A new generation of Indian origin musicians is strumming universal melodies.
Kolkata, the Indian city on the banks of the Hooghly River, although an important commercial and educational center of Eastern India, remains somewhat charmingly frozen in time. Kolkatans are known to revere their strong local traditions in art, theater, music and literature, which are often discussed fervently during addas (a free-flowing intellectual exchange) in paras (close-knit neighborhoods). Yet, rising from this city, seeped in culture and tradition, is a new Western pop music band of Parekh and Singh, which is currently wowing not just Kolkatans but the world, with their music.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Nischay Parekh and percussionist, producer Jivraj Singh, are the new toast of the Western music world. With a five-album deal with the UK indie label Peacefrog tucked under their belts, the duo with their debut album titled Ocean, defy many music stereotypes associated with the subcontinent. The young musicians in their hit single, “I Love You Baby,” are dressed in impeccably stitched pastel hued western suits, and there is no sitar or tabla in the track.
The pair, almost nonchalantly, admit: “Our music has no Indian element. There is no root in classical or folk music traditions from the country. It is entirely western; the only Indian element is that we are both Indians.”
Vocalist Nischay Parekh and percussionist, producer Jivraj Singh: “The only Indian element (in our music) is that we are both Indians.”
Their sentiment singularly highlights the views of a new generation of Indian origin musicians for whom music is about universal melodies, unshackled from their culture. The artists believe in symphonic amelioration of music more than trying to sync with the markers of their traditions.
Indian musicians have commanded attention on the global stage for several decades. Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain are legends in classical music; A.R. Rahman with two Oscars brought the attention of the world to Bollywood music. By his own admission, Rahman is inspired by the music of the world and not just a space or genre. The famed conductor Zubin Mehta’s contribution to Western classical music are legendary. The late Freddie Mercury, a British singer of Indian origin, is rated as one of the best popular musicians of all times. Ravi Shankar’s daughter Norah Jones’ 2002 debut album Come Away With Me snapped up five Grammies.
A new young wave of Indian and Indian American artists is breaking the molds of cultural markers to create music that transcends boundaries. California based, recording artist and musician Shawn Don, who collaborated with Snoop Dogg, on his single “Leave Your Mind” in the album Game 7, has been charting a distinctive space in the American music world. His musical inspirations do not derive from India and he believes in making music that does not box itself into a cultural category.
Don says: “My influences are more global than Indian, because I identify more as an American. Also because (I believe) the world is flat, as Thomas Friedman said in his book. Even in India, you have some people listening to mainly Western music. I grew up on Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Tupac, Usher, and more.”
Don’s musical journey reflects this effortless amalgamation. He has worked with such artists as DJ Mustard, Kurupt and John Legend, besides starring in TV series on ABC and MTV. He grew up playing a piano rather than an Indian musical instrument, such as sitar or tabla, and he constantly tries to fight back the compartmentalization: “My music shows I’m not in a box. In the same way (rapper) Drake doesn’t run around framing himself as a Jewish artist even though he is Jewish. Music is music. It’s best enjoyed without pre-conceived notions.”
In many ways, this new dawn in the Indian music scene may have something to do with how India is changing in general. Indians today are avid consumers of pop culture and some follow the western phenomenon not as a fad, but with a seriousness to explore everything from world music to world cuisine.
Many immigrant and first generation Indians abroad, as well as young Indians living in India, no longer think of themselves as purveyors of their culture, but think and behave as global citizens. The new Indian is increasingly educated, well-heeled, fashionable and follows music beyond Indian classical or the mass favorite Bollywood numbers. The ripple effect of this globalized world reflects in all aspects of popular culture.
Scores of Indian artists have broken into the American mainstream. Chicago born composer Reena Esmail has performed chamber music with the Los Angeles philharmonic and also collaborated with Indian Carnatic singer Shobana Ragavan. Jayanthi Kyle grew up singing in churches and later formed the band Black Audience. Kyle’s song “Hand in Hand,” which she wrote with Gospel Machine guitarist Wes Burdine for the Million Artist Movement, has become the unofficial anthem for the Minneapolis Black Lives Matter Movement.
