Tagore was an internationalist – how I would have loved to be with him when he met Albert Einstein!- Lee-Alison Sibley

She is a singer, an actor, a writer, a social activist and a teacher.  She marched for peace with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and works with a number of NGOs to alleviate poverty in the poorest neighborhoods.  She is Lee-Alison Sibley, an American who loves India.  Lee has a Master of Music degree and a Master of Education degree.  She has sung, taught, lectured and acted all over the world.  From folk music to opera to Broadway, Lee has done it all, and while living in Kolkata added Rabindrasangeet to her repertoire with her album “The Distant Near.”

How did your tryst with Rabindrasangeet happen? What has been your initial inspiration?

It is interesting that you use the term “tryst” as if it was a romance and the songs were my lover!  I guess in a way it has been like that since 2002, when I first heard the songs.  I had been reading Tagore poems for many years before that, since I was young and impressionable, but I hadn’t heard the music until I was welcomed to Kolkata with a performance at the American Center by Pramita Mallick.  That changed everything for me – I fell in love with the songs and asked her if she could teach them to me.  I’m fairly sure Pramita did not think I was serious at first, but as I’m a professionally trained musician, a singer, I followed up and learned the songs I later performed with and with other artists. 

How challenging was it initially?

Pramita is really intelligent and savvy – her English is impeccable.  When she heard my voice for the first time, she knew that my western classical training would not be appropriate for all the Rabindrasangeet.  She chose those songs whose melodies were adapted from British folk tunes by Tagore and we both decided my voice was most suitable for those songs.  As Pramita is an excellent teacher, I learned the songs quickly and started to perform them almost right away.

What does Tagore mean to you?

People have heard me describe my first visit to Jorasanko when I saw where Tagore “breathed his last” and I burst into tears!  Tagore was a visionary poet, a man who knew that societies need to break down borders, who knew women play a most important role and need education.  He was an internationalist – how I would have loved to be with him when he met Albert Einstein!  He was a risk taker, one who was not afraid to tell the British to keep their knighthood – he didn’t want it after what they had done.  I admire him on so many levels – it would take hours for me to explain.

What is your favorite Rabindrasangeet number?

That is a most difficult question as I love so many of the songs.  When I sing “Ami chini go chini” I feel I am the bideshini he wrote about.  With “Prancay choku na chay” I can flirt and have fun with the audience.  In “Alo amar alo” I am transported to the light and “Amra shabai raja” reminds me we are all equal under the universal laws of the heavens.  My first song, taught to me by a Bengali officer at the US Consulate, Tinku Roy, was “Phuley, phuley, doley, doley” which I have sung hundreds of times around the world, in NGOs everywhere and even at dinner parties.  And it doesn’t stop there…

What is your take on experimenting with Tagore’s songs?

Would you believe me if I told you I was meant to sing the songs, that I was meant to be in Kolkata for three years, that I believe Tagore would have appreciated my interpretation of his music?  All of this is how I feel.  I left a piece of myself behind when I left Kolkata and I will always feel at home there.  I believe in Tagore’s philosophies on education, nationalism, the caste system and the treatment of women in society.  I think we would have gotten along very well indeed had we met face to face.

What are your future plans in this field?

I left Kolkata in 2005, but never stopped singing rabindrasangeet.  I performed at the Bangla Samelan that year in New York City and at the Bangla Mela in Chicago where I was also a chief guest.  I sang in New Jersey at a fundraiser for children with cancer, organized by Bengali Americans and in California in 2011 when I reprised my “Two Worlds into One in Peace” concert with Odissi danceuse Sanchita Bhattacharya.  This year, 2013, I sang “Alo, amar alo” in Delhi three times during Diwali celebrations.  Clearly, I will never stop singing these songs.

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