In 2013, the award-winning and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma released an album with the Silk Road Ensemble called A Playlist Without Borders. The Grammy-winning musical collective, comprising around 60 musicians, composers, storytellers and other artists, was founded by Yo-Yo Ma in 1998.
His idea was to bring together musicians from diverse cultures to share ideas. And nestled in the album’s first track, an eight-movement piece by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer called “Playlist For An Extreme Occasion,” was one of the best possible examples of cross-cultural collaboration: A spirited, dazzling duet between Mike Block and Sandeep Das on two instruments that rarely, if ever, intersect: The cello (played by Block) and the tabla (played by Das).
In this brief section, the unlikely duo hit upon a playful, propulsive groove. Their instruments dart and weave around one another for a minute and a half, ducking down different melodic pathways but staying surprisingly in sync until the movement is over.
“Sandeep and I had been working together for seven years in the Ensemble at that point,” says Mike Block of their duet, “but that was the first time we’d heard the sound of just the two of us. It was our first chance to work together more intimately.”
The two men had already formed a close friendship within the ensemble, and the idea of expanding their musical connection was too tempting to pass up, especially when they both coincidentally moved to Boston shortly after A Playlist Without Borders was released.
“We were so inspired by it, and we enjoyed working together so much that we felt that there was a lot more that we could do together,” Block explains. “It ultimately was made possible by the fortuitous fact that we both moved to Boston around the same time, so we did what anyone would do in that situation: We formed a cello-tabla duo.”
Block says that the prospect of making music with two instruments that hadn’t been combined before was an exciting one, largely because there weren’t any pre-existing rules about how they should sound.
“Those two instruments have no history together,” he enthuses, “so there are really no expectations that we have to fulfill. That’s a space we enjoyed starting from, because we were able to try all sorts of things and really have a diverse approach to the music we play. There’s no way of doing it wrong because there’s no precedent. So we can simply explore what these instruments can say to each other.”
It’s also worth noting that the tabla, which has been used in Hindustani classical music since the 18th century, is not a straightforward percussion instrument like a drum.
“The tabla is a melodic instrument with a number of sounds that they are very sophisticated,” Block says. “So it’s really kind of an even dialogue on that front between the tabla and the cello. It’s not just a cello accompanied by a drum that’s laying down a groove. So the scope of the sound is very exciting.”
Block also points out that the cello and the tabla often don’t get as much attention in classical ensembles.
“Cellos are often masked by a violin or other melodic instrument of a higher range,” he reasons, “and the tabla is usually supporting multiple melodic players in a traditional Hindustani setting. This was an opportunity to bring our instruments out of an accompanimental tradition and into the soloist platform together.”
The duo will perform Friday as part of the University of South Carolina’s Southern Exposure New Music Series, performing their own original material, adaptations of Hindustani classical pieces and whatever else they feel like incorporating into their work.
“We’ve made a point to not just adapt Indian or American music, but to look throughout the world for inspiration from different cultures,” Block says. “It’s about how deep of a musical conversation these two instruments are able to have.”
And hopefully, Block adds, that conversation can create a path to greater understanding in general.
“The whole concert is about realizing how much we all have in common,” he declares, “and that the cello and tabla just happen to be the tools we’re bringing to the table to explore that. It’s really about finding how much is common and shared among all of the world’s music and all the world’s people.”
What: Mike Block and Sandeep Das
Where: USC School of Music Recital Hall, 813 Assembly St.
When: Friday, Sept. 27, 8 p.m.