Let it Bhi (Part I)

I’m changing it up a bit for this week’s post, Mutineers, and setting aside the wax gems for flesh-and-blood. I think auntie netta is getting to my head-a, cuz I’ve got Jaffna on my mind. I’d like to focus on a certain young, hot, and hip Tamil artist with politically charged lyrics, plenty of street cred, and an original and inimitable sound. If you are expecting to see gaudy glasses, gold tights, or…whatever this is, well, you are wrong. This Sri Lankan sensation unpretentiously rocks wire frames, loose jeans, and a 5 o’ clock shadow that magically morphs into an uncle-ji stache. I’d like to introduce to the Mutiny my favorite discovery of 2010 and your new folk hero, Bhi Bhiman.


Behind that deceptively handsome mug is a booming voice backed by a powerful wit, perhaps the deadliest combination since butter met scotch. You don’t have to take my word for it: he’s already garnering critical praise after only doing the coffee-house circuit for a short while. Here’s probably the best assessment of Bhi and his music I’ve come across yet:

“It only makes good sense that the next great American folk hero/political voice is a very un-white, first-generation Sri-Lankan American. Bhi Bhiman (bee-bee-man) is arguably the wittiest and angriest person to pick up a guitar in the last 30 years and wield it like an aural hatchet aimed at chopping the head off all that’s wrong in the world.”

Local IQ (Albuquerque)

Aside from the questionably colorist “very un-white” comment, I could not have said it better myself. Bhi is a star in the making. He’s the closest we have to a brown Randy Newman (except topical and funny) and/or a brown Bob Dylan (except modest and intelligible). Just like Abhi made the bold prediction that Das Racist would be the hottest, brownest thing of 2009, I’m sayin’ that Bhi is going to do to wannabe fakers just like the release of Nevermind did to 80’s butt-rock: render them irrelevant with the strumming of a single chord.Bhi was first exposed to folk and blues growing up in St. Louis, where he played Little League and, despite the challenges his family overcame to emigrate to the US, generally experienced an All-American upbringing. (His parents did make sure that he had playdates with the one Pakistani kid his age in town.) His family later relocated to the Bay Area, and he later cut his musical teeth at UCSC (Go Slugs!) with Hippie Grenade, an almost unclassifiable melange of funk and, protest music, and jam-band noodlery. bhiman2.jpgIt’s here, in the Bay, that Bhi developed his own sound, coupling his clever lyrics with infectious, bluesy melodies to impart some very biting and sometimes poignant social commentary, all without ever being saccharine or preachy. Despite his impressive compositional skills (he wrote most of the music for Hippie Grenade), it’s his healthy set of pipes that makes him stand out from the crowd.

His voice, oh, his voice: where to begin? It’s truly extraordinary: instantly recognizable and wholly unforgettable. a-MAZING with a capital “M.” A voice as seismic as his is probably to blame for the sinking of Rama Setu into the sea. The San Francisco Examiner says “his strikingly vibrant tenor octave resonates loud and powerful from any stage with as much recognition as his name,” while the SF Bay Guardian enthuses that “the first thing you notice about Bhiman is his voice; it’s instantly striking and unique, a slapdash mixture of Bill Withers, Richie Havens, and Little Richard.” Finally, if Fred Durst were here (and thankfully he’s not), he’d gladly proclaim Bhiman “the real muthaf*ckin’ deal, y’all“. (He’d also inform you that he’s “feelin’ those lighters.” Digressing, here are a few of Bhi’s tunes that are on my playlist as of now (and should be in yours).

“White Man’s Burden Blues” is a catchy tune that takes a smart and hilarious spin through the sickening paternalism of British colonialism. I’m diggin’ his lyrics:

I need a vacation this is grueling mundane work

Patels and Singhs and everything,

“Lord! Deliver me a Turk!”

Inhaled another curry fart while cricketing with Burke

Curry farts and Hindu dots were not in the brochure

Take me to America and I’ll spread the word of truth

I’ve got the White Man’s Burden Blues

Apropos of the cricket references, I can’t talk about Bhi without mentioning (aside from folk music and social justice) his real passion: basketball. With over 10 thousand views, this is Bhi’s most popular (and most decidedly partisan) video. Check out “God is a Warrior’s Fan.” (Warning: Devoted Lakers’ ticket-holders may want to skip this one.)

