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Musical maestro Annette Philip on finding her joy

Jul/31/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH

Annette Philip an incredible vocalist, a professional recording and performing artists, a composer, pianist, AND the founder and director of the Berklee Indian ensemble, which brought South Asian music to the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. 

Annette Philip is known for her dense choral arrangements and concept-driven productions with memorable collaborations with the likes of A.R. Rahman, Zakir Hussain, Bill Whelan and Buster Williams. The artist shared her incredible journey with SEEMA – from the backwaters of Kerala to the Back Bay in Boston.

Tell us about your Indian roots and your years there before moving to the U.S. and your association with Berklee College of Music.

My family is originally from Kerala in South India, but both my parents were based in Delhi when I was born. We moved to Singapore for about eight years, which is where a lot of changes started to happen. We finally came back when I was about 11. Coming back to India close to being a teenager was a very interesting time. I really understood what my Indian identity meant, because I always felt a little bit of an outsider in Singapore. I enrolled in the same school that my mother used to study in, That was really a very pivotal experience for me – feeling rooted, feeling that sense of connection with where she had grown up. So India has been such an amazing and integral part of everything. The way I dress to my tastes in food, the music that I love. I think if I could choose again, I would choose to be Indian.

How did you get interested in music and what training did you go through in becoming this talented musician?

My parents, even though not musicians, always loved listening to music. So even as a child, different artists were being played at home – from all sorts of genres. But when we were in Singapore, my mother would let me watch some cartoons once I had finished all my homework. 

Surprisingly, I would keep insisting that we would stop at this one particular channel. And there was this rotund older gentleman singing in a very unusual style. Turned out it was Luciano Pavarotti, the amazing opera tenor. What I got obsessed with was his accompanist, his pianist. And so I would go around playing piano on every flat surface. And I’m so grateful to my parents for observing that and giving it the attention it deserved. Neither of them knew how to play the piano or had ever been exposed to it. But they looked around for a piano teacher. 

Really, that was the most amazing gift I could have ever imagined. So that’s really where it all started. While living in Singapore, I was exposed not only to piano but also I started playing trumpet and recorder and different things and when we returned back to India I had the opportunity in my high school to do a little bit of singing. I really again have to thank my teachers. Sir Samuel, with whom I am still in touch, noticed that I might have the singing bug, not just the piano bug. I owe much to him, because, up until that point, when I was around maybe 12 or 13, I had always considered myself much more of a pianist than a vocalist. Since then, I self trained vocally, got into musicals. 

Eventually, much later, after becoming a professional musician, I wanted to go to Berklee for a while. That was a completely different experience. I guess, that’s the nutshell of the musical training, so to speak, but probably the biggest training has been on stage, you know, in the studio, at arenas, that’s where you learn the most.

What was parents’ reaction to you pursuing music as a career instead of the traditional career paths most Indian parents desire for their children?

For me music and my academics were co-curricular – you know, parallel pathways. My family always put education very, very high, the topmost priority really, which I think is similar in most South Asian families. The sort of deal that they had with me was, as long as you can get all A’s, you can keep doing all these hobby-type things. 

It was only much later when I was doing music professionally and there was this moment where I realized that I had crossed the threshold in terms of income from music-related work that I had to pay taxes at a very young age, that I think it dawned on my father specifically that maybe this isn’t just a hobby, maybe this is a career. So I think I sort of paid my dues. I did go to college for journalism and media studies.

Annette Philip with the a capella quartet Women of the World. Left to right: Débo Ray, Annette Philip, Ayumi Ueda and Giorgia Renosto
Annette Philip with the a capella quartet Women of the World. Left to right: Débo Ray, Annette Philip, Ayumi Ueda and Giorgia Renosto

You founded ‘Artistes Unlimited’ in India way back and, more recently ‘Women of the World.’ Tell us about these two collectives and their specialties.

‘Artistes Unlimited’ was born primarily because I had these opportunities to see other musicians, but always in a competitive environment. I felt that that was sort of alien to music-making and creativity.

When I finished college, a few of my friends with me said, ‘What if there was this space where musicians from the city could come together and could do high-production-level concerts and with high quality music, but in a non-competitive environment?’ That was really the driving force for creating ‘Artistes Unlimited.’ 

It very quickly became a massive collective, bringing young people together. Eventually, it was people of all ages. We had musicians from the age of 10 to around 45. And it was a family and in many ways. I think it was instrumental in bringing a capella music to Delhi. It was a platform where you musicians could realize that the arts can be a fulfilling and economically viable way of life.

