Rafiq Bhatia’s brave new sound


With a genre-defying album, Indian-American musician Rafiq Bhatia is making sure his sound is heard, and his message, to embrace one’s heritage, is understood

Earlier this month, New York-based Indian-American composer Rafiq Bhatia’s new album, Breaking English, an eclectic collection that can loosely, and inadequately, be described as experimental electronica, was released. The record — on which various sounds and instruments are processed and paired to convey a range of anxieties and inspirations — has since won critical acclaim and international fame.

The New York Times labelled the bespectacled 30-year-old as “one of the most intriguing figures in music today”, and listeners are discovering how the record is informed by such myriad subject matter as his Indian parents’ and grandparents’ time in East Africa, where they lived in Tanzania and Kenya before immigrating to the US (in the two-part song ‘Olduvai’); the Black Lives Matter movement (‘Hoods Up’); and the fragility of our planet (‘The Overview Effect’).

Breaking English is a set of songs that is at turns delicate and dark, optimistic and foreboding, intimate and dramatic. And it is the newest stage in the sonic evolution of Bhatia, an artist who has won praise for his virtuosic guitar skills and improvisational jazz playing chops, which were showcased on his EP Strata and album Yes It Will, both of which were released in 2012.

Rafiq Bhatia

Rafiq Bhatia   | Photo Credit: Aksinnia Simyanikhina


Breaking barriers

Indian music was a part of everyday life for Bhatia, who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a child, he fell asleep to his grandfather singing Ismaili hymns or ginans, while his mother and sister’s love for Hindi films familarised him with Bollywood tunes. But it has not influenced his sound, at least not directly. Instead, reading about how Indian classical maestros had inspired their western counterparts, like the impact shehnai legend Bismillah Khan had on John Coltrane’s playing, was “kind of an affirming thing”, says Bhatia, over the phone from Berlin, where he recently performed as part of his ongoing 10-city tour of Europe. “For a kid not seeing any real traces of himself represented in anything, to all of a sudden see those names being mentioned in such high esteem, I felt compelled to check the music out,” he adds.

Carnatic in the mix
  • A standout track on Bhatia’s new album is ‘Before Our Eyes’, on which frenzied beats are juxtaposed with the pensive playing of Carnatic classical violinist Anjna Swaminathan, who has trained with TM Krishna. Swaminathan lives in New York where she works in the fields of Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, theatre and dance, and frequently collaborates with jazz musicians. “On the one hand, it’s bringing a deep knowledge of [traditional] music to the table, but there is also this wide approach to harmony that almost reminds me of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction sessions,” says Bhatia, about her contribution to his song. “Synchronicity doesn’t necessarily mean that things are stacked on top of each other.”

The absence of brown faces in the American culturescape also partly inspired the title Breaking English, which came to him during a visit to the Taj Mahal a few years ago. His parents and he were surprised to find signs for “shooting ranges” around the monument, until they realised they referred not to places where tourists could practise their gun firing skills but spots at which they could take photographs. “We were laughing because we misunderstood,” he says. “Then my dad turns to me and says very seriously, ‘You know, pretty soon there are going to be more people who speak English outside of the West than there are people in the West who speak English. At that point, who gets to decide what’s the proper use of English?’”

So the phrase ‘breaking English’, he says, came from the “idea that people are coming from outside and somehow breaking something that used to be good or better or pure before we entered the picture”.

To Bhatia, this line of thinking extends to the notion that artists from non-western backgrounds must automatically fit a stereotype when working in the West. “When people who look like me enter artistic spaces, there’s either the pressure to be reductive and superficial in the roles you’re playing or to conform to these very Euro-centric aesthetics,” he says, referring to his feelings of ostracisation when he entered the electronic music scene. “I think this album was me really trying to be honest about where I’m coming from and that includes where my aesthetic values come from.”

Looking beyond the guitar

A polymath — he studied western classical violin as a child before switching to the guitar, and pursued neuroscience and economics at Oberlin College in Ohio — Bhatia fell in love with jazz in high school. Grammy-nominated jazz musicians, drummer Billy Hart and pianist Vijay Iyer, both of whom performed on Yes It Will, have been mentors throughout his career. Incidentally, Iyer and Bhatia play in the band Thums Up with fellow New Yorkers, Indian-American rapper Himanshu Suri and drummer Kassa Overall.

Rafiq Bhatia live

Rafiq Bhatia live   | Photo Credit: Kevin W Condone

But as Bhatia said to The New York Times, he soon became “disillusioned with the confines of the guitar... and needed to make a radical break with the instrument and retool my whole vocabulary”. His current sound is significantly shaped by his entry in 2014 into Son Lux, the “genre-less” project helmed by composer Ryan Lott. Their music traverses sundry forms of electronica, pop and rock, and as part of the band, Bhatia has recorded with indie pop icons Lorde and Sufjan Stevens. “I ended up getting introduced to music being made in a way where a lot of composers play an instrument but don’t want to be identified as such. They may be quietly playing instruments, but the studio is their instrument and they’re virtuosos,” he says of Son Lux, which also features drummer Ian Chang, who guests on Breaking English. “We’ve really been developing our abilities as sound designers and producers over the years we’ve been in [the band].”

On his new album, Bhatia made the transition to using “sound itself as the basis for composition and the studio as a compositional tool”. Does he still see the guitar as his prime instrument? “I’ve started to approach it like a sound source in a lot of situations, where I’m manipulating it so heavily with electronic processing that it doesn’t really sound like a guitar,” he says. “But the flip side of that, I’ve realised, is two of my heroes on the guitar, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell, have done this.”

Being brown in America

Bhatia has said that in his hometown of Raleigh, a large percentage of the population was not comfortable with his family’s presence. “At some point, somebody was going to call you Apu [Nahasapeemapetilon, the store owner with the thick Indian accent in The Simpsons],” he says, about growing up brown in the US. “It was this thing you had to live with, the representation of you that was available to people.”

Earlier this week, American comedian Hank Azaria, the voice behind Apu, stated that he is willing to step aside from the character in light of the growing controversy about the character’s stereotypical portrayal of South Asians — something that comedian Hari Kondabolu had highlighted in his 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu. “[People like Hari] are trying to paint a more nuanced picture of who they are, and hope that by representing that, others see that it’s okay to be who you are. You don’t need to whitewash [youself] or become this stereotype of Indianness or South Asianness,” says Bhatia.

Breaking English by Rafiq Bhatia, ANTI- Records, can be streamed on Bandcamp, Amazon Prime Music, and YouTube.

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Amit Gurbaxani has been writing about music and covering the country’s independent scene for almost two decades. He is the co-founder of The Daily Pao.
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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 12:58:27 PM |

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