by Margaret Chrystall
YOU could say Soumik Datta’s musical career began at 13 when his cricket ball hit the strings of a musical instrument tucked into the corner of the family drawing room.
Soumik said: "I found it by accident I was 13 years-old and playing indoor cricket with my younger brother in my mum’s drawing-room which is filled with expensive china and the ball went flying into a corner and I heard it go ‘Twang!’. When I went to look, the ball had hit this thing which was in an old, velvet, motheaten cloth case and I took it out and found this instrument."
Now Soumik is a leading player of that instrument, Indian classical music’s sarod – a bit like a guitar but without frets – and a sound deeper and richer than a sitar.
He’s performed with Beyonce, funnyman Bill Bailey plus world music stars Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney and is the soloist chosen to perform the world’s first sarod concerto later this year.
If he hadn’t become a musician, chances are he would have followed his film director father into the film business.
But with his latest project The King Of Ghosts – created for the Edinburgh Mela festival's 20th anniversary – Soumik gets to combine music and film.
He’s written the music to be played as a soundtrack to clips of one of his favourite black and white Bollywood films, 1969 comedy fantasy Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen (The King Of Ghosts) directed by the late master Satyajit Ray.
It tells the story of musicians granted three wishes by the king of the ghosts and the accompanying music is played alongside Soumik by percussionist Cormac Byrne and a 25-strong orchestra made up members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Having found the sarod as a teenager, Soumik became instantly curious about it.
"My dad came back and told me it was his mother’s, she was a player. Then I found out the history of the instrument in the family and my dad himself had played if for a few years. There had been a family tradition of being musicians, but there hadn’t been a professional musician in the family for a while."
Soumik decided he wanted to learn – and began to spend his summers in travelling to Calcutta from London to learn the instrument from a man who became almost like his guru.
"I was introduced to this living legend, Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta. He decided to take me under his wing and train me in Indian classical music.
"He was good friends with my grandmother and was sad when we told him she had passed away. but he said to me ‘Come here at seven o’clock tomorrow’."
That first session lasted four hours and over the years, Soumik spent a lot of time with the teacher.
"The guri is a lot more than a teacher. And you have to work and also give yourself into it completely. You become part of the household, really. You help with the household duties – cook or clean – and then when there is time, you sit down and learn.
"You are immersed in that world. Your purpose is very clear, but I was only there for a few months of the year, so it was kind of a Jekyll and Hyde life for 12 years.
"When I was back in London, it opened up a lot more doors and I became interested in collaborating and I got to learn a lot about Latin music, and classical music and jazz. "
As well as his Circle Of Sound project and album with Austrian drummer Bernhard Schumelsbergen, Soumik has brought out Anti-hero back in May – described as "an anti-chillout album with an edge".
"With Anti-hero, it is quite an anti-establshment album. My Indian classical side and my contemporary side are battling and I wanted to make an album that had those forces of energy clashing."
As well as working on the King Of Ghosts performances, he has been rehearsing with the composer of the first symphony for the sarod.
"The concerto is the first time that contemporary music will interact with Indian classical music," Soumik said.
He laughed: "Somewhere down the line I became addicted to the idea of collaboration."
And he has found himself working with everyone from Beyonce to comedian Bill Bailey – at Wembley Stadium.
"Bill wanted to play the Duelling Banjoes piece but I said ‘I don’t play banjo’, so I played the sarod and he played a fretless guitar that sounds like a sitar. I’ve got the video on my website!
"And it was Jay-Z who rang me up to invite me to play with him on his world tour and the London date was in the Royal Albert Hall – Talvin Singh and me were both at that gig – and Beyonce said she’d like to do a piece with the three of us. She wasn’t on tour, she was just visiting. but when she sat through rehearsals, she was just listening to the sound and she came up with something new! So we ended up doing something very special."
The King Of Ghosts is at Eden Court on Sunday.