Vijay Iyer, a New York based American jazz pianist and composer, who has worked with Steve Coleman, Das Rascist and Butch Morris, collaborated with producer-performer Mike Ladd on “In What Language?” a song about fear and airport surveillance before and after 9/11.
Nevertheless, ethnic artists are perceived myopically. Don says: “South Asians in the entertainment industry are constantly stereotyped. Take acting, for example, most Indians always get tapped to play the nerdy role. They are rarely the heroic, strong leading male or anything even close.
Some people stereotype, but not everyone does. In music, I’m sure many expect an Indian to play the sitar or play a background role. Some people like to put other people in boxes based on various traits such as gender, skin color, race, etc. Why are Indians always thought to be fresh off the boat? By speaking up and educating our brothers and sisters of the world, we’ll knock down these stereotypes.”
Many established musicians in America who have carved a niche in Western music have now learnt to take this sort of compartmentalization in their stride. Los Angeles based Reena Esmail, who has won many prestigious music awards including two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, says: “Growing up as a Western-trained musician, people would constantly ask me if I worked with Indian musicians. Admittedly, I didn’t grow up with Indian classical music, and those questions made me feel inadequate at the time.
But I have learned that my dual cultural heritage is an opportunity. I am now musically bilingual. I have trained in both western and Hindustani classical music, and that offers me a much broader range of expression.
Parekh and Singh’s videos breaks many stereotypes . They sport smart suits that have reportedly impressed American film director Wes Anderson. Not only it may be one of the first times that an Indian music band has channeled a distinctly global style statement of their own; in a delightful anti-thesis, the suits are not from Saville Row in Mayfair, London, but are handmade locally in Kolkata by tailoring shop of Barkat Ali. Similarly, for the shoot the location was a royal palace in Kolkata and the video shows real villagers gathered around the duo towards the end, seemingly amused by their music instruments and their suits. The vibe translates into what India may be today — that amidst everything conventional exists a really sophisticated understanding of the contemporary and the two worlds are in smooth synchronization.
So it may be short sighted to just pick the traditional. Nischay Parekh says: “We are global citizens. Indian music has always broken barriers; I think the world is just waking up to it a few years later than it should have. The future is exciting.”
Westerners are surprised by their music, Parekh says: “The western press is always curious as to how we happened to make this music. The truth is that kids in urban India are hyper-westernized usually and English is pretty much a first language. The Internet has made the world a more accessible place, we are a product of this great synergy in culture and connectivity.”
Esmail concurs: “I would also say that Indian culture is multifaceted. Many of us who land up in Western classical music are Goans or Parsis. Western music is part of our Indian culture and upbringing. A conductor like Zubin Mehta is not eschewing his Indian heritage in his involvement with Western classical music — that music is part of his heritage as a Parsi. I think we are constantly redefining what it means to be a South Asian in music. We now have access to so many different kinds of music, and there is a beauty in being able to choose your path. East Asian cultures have adopted and mastered styles from the west for generations — think of jazz in Japan or classical music in Korea or China — they have made these styles part of their own culture.”
Many artists in America are also taking this moment to show an extraordinary prowess and synergy. For instance, Sharmi Basu, an electronic musician from Oakland, Calif., who performs as Beast Nest, has been active in the experimental music scene anc vociferously promotes the idea that music exists across-the-board. She believes in “decolonizing musical language” through her workshops, has been part of “Empowering women of Color” conferences and views her gigs as a way of providing solace to marginalized community.
Basu says: “I do believe that spaces that emphasize music by people of color and women of color hold a qualitatively different atmosphere that is inherently more welcoming and provides a different sense of cultural reference and expansion than a typical punk show or concert that might still host a predominantly white audience.”
