had no idea it came from American folk. We found the original on YouTube by Paul Robeson and played it for her. She couldn't believe it! To her, this was a song she grew up with and had heard it sung in many languages. The lyrics she is singing are actually really sad, but the song itself sounds uplifting. We have been having fun doing this one live with Peter Madcat Ruth on the harmonica, just to give it that American folk flavor. 

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Sumkali plays Top of the Park at 7 pm on June 29. The next Indian Music Nights at Crazy Wisdom are July 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 15, Oct. 20, Nov. 17, and Dec. 15. Visit for the group's music and for more info.