Home » Globalizing Indian Music: The Annette Philip way

Globalizing Indian Music: The Annette Philip way

Annette Philip- Musician, Educator, Arts entrepreneur, Vocalist, and Emmy-nominated TV personality, is a multi-dimensional talent per se! She is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Berklee Indian Ensemble at Berklee College of Music.

Annette is known for her powerful performances and unique blend of Indian and all-embracing multicultural music styles. Her intricate hues of work in the music universe are a true reflection of her deep passion for music and her commitment to pushing the boundaries of creative expression.

SheSight is proud to present the music ace and thought leader Annette Philip as the Cover Personality for the February’23 edition. Dip into her soulful voice and read about her melodic journey, her tuneful experiences of performing with music greats like A.R Rehman, Zakir Hussain, Philip Bailey, Angelique Kidjo, her Grammy nomination, and much more in this interview by SheSight’s Founder and CEO Dr. Chandra Vadhana.

Watch the Live and Enthusing Interview available on SheSight’s YouTube Channel.

Watch the Interview

Dr. Chandra: Let me start by asking you the first and foremost question – how did this journey start?

Annette: From a very young age, music gave me a kind of joy that anything else could not. By age five, I was clear that this was a no-brainer. This is what I had to pursue. The primary indicator was joy.

Dr. Chandra: What was the reason for you to take up music as a career option?

Annette: No One in my family is a professional musician. Of course, they all love listening to music. They observed that I enjoyed listening to and performing music. They were very supportive from the beginning.

Dr. Chandra: Would you like to share some memories of your growing-up years and your interest in music in your formative years?

Annette: My family is from Kerala, India. But I was born in Delhi, and then we moved to Singapore and then back to Delhi. Many years later, I came to Boston, and now I’m in New York.  It’s been fun to live in many different places. You go where the music calls. 

Dr. Chandra: You come from a generation where parents would want their children to become either engineers or doctors. Was it difficult back then to break the social norms and take music as a career and then decide to go abroad and pursue your dreams?

Annette:  My parents’ views are similar to other parents’ of their generation.  They saw music and the arts more as a hobby and not as a life choice for a career. When I was in school, they told me, “You need to keep your grades up”. That was kind of an understanding that we had at home. But when I was in primary school and high school, my teachers would comment that it was surprising that she didn’t treat music as an extracurricular activity. She seems to treat music as a co-curricular activity. It was just because it was important, to me, it brought me joy. I have a bachelor’s in journalism and media studies from L S R in New Delhi.

Dr. Chandra: Parents of that generation would say, “You could pursue music, but must have another professional qualification. Is that the reason you studied journalism?

Annette:  No, I wasn’t thinking of music, in that way, when I finished high school. I was interested in mathematics, and I loved accounting, I loved numbers. Before I finished high school, I had this great opportunity to work with a music producer called Julius Packiam. When I started doing recordings, I realized, it was such a fun career pathway. I was interested in advertising. There was no advertising course at the bachelor’s level when I was growing up in New Delhi. I decided to go into journalism and media studies because I felt like advertising was a place that allowed me to do music, to do voiceovers, to do creative writing, which I was also very fond of. I felt it kept everything that I liked in one place.

 That’s where journalism came in. I was already recording voiceovers for, jingle advertisements and documentaries. At 19, I had to pay taxes from my musical earnings. It was then that my father said, maybe this was a viable career choice when, and he had not seen it that way until that point.

But my mother used to accompany me to a lot of the studio recordings. She saw that I was getting success and was enjoying, felt fulfilled, and financial stability was coming through that. But it was only after I finished my degree that I went full-on into arts entrepreneurialism and continued to expand my, musical learning and performances.

Dr. Chandra: Can you talk about your venture back then, and how you came up with the idea?

Annette: I’ve always gravitated towards creating community. It’s something that I seem to do naturally. My parents told me that when I was a toddler, they would drop me at this daycare center. I knew everybody’s names and I knew whose water bottle belonged to whom. It shows that there’s an instinct to serve and there is interest in people. I’m very much ambivert, I’m an extrovert when required but I’m much more of an introvert. At the same time, there’s some interest in people. That is a big part of creating your kind of artistic platform.  

Dr. Chandra: Tell us more about your first venture.

Annette: When I was in high school and college, I noticed that the primary way for young musicians in New Delhi to meet each other was at competitive events. That was just exciting because I was getting to meet all sorts of people from my age group who were interested in the same thing. But there was also a lot of hostility not from my side, but I noticed that this was happening with our so-called competing or rival groups. I never understood that hostility because I feel like it’s alien to music making, it’s alien to the creation of art.

 Soon after graduating from college, I felt there was a need among the artists, to have a space, and the space didn’t exist, so why not create it?  We called all the musicians that we knew in Delhi. 60 people showed up and we tried a song together. It was just love at first sound. We kept meeting and eventually decided to call it Artistes Unlimited. The idea was, to have this platform for musicians of all ages to come together and create the highest quality of music without competitiveness, and hostility, which is, what the foundation of our creativity should be.

At that time, there was not much choral or A Cappella music being performed or available for consumption in society. We thought let’s educate our audience and help to change the mindset about art careers and help our society understand that arts are a viable and fulfilling way of life. 

Dr. Chandra: I would like you to now talk about how you entered Berklee College of Music as a faculty, and at point, you decided to launch the Berklee Indian Ensemble.

Annette: While I was doing Artistes Unlimited, I got burnt out. I didn’t quite understand the art of delegation. As much as I had learned, I was really overwhelmed and very tired because I was handling not only the arranging and composing and auditioning and production and direction, but I was also handling the taxes and the accounting, the copyright, and tour management, you name it.