My favorite song of his has to be the slow and mournful “It’s Cold Outside.” His voice shines no more brightly than in this stellar performance at a SoCal cafe. Bhi shows off his vocal range quite well here and there’s nothing false about his falsetto- in fact, his plaintive cries are a blistering, heart-rending tour-de-force. This must be the song that a critic had in mind when making the claim that “Bhiman sings like a traveling Dust Bowl folkie crossed with Nina Simone.”

I had a chance to interview Bhi and will posting some of our conversation next week. During our lively chat, I promised him that I wouldn’t mention that other, famous Sri Lankan artist in my write-up about him- that it wouldn’t be fair to him to compare two totally different people engaging artistically in different styles together one the sole basis of their shared extraction. I meant it when I said it but, the more I listened to Bhi’s heartfelt and earnest music, the more I realized how rare diasporic Sri Lankan musicians are and how unfortunate it was that a talent and perspective as unique as Bhi’s could be overshadowed by the obtuse yet very-marketable record executive wet-dream that currently and solely comprises the state of Sri Lankan media representation in the West. The era of glorifying any macaca with brown skin and a record deal is over. The next wave of desi artists/actors/musicians are emerging, and they’re freely embracing new and more developed tropes to express with. No more sub-par, semi-talented, barely literate art-school dropouts as political voice, for our (okay, my) new hero has arrived. Unlike that artist who’s name shall not be mentioned, not only are Bhi Bhiman’s lyrics intelligible, but they’re articulate, topical, and alternately touching and fiercely funny. His views on the civil war, perhaps not fully-formed and admittedly biased, do not smack of dismissive over-simplification and calculated exploitation. His music isn’t only instantly catchy, but fresh and original. But there’s no team of producers here, no dubious creation myths to create an air of ethnic authenticity (he never insinuated and then denied familial connections to the Tigers and he also never claimed to have worked in a call center.) No matter how you feel about Bhi Bhiman or his music, at the very least, we should be able to agree that the dearth of Sri Lankan musicians in the diaspora is starting to shift and change, hopefully along with what it means to be Sri Lankan in the diaspora.

For those in the Yay Area interested in seeing Bhi live, you can catch him at the Independent tonight, opening up for Frazey Ford. You bet your ascot that I’ll be there and any Mutineer that can spot me, Waldo-style, in the crowd gets a free mixtape courtesy of the Drrrty Poonjabi. Tix are only $15 (presale) folks- let’s support him!

31 thoughts on “Let it Bhi (Part I)

  1. Wow! A singer with something intelligent to say– who can actually sing. What a voice!! Thanks, DJ um, well, you know. (Feel as if I’d have to take a shower if I said your name out loud.)

  2. going to give him a listen but 1st:

    To the author:

    1) why do you feel you have to denigrate one artist in order to give props to another?

    2) there is no “Sri Lankan” diaspora – there is a “Tamil diaspora” & a “Sinhala diaspora” – both groups left for different reasons and don’t really have anything in common. Except that most of the sinhala are economic whereas the Tamils was due to discrimination/war etc. To mix up the two groups wuld be to assume that all poonjabi’s were Indian or supported india…

  3. Awesome. White Man’s Burden Blues might be the best satirical song I’ve heard since Love Me, I’m a Liberal by Phil Ochs.

  4. @Nilanjana — well, it is difficult to specify sufficiency conditions, but one necessary condition is that if you knew everything but the race of the producer, you would not confuse it with absolutely stereotypical SWPL stuff, like white “guilt” that is in reality infantalizing to brown people.

  5. @desipride, lyrics like “Take me to America and I’ll spread the word of truth” (among others) in my mind are a wink to his audience– that he knows the game, and that if you listen carefully enough, you’ll find that he’s not exactly following the rules. You may disagree.

  6. Sorry, I couldn’t let DesiPride’s nonsense go. You’re actually advocating a leftist-hating Nietzschean sycophant? I understand the implications and subtle actions of metacolonialism, but that book looks like it should be part of the Anne Coulter book club.

  7. Darth Paul, your disagreement with me begins at thinking labeling someone a “Nietzchean” is somehow bad or disreputable. I’m a Nietzschean. And your ressentiment isn’t very well-hidden. Perhaps you should read some Bruckner, rather than acting as a “jacket scholar” and blithely dismissing him because you just can’t deal with his conclusions.

