Interview: Soumik Datta on the unifying power of music ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Mela show

This article is from 2014

Interview: Soumik Datta on the unification of music in a multicultural world ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Mela show

credit: Rehmat Rayatt

Musician set for 2014 Mela performance and a subsequent tour of Scotland with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

He’s worked with pop royalty and comedy gods, but Soumik Datta is able to connect with everyone at a purely human level. Ahead of his Mela appearance, he tells Malcolm Jack about the 1969 Indian film which took him on a long journey to Leith

Collaboration is at the heart of everything for Soumik Datta. It’s there from his ambitious Edinburgh Mela-commissioned audio-visual production The King of Ghosts featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, to live performances with famous names from Beyoncé to Bill Bailey, to his instrument the sarod.

A lute-like stringed staple of North Indian classical music, the sarod descended from the rubab, a war instrument originating in Central Asia and Afghanistan which, after emigrating south with Persian players, required modification in order to suit the fast glides and virtuosic passages of Indian music. ‘Right from the beginning the instrument was a collaborator,’ notes Datta. ‘It adapted and became something else. That’s where I get the inspiration from; the instrument is inherently a collaborator, and I’m trying to extend that on my side.’

A Bengali Indian who moved to England aged ten, Datta graduated with a masters from Trinity College in London, and has gone on to work with the award-winning likes of Nitin Sawhney, Akram Khan and Talvin Singh. His guiding impulse in every project is building cultural links between his eastern heritage and adopted western home, in order to explore this great defining ‘dichotomy’ in his life. When it premieres at the Mela, before touring Scotland, The King of Ghosts will be the purest manifestation of Datta’s artistic philosophy yet, not to mention the culmination of boyhood daydreams.

Inspired by and, indeed, substantially incorporating Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray’s Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen, a classic 1969 Indian art house film, The King of Ghosts celebrates Datta’s first great artistic passion. ‘My mother Sangeeta is a filmmaker, so from a very young age, my access into the art world was through movies not music. I always remember my home being full of lighting stands and camera tripods. My mother introduced me to a lot of amazing cinema; not just Indian cinema, but world cinema, Japanese cinema, French cinema. And at an early age I saw Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen. Satyajit Ray was a visionary.’

It is, as Datta gently puts it, ‘quite an unusual film’; a children’s story at heart, but a resplendently weird one, all about some young musicians who are so lacking in talent that they get kicked out of their respective villages to live in the forest. There, the benevolent King of Ghosts takes pity and grants them three wishes. Freshly blessed with a musicality so great they can stupefy audiences into stillness and submission with their playing, the young heroes proceed on a journey through the universe, even stopping wars by singing.

On one level it’s a children’s story about hope, but the film’s deeper message – which Datta only spotted upon coming back to it as an adult – reveals not only his enduring interest in the film, but also The King of Ghosts’ appeal to Mela director Chris Purnell. ‘There is this other layer to it,’ Datta explains, ‘bringing in a post-colonial theme about India, and how the country had recently gained independence, but through bloody means. It says: “we have at heart in India this incredible richness of music and art, but we did not use that in the right way to attain this freedom”. I feel that is very relevant to our times, because we’re constantly in this struggle: we think we’re independent and free, but we’re not; we’re constantly resorting to war, and politics is getting dirtier.’

In there, one may deduce, lies the Mela’s subtle line on the Scottish independence debate, and culture’s capacity to transcend politics. ‘I wouldn’t want to put words in Chris’ mouth,’ says Datta. ‘But for me, I find it very difficult to live in a time when a political discussion is happening without engaging with it on some level.’

The King of Ghosts will see a special trimmed-down one-hour edit of Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen screened along to a brand new live score composed by Datta, with the SCO effectively representing the world those characters inhabit, while Datta and his sarod are the voice of Gupi.

When it goes out on tour to Glasgow, Perth and Inverness in September, Datta is hopeful that its message of peace, unity and multiculturalism will open a new audience’s eyes and ears to Indian culture. ‘Because the film and the music have these universal messages, it shouldn’t matter where we take it, as long as we connect with people on a human level.’

Speaking of connecting with people, how on earth did Datta wind up becoming the unlikely missing link between Beyoncé and Bill Bailey? The former he met as a multi-award winning music student, when Jay-Z came to London and requested to work with some local musicians. ‘During rehearsals, Beyoncé was visiting and she heard me playing and loved it. She said she wanted do a piece.’ Said piece was performed live at the Royal Albert Hall, but sadly never captured for posterity. ‘She’s just this incredible singer,’ Datta recalls. ‘It was just gorgeous: it would bring a tear to anyone’s eye.’

Fortunately, his collaboration with Bailey – a duelling banjos-style battle with the Klingon-speaking, part-troll comedian / classically-trained musician – is captured on the live DVD Tinselworm, and pricked peoples’ eyes too, albeit with a different emotion. ‘He’s such a genuinely funny person that when he speaks to you he just makes you laugh,’ says Datta of Bailey. ‘He’s such an incredible and humble human being. In Britain he’s a massive name and nothing smaller than what Beyoncé is to certain crowds. But you’d never feel it; with both of them really. When you’re in the rehearsal room, there’s such a human connection.’

The King of Ghosts, Leith Links, book tickets at, 29 Aug, 7.30pm, £15 (£12).

Further Mela highlights

This year’s Mela provides nothing less than a music and dance extravaganza over at Leith Links. There’s reggae from UK stalwarts the Soothsayers, ragga from Apache ‘Boom Shack-a-Lack’ Indian (pictured) and a Rajasthan ten-piece, the Dhoad Gypsies, whose stamina on stage is believed to be breathtaking. Italian electronica / dub / reggae artist Gaudi teams up with Scottish beatboxer Danny Ladwa and there will be other live sounds from Cuba, Ukraine, Pakistan and Ghana.

Representing the dance world is a hard-hitting hip hop spectacular from the cutting edge Avant Garde Dance with a triple-bill which is ‘weaved together like your favourite concept album’. And ‘From Here to There’ is a special Mela commission devised by Edinburgh-based choreographer and dancer Merav Israel using contemporary and classical South Asian Dance forms.

Edinburgh Mela, Leith Links, book tickets at, 29–31 Aug, £4 entry (free for under 12s).

Edinburgh Mela

World music, dance, fashion, food and fun. During the week the Mela takes over various venues around Leith.

The King of Ghosts

A new composition by sarod star Soumik Datta, performed by him, percussionist Cormac Byrne and a 25-piece orchestra, inspired by Satyajit Ray's 1969 adventure comedy Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen.