Soumik Datta: Where east meets west in music

Soumik Datta turned down the chance to tour with Beyoncé. Her loss is London's gain, says Victoria-Anne Bull

If you saw Soumik Datta walking down the street – complete with bouncy mane, airbrushed skin and sparkling gnashers – you could be forgiven for assuming he was a glossy Bollywood star. But Soumik (pronounced Sho-mik) is not an Indian cinematic performer, although he could be – his mother is an art-house film director and he was born in Bombay, the beating heart of the industry.

No, he is making a name for himself as a British sarod maestro. (The sarod is a lute-like instrument but fretless, as opposed to the more traditional sitar.)

This evening Datta will be headlining at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Alchemy, a celebration of artistic fusion between the UK and India. He will be performing with his musical partner and band member Austrian drummer Bernhard Schimpelsberger. Together, the duo perform Circle of Sound – an auditory amalgam of deep Indian ragas and urban beats. The pair have already toured all over the globe from Singapore, to Austria and Kuala Lumpur, but they are unleashing their new album Anti-hero on the audience tonight. It is an exploratory musical feast which combines Indian classical melodies with live drum and bass percussion.

"Traditionally you have to work within certain parameters within Indian classical music, it binds you to a certain style. But the rebel inside me said, 'What about all this other stuff that's in there too?'" says Datta, 30. "It feels like quite an extraordinary feat because I don't think there's been another album out there like it. This is not chilled-out lounge music. It is an anti-chill-out album with edge.

"It's hard for people to understand how an Indian classical musician has any interest in other musical genres let alone rock, drum and bass and psychedelic stuff. When they ask me what my influences are they expect me to reel off certain Indian classical names and then they're surprised when I say Pink Floyd and Radiohead. It's the sheer energy and soul they put into their live performances I admire." Datta also plays a custom-built electrically enhanced sarod he helped design himself. "It's like a baby guitar… I think it's sexy," he adds.

To put this in context, learning the sarod is apparently akin to the discipline of martial- arts training. Judging by the number of bruises down both of his arms and blood on his fingernails ("You get bleeding from the metal strings when you are strumming hard") this isn't too far from the truth. Soumik's guru in the discipline is a sarod-playing legend based in Calcutta called Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta. In school holidays, former Harrow boy Datta would travel to live and play with Das Gupta for three weeks at a time.

"If you learn an Indian classical instrument you should live with your teacher, so my journey was quite unorthodox," explains Datta. "It is like ninja, or some kind of martial art really, there is this real spiritual and physical discipline. The whole system of living with your guru is very important because you have to learn how to be subservient. You leave your ego outside the door and turn into a slave of the instrument.

"I still go whenever I can; he is in his eighties now. I stopped calling him teacher a while ago. I call him grandfather now."

When not with his sarod master, Datta could be found practising in the music room at Harrow. "I used to really shirk my duties in the house at boarding school and disappear into the music room quite often for eight hours. The joke was always 'Where is Soumik?' because they could never find me."

All this practice appears to have paid off. In 2006 US superstar Jay-Z contacted Datta's management and asked him to play at the Royal Albert Hall with two other local musicians. He ended up performing on stage with Beyoncé too, and was asked to join her on tour. He said no. "I was quite young at the time so I was star-struck at rehearsals, but they had this Californian vibe which meant everything was quite laid back," he says. "I don't regret not going to America. If I would have gone down that path I wouldn't have been able to do explore all the other things that I have done."

Soumik Datta will be performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0844 875 0073; southbankcentre.co.uk) tonight. His next performance is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com) on 22 June. The Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre runs until 26 May

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