I’d heard about Berklee, but my parents were very skeptical. They were not excited about me trying to do that. It took me two years to get them to say yes.  I went to Berklee with the intention of, studying for a few semesters. I ended up staying for several years.

I continued to run Artistes Unlimited remotely and would go back and forth, but eventually felt like, I was here to stay for a couple of years. I got an invitation to join the faculty.  I decided that as long as I kept performing and composing, I would give it a shot.

I later found out that I was the first Indian musician to join.  They said if I could start anything new that didn’t exist, what would I like to do? I felt that we needed a performing ensemble that was exploring Indian music in all its diverse forms that would be artistically porous, that would have collaboration and intentionality, and similar core values of Artistes Unlimited at the center of it all. That started in 2011. The institute that grew out of it is called Berklee India Exchange.

Dr. Chandra: What is your feeling at this point, after all these long years?

Annette: We just got nominated for a Grammy, and we are very excited about our debut album. I’m leaving tonight to go to Boston, and then I have a bunch of travel, and I’ll only come back after the Grammy.

The feeling is of gratitude for ideas, gratitude for a fantastic team, and gratitude for, the possibilities that open up when you are not afraid to think outside the box and go for it.

This has taken a lot of people, and I’ve brought many of the life lessons from the Artistes Unlimited experience to the Berklee India Ensemble journey. I have tried to practice as much delegation and as much as I can, it takes time to be hands-off as a leader and as a Director, but it’s worth it.

It’s amazing to have a great team to work with and to learn from. The primary feelings are gratitude, anticipation, and excitement. We have so many new dreams.  Every few weeks we have a new idea- what if we do this? And why not? Why not try this? Excited about the future.

Dr. Chandra: Would you like to talk about your other areas of interest apart from music?

Annette: I love plants. I love food. I love textiles. I’m a big fan of sarees, I read a lot. It’s important to flex different artistic muscles. I even enjoy cleaning. It’s cathartic, it’s very calming to sort things, organize things, even in your kitchen. I try to have fun wherever I am and enjoy myself.

Dr. Chandra: What is Keeping It Light all about? Would you like to share your perspectives on what you mean by that?

Annette: Keeping It Light was an online reflection series that I began when the first Pandemic wave hit us in March of 2020.  I love anything related to spirituality, mental health, mental pivots also philosophy. I didn’t know that it would grow the way that it did. I ended up doing 100 episodes.

The reason I call it keeping it light as I didn’t want to call it,  a daily meditation. A lot of people see meditation as dreary and that they don’t enjoy it. I wanted to make sure that it was accessible to as many people as possible.

I would do guided meditation sometimes, but also other topics,  like lessons from ants, lessons from dolphins, or, why decluttering is so important. Keeping it light– is looking towards inspiration to lift yourself in the pandemic. Also keeping it light keeping it simple, staying happy, or staying light about conflicts when you’re feeling bogged down by something. Trying to look for simple solutions within yourself.

Dr. Chandra: Is there any dream project that you want to work on in the coming years?

Annette: I love productions. I am keen on producing a stadium show from scratch. We’re already at the base-level conversations about that. We’ll probably do it with the Berklee Indian ensemble at some point. 

One of my other groups is called Women of the World, and we sing in 37 languages. It’s a vocal quota.

Dr. Chandra: I’m interested to know about Women of the World. What is it all about?

Annette: It was formed in 2008 by a Japanese vocalist, a classmate of mine, at Berklee. She wanted to bring women musicians together from different countries. A sisterhood has been formed and we’ve been touring all over the world for the last decade. We’ve also been able to take many different cultural stories to parts of the world where they may not be exposed to someone from Italy, India, Haiti, or Bulgaria or, hear music in Zulu.

Dr. Chandra: Are there any role models who inspire you?

Annette: Mr. A R Rahman. Lata Mangeshkar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. From the West, Bobby McFerrin, Jacob Collier, it’s an endless treasure trove of inspiration. Many of my students are as well.

Dr. Chandra: You have been part of working with them. Would you like to share any incident where, you got inspired by one of these personalities not just with their music, but with any personality trait?

Annette:  Mr. Rahman is one of the best mentors to anyone. He is such a masterful artist. He’s got that blend of being very clear, but also being completely able to give freedom to whomever he’s collaborating with. It’s a very interesting blend in a single person, to have a very clear vision, but also be able to take a step back and give freedom and permission to your collaborators to be themselves. He’s a master at bringing out the best performance in people and challenging them.

Dr. Chandra: How does your typical day look like?

Annette: No day is the same. I’m not teaching anymore. I am the artistic director for Berklee India Exchange, which is an institute that grew out of the momentum of the Berklee Indian ensemble. We do productions and workshops all around the world. We raise funds for scholarships. We do industry collaborations. We work on music and mental health programs. We are creating more South Asian-related educational material and residencies all around the world. We are in empire expansion mode with Berklee India Exchange. Every single day is different from the other, whether I’m in the studio or recording something, writing something, doing a whole bunch of cooking or reading, spending time in meditation, or traveling.

Dr. Chandra: Are you interested in producing music for Indian movies? Have you been approached by film producers so far?

Annette: We have been approached personally, by the Ensemble, with Women of the World and other projects. I never rule anything out. I think anything is possible.  I have composed for musicals and documentaries. Right now, I have a slightly different focus.

Dr. Chandra: May all your dreams come true this new year. I’m sure 2023 will be an amazing year for your dreams. May your mission of using music as a tool to heal the world and bring together people come true. Honored and thankful for your time today with us. We are really, proud of your work and we look forward to supporting you in whichever way in your current endeavors.

Annette: Thank you for creating this beautiful platform of SheSight and wishing you and the entire SheSight team an amazing year ahead. Thank you for just this beautiful opportunity.

Staff Reporter

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