GLOBAL RHYTHM has assembled four female artists of South Asian heritage for one story. They don’t have that much in common musically, they’re at different points in their careers, and they don’t even really know each other. Why do it, you ask? The obvious answer is their similar ethnicity, but they’re here to tell you that ethnicity cannot be homogenized and that South Asian artists continue to change and grow.
New York’s Mercury Lounge was comfortably full one evening last summer, a mixed crowd milling about. There were girls hanging out, doing girls night out. Hipsters were there to see what was going on. Even though the crowd is skewed South Asian, it was hard to miss the four obnoxious twenty-something Indian stockbrokers in the back, slapping each other on the back and swilling scotch to celebrate their latest victory on the Street.
The band at the Mercury that night was led by Falu. She’s a singer who actually grew up in Bombay, but these days she’s finding a way to integrate her classically trained voice with rock guitar, funk bass and straightforward 4/4 drumming. Her voice leaps octaves and carries melodies, not unlike the way in which classical Indian singers practice their art, but with a black dreadlocked drummer, white bassist and Korean keyboardist this is hardly a live version of some Bollywood filmi.
Across town on another night in New York, at S.O.B.s, Bhangra Against Bush was offering bhangra dance lessons before DJ Rekha and her guest DJ Eddie Stats started spinning the wheels of steel. The dance floor was filled with Indian, white, black, Asian and Latino people trying to get a handle on the rhythms provided by the clattering drums of bhangra. Off to the side, regulars were catching up, watching the action and getting drinks.
Even though the Republican National Convention was in town and most locals had fled the city, the club was filling up at the un-club-like hour of 10 p.m. The dancers got sweaty as bhangra gave way to snippets of hip-hop, reggae, scratching and other odds and ends. The action only slowed slightly when Rekha turned the boards over to Stats for a set of dancehall that showed some surprisingly strong similarities between these seemingly distant genres.
Whereas it’s common for Indian homeowners to open up their homes for music performance, South Asian culture moved its way out of the living rooms and basements in the mid-’90s to become a club phenomenon. More recently, there’ve even been impressive box office receipts from the hit movie Bend It Like Beckham and the Bollywood Nights musical. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber has gotten in on the action with the musical Bombay Dreams, which uses the music of
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Kiran Ahluwalia’s family bounced between India and New Zealand before landing in Canada. She grew up there, performing in living rooms and basements of family and friends. She picked up a college degree and an MBA, but couldn’t shake the performance bug. Eventually she decided to take a year off and study Indian classical and Punjabi folk music. After 10 years of flirting with music and straight jobs she finally threw herself fully into her career in 2000. She was quickly rewarded with a Juno nomination, which is the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. In 2004 she took the prize for Beyond Boundaries, her second independently released effort. The album is filled with Punjabi folk songs and modern-day ghazals (Indian love songs) that feature Canadian poets.
Rekha (Malhotra) was born in London and grew up in Queens and Long Island. She loved hip-hop and grew up listening to Bollywood music. Then her mother brought a tape of bhangra back from London. It was the first time she’d heard the music and suddenly everything clicked into place: bhangra’s 4/4 beat matched hip-hop’s, and everything seemed to connect for her. Rekha hosts “Basement Bhangra” (it was Bhangra Against Bush during the election cycle) and “Bollywood Disco,” and she also spins nationally and internationally. Such is her reputation that she’s won awards herself: New York Magazine gave her the nod for Best DJ in the city. She also does a hilarious NYC cab driver routine.
Born and raised in Bombay, Falu (Falguni Shah)’s mother and grandmother were both classically trained. Her training started at age two and a half. Even though she is a relative unknown, she’s already worked with Yo-Yo Ma on his Silk Road project, Karsh Kale and Ustad Sultan Khan, whom she’s studied under.
Sheetal (Bhagat) was born in Chicago and grew up in Michigan. Her parents are amateur musicians, with her mom having studied more formally than her dad. She started studying Western classical violin at three and a half and kept up with it until college at Michigan. Then she dropped it to study choral music and education. On her debut, Love Of Ages (Triloka), you hear that choral approach in her (and collaborator Gardner Cole’s) modern ambient pop arrangements, which vaguely recall Dead Can Dance and other ambient-leaning artists. Even so, it’s her Indian-inflected voice that leaps out at listeners.