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Percussionist Sameer Gupta: The Making of a Cross-Pollinating Musician

Sameer Gupta is the son of Indian American immigrants who began his musical journey firmly in the world of American jazz. Now, in mid-life, he has forged his own musical path, bridging east and west by combining Indian classical melodies and rhythms with jazz harmony and improvisation.

The percussionist, known for his unique fusion of European and Indian classical music forms, is the featured soloist on the tabla* for the San José Wind Symphony’s upcoming performance on May 19 at McAfee Performing Arts Center in Saratoga.

Gupta was born in San José — his father, Satish Gupta, was a founder of the well-known Asian entrepreneur network, TiE — and grew up all over the U.S. and overseas. He became interested in music as child, first inspired by his brother, a jazz guitarist who introduced him to jazz legends like John Coltrane and progressive rock artists like Black Rock Coalition.

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A fourth-grade music teacher in Japan, who introduced him to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, lit Gupta’s musical fuse. Once he took off, his desire to expand his musical horizons never stopped.

“I remember being hypnotized, completely fascinated,” he said. “I remember asking her, ‘Can I borrow the cassette tape because I just want to hear it?’ She gave me the cassette tape and I and I remember listening to it until the cassette broke.”

His first instrument was the trombone, which he gave up in favor of percussion. Soon he could play all the orchestra percussion instruments. When his family returned to the U.S. he found new inspiration.

“I saw someone playing the drum set for the first time in my life,” Gupta said. “It was a full body experience. And I was, ‘Oh, man, I need to learn how to do this.’”

Gupta graduated from high school in Fremont, and stayed close to home at Santa Clara University where he played both western classical music and jazz.

“I was playing with the symphony orchestra there,” he recalled. “I got to play [orchestral works] like Carmina Burana in the beautiful church right in the middle of campus. I had formative moments working with large groups of people — I was part of a team of musicians.”

He began finding his unique musical voice as an undergraduate interested in improvisatory music at Santa Clara University in the 1990s,

“This was so outside the box for that department,” he said. “It was very exciting for me. By the time my junior year rolled around, I was challenging the structure quite a bit. For example, I wanted to do a percussion recital, [and wanted] to end it with a popular song.

“They weren’t prepared,” he continued, “but they were able to assign a couple of faculty members to me, and I could self-direct my degree at that point. It was great. I studied the music of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. All the stuff that I really was inspired by; they let me dig into it.”

He was well-established in the jazz world when he began exploring Indian classical music, and marrying traditional Indian styles with improvisatory jazz styles.

“I came to it later on, after my career as a jazz musician was already starting to take off,” Gupta said. “Indian classical music [made me feel] like I was back at square one. I had to unlearn a lot to do to do justice to Indian classical music. And along that journey, I came to value it on its own terms.

“European classical music had this very large presence in my in my world,” he continued. “So it was really great to come back to my identity as a South Asian person. I felt a lot of affirmation.”

Sunday, Gupta will be performing in contemporary Indian American composer Reena Esmail’s Chamak.

“What I love about what Rena composes is, she leaves a lot of space for me to [use] the language of the tabla through my own lens,” said Gupta. “She doesn’t overstate what it is I’m supposed to play.”

You can hear Gupta on Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m. at the McAfee Performing Arts And Lecture Center, 20300 Herriman Avenue, Saratoga. For information and tickets, visit www.sjws.org. For more about Sameer Gupta, visit sameergupta.com.  You can listen to Chamak on YouTube, and learn more about the piece at www.reenaesmail.com.

*Tabla are Indian hand drums. They are the principal percussion instruments in Hindustani classical music.

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