‘Women of the World’ was actually founded by a dear friend of mine, Ayumi Ueda. She’s a Japanese vocalist. Her idea was to create a space for musicians, specifically women, to explore art and culture, politics and religion and all these different things through the lens of music.

Annette Philip

Primarily, live together as musicians if we were collaborating together. We’ve been around since 2008. All four members are all Berklee alumni. We sing in 37 languages. There’s Ayumi Ueda from Japan, Débo Ray, who is Haitian but American, and Giorgia Renosto, from Italy. I’m the Indian representative. 

We have traveled all over the world, including India, and had an amazing time when we toured. Most importantly, it’s a sisterhood. We learned so much from each other because we’re so different culturally, because of our backgrounds, and then there’s just this curiosity for music and education in everything that we do. Both of these projects are very, very, very dear to me, and I don’t think I would be the person I am today without everything that I’ve learned through both of these projects.

Collaborations in music always bring out unique masterpieces.  Which have been the most satisfying for you as an artist and a music lover?

One of the most memorable and life-changing collaborations has been with Mr. A.R. Rahman. He first was an honorary doctorate recipient at Berklee. That in and of itself was just such an amazing experience. But about a year after, in 2014, we did that tribute concert I had the wonderful opportunity to go on tour with Mr. Rahman. That was a childhood dream coming true. He’s just such an incredible mentor, such a visionary, as a musician, as a performer as a composer. I’ve just learned so much from him. The opportunity to do duets, or just be part of his band and tour has just been incredible. I owe him so much.

Annette Philip performing with Indian music composer AR Rahman
Annette Philip performing with Indian music composer AR Rahman

Berklee is like your home. You studied there, you are a faculty member at Berklee College of Music since 2010. Tell us about the blank slate they gave you to create the Berklee Indian Ensemble and what it does?

I got this blank slate where the mandate was, to create really anything that doesn’t exist currently. My sense was that we should have an ensemble that celebrates Indian music in all its forms and allows for musicians from many different parts of the world to come in, bring their own cultural influences, and explore Indian music and the vastness of it. 

It all started. 2011… from a single idea. It has now grown into an institute all of its own. It’s now called the Berklee India Exchange. We have done workshops, productions, and residencies with several high-profile artists from India. We’ll be launching a professional touring unit, we have plans to create a foundation in India to raise funds for the work we’re doing in India to create more access to music education for students from South Asia. And many more things, including dreams of a stadium show and what not. So it’s just been a wonderful journey. It’s so inspiring, [calling for] a lot of hard work with a really motivated team.

You are both an accomplished musician and performing artist. What advice would you give young girls who want to take the musical career path?

First and foremost, follow your joy. Find out what it is that you love and what makes you excited to wake up and jump into on a daily basis. 

Secondly, equip yourself with knowledge. I think looking for avenues, both for learning as well as to just broaden your horizons, is really important. Whether it’s finding the right teacher or getting involved with a group that does the kind of projects you want to do, or even just signing up for an internship with a musical band or a festival organizer. Gaining exposure is really important. 

Thirdly, I would just say, take risks, start something, whatever it may be, and come back to your why. And I think the paths begin to open on their own.

Being the core vocalist of the Indian Ensemble must require a regular practice regime. How much time do you devote to practice?

Well, on a good day, I do about 90 minutes to two hours. [That’s] on a day that I can really take the time. I think the most important thing is just making sure that you sing every day. And I have made sure to continue having a teacher. I think that’s really important for anyone who’s a professional, You know, athletes do that. I think it’s important for everyone to have someone that they look up to, that can continue to guide them along their path as they keep growing.

As a vocalist what is your favorite song to sing?

I don’t have a favorite song. I think there are too many to choose from. But I improvise. I think that that would be my favorite thing to do. If I’ve had to sing a little bit right now it will be a song that I wrote with my partner. It’s called “Amazing.”

Annette Philips’ tribute to the late Lata Mageshkar..

“Lataji’s music and her singing was the soundtrack of my parents’ childhood, and then for me as well. I mean, this is a legend who performed for almost seven decades. This is a lifetime of music. We really have lost a legend. I think I’m still at a little bit of a loss for words, because of the kind of impact that she’s had on music as a whole, especially for Indians. In so many ways her voice has helped people heal and celebrate and go through grief. Her voice has been the soundtrack to so many of our lives. I can’t put it in a better way. I think one of my favorite songs is “Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha.” What a storyteller she was, Just an incredible inspiration!