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Ann Arbor fusion band Sumkali blends classical Indian music with western instruments

Apr 15, 2016

The Ann Arbor-based fusion band Sumkali brands themselves as “Indian music made in America.” Everyone in the band calls Michigan home, but according to the band’s founder John Churchville, half of them have family ties to India.

All the different band members bring their own skill sets, instruments, and influences that make the group the very definition of a fusion band. In the end, they create a sound intended to reach many different people.

“When it comes to music, it’s one of the few things, I think, that transcends the language barriers, it transcends many of the barriers that we have as interactive human beings,” said Churchville, who plays percussion in the band.

Churchville describes Sumkali’s sound as classical Indian music accented with western instruments. Traditional Indian music, which relies heavily on improvisation, is clearly part of the sound, but elements of jazz, blues and Motown are obvious influences.

“In my experience, say, when we have somebody new that comes to the group and they play, you can tell, oh, they’re improvising using their training from Indian classical music, or … jazz or blues or folk. Depending on where they come from, you can hear that influence in the improvisation,” said Churchville.
 

One of the instruments in the band is a voice by singer Bidisha Ghosh. With it being a fusion band with plenty of western influences, one might think the Mumbai native would sing in English, but she says she only feels comfortable singing in languages native to India. This is intended to not only preserve the Indian sound to the music, but also because she is able to connect to the music herself when she performs.
 

"When I sing, it's soulful."

“When I sing, it’s soulful,” said Ghosh. “I don’t think when I sing, it’s just like, the melody is coming and I just get into a different world and I sing it. It’s easier for me to get into that mode if I’m singing in the language that I’ve learned the art in. And somehow the English doesn’t do that for me … if I have to sing a song in English, I don’t think I can think music. I can’t relate to it the way I relate to songs sung in my language.”   

Listen to the full interview below to hear some Sumkali’s music and the stories behind it and how the band’s fusion sound comes together.

Songs from Studio East is supported in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.