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Queens Chronicle

Music school offers view into East Indian culture

At South Ozone Park academy, the family joins songs in center stage

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Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:42 am, Thu May 15, 2014.

It may be called the East Indian Music Academy, Inc., but the family-run, not-for-profit organization bearing that name is so much more.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the academy’s founders, Ravideen Ramsamooj and his wife Bharati, themselves born in the West Indies, have been promoting “East Indian culture and spiritual awareness through music, language and other art forms.”

The latest fruit of their labors was evidenced on Sunday as a group of more than a dozen of the academy’s students performed, in turn, for their families and friends and then, along with their loved ones, participated in a group discussion that tied in to the school’s mission of “helping our students raise their level of ethical and moral consciousness so that they are better prepared to meet the challenges of the society in which they live.”

As the event was about to get under way, Ravideen Ramsamooj explained, “Some of our students are bashful or have a lack of confidence. We arrange a small gathering and they prepare to get a feel for what it’s like to perform. The children must feel happy, safe, confident in their environment and feel free to speak.”

But it’s not only children who come to the school. One student who was featured in Sunday’s performance was Lall Sukhra, a married man of 59 who has had a “desire from an early age to be able to play harmonium and sing in a temple.” His performance was warmly received, though he said afterward, “I felt very good, but disappointed I messed up. I played it 20 times at home. I played it so well.”

In addition to harmonium, a hand-pumped instrument played by a musician while seated on the floor, the school offers classes in a variety of instruments, including tabla, sitar, violin and flute, as well as classical vocal, Hindi and Sanskrit, along with moral education.

Among the small staff of teachers are the founders’ two sons, Yoga Ramsamooj, who studied under his father and began teaching at the age of 11, and his older brother, Avirodh Sharma, who started teaching at 13 and is now also a composer and music producer with his own label.

As the musicians-in-training prepared for their debuts, they were each asked to write down a question — anonymously — about some of the challenges they face with their parents. Similarly, parents were asked to note their concerns with raising children today.

The performance featured primarily Hindu devotional songs called Bhajans. According to Sharma, the songs reflect a dedication to living a moral life.

Following the performance, a 30-minute discussion ensued, in an effort to “bridge the gap between children and parent.”

“Why can’t I watch TV on weekdays after I finish my homework?” one child wrote.

“Your focus should be on school and getting a good night’s rest,” a mother in the audience — not necessarily his — responded.

One question asked, “Why do parents say not to do something and they do it?” — temporarily stumping the adults. Finally, one parent suggested, “Parents are supposed to explain why they shouldn’t do it,” prompting Ravideen Ramsamooj to add, “Parents must be an example for their children.”

In fielding one of the parents’ concerns about siblings not getting along well with each other, one youngster got a laugh by saying, “I think it’s just a phase.”

And, with perhaps the most difficult question of the day, one parent asked, “How can we bridge the gap between our ancestral culture and American culture?”

One student pointed to the academy as a possible solution. “In Monday night class,” she said, “we talk about this. Where else am I going to learn about it?”

Bharati Ramsamooj was pleased with the intergenerational give-and-take, saying afterward, “I think it was a meaningful discussion. So many wonderful thoughts came out here. It is important to set standards at an impressionable age.”

More than 7,000 students have studied at the school since it was founded in the basement of the couple’s Richmond Hill home in the early 1990s. Of these, many have gone on to share their music with as many as 350 temples throughout New York City.

Billed as the country’s first Indo-Caribbean school to teach and present authentic Indian music, the school remains nearly as unique as its founders’ immigration story.

He is from Trinidad and Tobago. She is from Guyana, where they met when they were both 20, sharing a love of music. They married in 1981 and moved to India, a dream of Bharati’s. They settled in Queens in 1990 and now live in South Ozone Park, near the academy, which opened at its current site in 2006.

The school’s hallmark event, a major production called Sangeet Sabha, featuring over 200 students, will be brought back in October after a ten-year break.

The East Indian Music Academy is located at 126-10 111 Ave. For more information, visit eima.us or call (718) 738-7836.

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