Basu acknowledges that stereotypes of people of color, including in music, are rampant, but says, “it is hard for me to accept that they still exist because we as a society want to believe that they don’t.”
Most Indian origin musicians today are much more confident and some even sync in their cultural melodies in the Western format. Esmail says: “I grew up having learned only western classical music, but for the past seven years, I have been deeply involved with Hindustani music. I sing khayal music, and have trained with many teachers, including Lakshmi Shankar. So while I didn’t grow up with Indian music, I would now consider myself trained in Hindustani music.”
Basu adds: “Regardless of the fact that much of western music is based in the practices of indigenous, black, and brown musical heritages, and most of the popular genres in the U.S. are based off of historically black genres that really predominantly came out of resistance (such as hip hop, jazz, rock, etc.), it seems to be assumed that black and brown people are not as talented, or cannot produce intelligent sounds. Obviously that is far from the truth and most western music represented by white people is appropriating black and often South Asian cultures.”
The idea of marking a presence, and not necessarily an Indian one, seems to be the narrative for the newer generation of musicians. But somewhere there is also a realization that perhaps South Asians were stereotyped because they let it happen. Shawn Don says: “South Asian music was compartmentalized for so long because some people are ignorant and want to put us in a box. It happens to other races and even the other gender too (women). We need to fight for equal rights and equal perception for everyone.”
He adds, “Also, we are somewhat to be blamed. Why do some of us settle for the stereotypical roles? We should stand up for better representation. Also, why do we have to be Indian artists, why can’t we just be regular artists? It’s not about being ashamed of who we are, it’s about being cognizant to the boxes people try to put us in. I don’t want to break segmented records like first Indian artist or first artist with a name with 5 letters or anything like that; I just want to break records, period.”
The India-based band Parekh and Singh credit their record label, Peacefrog Records, for breaking through the stereotypes and promoting them in the West. Parekh says: “The have pushed us in many spheres of the press and media. I think all artists need that sort of a push at some point to make any progress in terms of visibility.” Parekh, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, adds: “We are global citizens. Indian music has always broken barriers; I think the world is just waking up to it a few years later than it should have. The future is exciting.”
What makes this movement, if we may term it that, especially interesting is the assemblage of various genres and beliefs, besides a realization that there are barriers to be broken within our own communities too.
Regardless of any stumbling blocks, a growing number of Indian artists are demonstrating a newfound confidence on the international stage. Shawn Don says: “The music scene in India is great. I think it is changing in that it is incorporating more of a western sound, more specifically western pop and hip hop. I think hip-hop incorporated in Indian music will be the next major wave. There’s a huge opportunity for artists within pop and hip-hop genres to rise up. I also think there will be more opportunity for Bollywood to collaborate with Western artists. It’s already starting to happen.”
Interestingly, the artists believe in returning to their roots in their craft, but not be bound by them. Parekh and Singh in the single Philosophize reminisce about India. When Parekh sings, “I’ve got a New York State of Mind in Indian Standard Time,” he refers to a phase in his life where he loved his life in America, but thought of going back to Kolkata to make music.
Esmail adds, “My music is a combination of the things I love the most from both cultures. I love beautiful, mellifluous Hindustani melody, and I love how those melodies can weave together in Western counterpoint. I love working within the context of a raag, but I also love how those raags can modulate through the use of Western harmonic progressions. I want audiences from both cultures to find something that feels authentic in my music.”
On how the new artists may be changing both the influence and perception in South Asian community, Basu says: “I hope that my body and politics and musical breadth are taken as a point of inspiration to do something different and write one’s own map. I think many of us who come from conservative backgrounds feel that the consequences are too high to create our languages or our own roadmaps. I just want people to open their hearts and their trust in the power of imagination. I truly believe that being able to imagine a new world means that there is a way to create it. Music is such a concrete example of that power of manifestation.”