Expat Voice: Striking a Chord

Musician Zachary Ray has a special place for India in his heart as this is where he met his wife.


It was almost a decade ago in 2008 that Zachary Ray or Zac (as his friends call him) first visited India from the United States to meet some of his family and friends in Chennai. He later came back to India when a friend asked him to design a music therapy program for underprivileged children in Mumbai.

“It wasn’t a full-time job. I would stay in Mumbai for about three months and shuttle between India and the United States,” says Ray, who is an alumnus of Berklee College of Music. Work made him travel east, to Kolkata, six years ago. For now, the city is home, he tells Little India.

The 31-year-old American, who teaches vocal music at the Calcutta School of Music, talks about his venture called Chaitown Creatives, finding humor in frustrating situations in India, and more:

Sense of Humor: A “Must Have” in India
Kolkata is a city that can be jarring at first, but then you just fall in love with it. People either love this city or hate it. There is no middle ground.

The short trips I made to India for work — my first trip here was for a week, and the second one was for three weeks — introduced me to the country. Eventually, these week-long trips spilled over to month-long visits due to work, until I finally moved to Kolkata six years ago.

Adjusting in India was fairly easy because I had a lot of family friends who were staying in Kolkata, so I didn’t feel like a fish out of water. Also, thanks to the upbringing that my parents gave me, I can adapt to various situations in life. I feel that living in Kolkata is not tough, if one is open to things and has a sense of humor.

We were once told at a restaurant that we could either order a plate of 3 or 4 luchis. We ordered a plate of three at first, but wanted another one later and asked if we could have one more luchi. We could then pay for a plate of four. But the waiter said that it wasn’t possible and that we would have to place a fresh order. So, we ordered for three more luchis.

It’s all about finding humor in the simplest of things and that will help you get through and adjust better in a new country.

Zachary Ray with his students at the Calcutta School of Music

Promoting Art in ‘Chaitown’
Kolkata is known for its chai (tea) and it’s one of the ways through which people bond. You can spot tea shops at every nook and cranny of the city. And chai, I noticed, lives up to its reputation of bringing people together. As a company and as an artiste, that is what we wish to accomplish –- bringing people together and building a community.

It is this thought that made us name our venture Chaitown Creatives. We started it two years ago with an aim to provide a platform to musicians and artists, like painters, photographers and designers, to express themselves and help them further their career in music and art. We host ‘Artist Collective’ sessions every month, where one or two artists present their work in front of an audience and interact with them. You don’t have to be a musician or an artist to be part of it. You can just appreciate the different forms of art that exist.

In the next five years, I would want Chaitown Creatives to work with musicians touring within or outside India.

Merging Both Worlds
I have fond memories of the trip I made to Santiniketan in West Bengal. We saw the baul singers (group of mystic minstrels from Bangladesh and West Bengal) perform and when they found out that we were also musicians, they asked us to perform with them. So, we sang a medley, where we took turns to sing.

Art in India
India, especially Kolkata, has a lot to offer to the world in terms of art, music and creativity. Kolkata is one of those cities that has a deep love and appreciation for music and the creative arts.

Music schools from all across the world have begun to recognize the talent in India. The Berklee College of Music offers the AR Rahman scholarship program.

However, I identify more with western music — jazz, western classical, pop and rock music. Most of the students that I work with also want to sing jazz or pop or rock. There are many who have learnt the Indian classical music and I encourage them to find a way to merge both forms of music and not omit what they have been taught.

I also perform with a couple of my friends here. Our jazz band, Cadenza, has performed in the city over the last few months.

Proposing in Front of the Taj Mahal
India will always be special for me as I met my wife Amanda in India. We dated here and we also hosted our wedding reception here.

Amanda is a musician and a photographer. She was working as a photographer in Jaipur when I met her. I proposed to her in front of the Taj Mahal. She moved to Calcutta after we got engaged because we wanted to be in the same city.

India has become our home now. Our son, who is three months old, was born here. We feel rooted in India.

Zac and Amanda at their wedding reception

Kolkata – A Big Village
I call Kolkata a big village. It’s a city of over 12 million people, but every day, I meet someone I know on the streets. Even when I am at a mall or a coffee shop, I always end up meeting people I know. So it’s like a big, close-knit village.

I like and dislike the fact that Kolkata is a laidback city. It is nice to see that people here love hanging out with friends. In fact, some of them can just show up at their friend’s house without informing them, it is so spontaneous. But at the same time, I think the laid-back attitude can delay work and make the process longer than desired.

I also hope that the attitude of people, especially those who move back to Kolkata, changes. They grow up in the city, then shift to another city to only move back to Kolkata and complain about how laid-back the city is. I suggest, stop complaining and do something to solve the problem.

The deep-rooted bonds that Indians share has been my biggest takeaway from the country. The people in the United States do not give as much value to their families as Indians. A lot of our friends here have helped us out in difficult as well as good times. If I ever move back to the United States, I know that the friends we have made here are for life.

The interview has been condensed and edited. 

Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at expat@littleindia.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column. 

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