  8. Darth Paul, your disagreement with me begins at thinking labeling someone a “Nietzchean” is somehow bad or disreputable. I’m a Nietzschean. And your ressentiment isn’t very well-hidden. Perhaps you should read some Bruckner, rather than acting as a “jacket scholar” and blithely dismissing him because you just can’t deal with his conclusions.

    Wow DesiPride, that was so, so authentically “desi-esque” of you!


  9. Real nice…you didn’t have to bring up Fred Durst though, dude even sounded doodoo on a primo beat.

  10. @DJ Drrrty Poonjabi: “he never worked in a call center” – excuse me, is this a bad thing? Work is work. It is honorable. You must be VEEERRRRRY sophisticated… jeez.

  11. @DJ Drrrty Poonjabi: also… i’m not sure he’d classify himself as “sri lankan” – don’t put him in a box… in fact if you read his blog he calls the island “Ceylon” not the name the sinhalese gave the island, which is Sri Lanka – i’d call him a “Tamil-American” not a “Sri Lankan-American”… but why don’t you ask him?

  12. After largely lurking around this board for the last 4 years, with the occasional troll like comment, and the indignant news post : I now know why I spend time on this blog : I have so much that I can say about this 27yearoldninasimonebobdylanrobbiediamondsrustpeacejoycelebration : but for now : the most heartfelt Thank You DJ Drrrty Poonjabi : THANK YOU

  13. @DesiPride – I mentioned your comment to Bhi after his show tonight. Seriously. He said that he’s going to try and tone down his own white guilt/self-hatred.

    @going to listen 1) I thought I explained myself in the last paragraph. 2) I don’t speak for any Poonjabis aside from the Drrrty ones.

    @kep it ral You’ve completely missed the point of what I wrote. Bhi is gainfully employed and performs only in his spare time, but his employment status is irrelevant. My point about Bhi never claiming to have worked in a call center was couched in a larger sentence discussing the image management requisite for many musicians struggling to break through into the mainstream and underscoring especially the need for “ethnic authenticity” with POC artists, like referencing a personal connection to outsourcing, a phenomenon many Westerners can easily connect to India/South Asia. I’m contrasting this with Bhi, who doesn’t need to scrabble for any street cred nor define himself in any terms outside of his music. As for this:

    i’m not sure he’d classify himself as “sri lankan” – don’t put him in a box

    Good point. I’m glad you didn’t bother you check the bio at his website, otherwise you would have seen this:

    Bhi Bhiman is a Sri Lankan-American singer/songwriter born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri.

    You also wrote:

    but why don’t you ask him?

    which leads me to believe you suffered a major power failure before you were able to read this:

    I had a chance to interview Bhi and will posting some of our conversation next week.

    Also, my DJ name should disabuse you of any notions of me having any sophistication.

    @rohit – Durst is definitely a douche-nozzle, but I’ve always wanted to reference his inexplicable commentary on that gawd-awful Staind song. And now I have succeeded. My email’s on my blog avatar, btw.

    @Nilanjana, @Sugi, @Vivek, @Vidya, @ashvin, @KalaRaja, I’m glad to have introduced you guys to a new artist to swoon over. And KalaRaja, comments like yours make all the digging for talent worthwhile. You’re very welcome.

    And guys, his show last night was excellent. I haven’t felt so enraptured by a performance since Seussical stopped touring.

  14. Hello Mutineers. This is Bhi. 🙂 I really want to thank DJ (…sigh) Drrrty Poonjabi for writing about me so eloquently.

    And yes, Tamil-American WOULD be more precise. Unfortunately, most people have never even heard the words Tamil, Sinhala, or Ceylon. That is not SWPL. Sri Lanka is more instantly recognizable to the layperson, and that is why its in my bio. Politics, man. Politics.

    @Nilanjana, @V.V.Ganeshananthan, @Vivek, @Vidya, @Darth Paul, @rohit, @Ashvin, @KalaRaja, @anyoneImissed – THANK YOU. Hearing your kind words makes it all worthwhile. It is much appreciated.

    Viva la DesiPride!

  15. @ DJ Drrrty Poonjabi: see Mr. Bhi’s answer… which i knew would be the case but wanted him to put it out there:

    “And yes, Tamil-American WOULD be more precise. Unfortunately, most people have never even heard the words Tamil, Sinhala, or Ceylon.”

    translation? the “sri lankan” ref on his website profile is for peeps like you.

    i wrote “why don’t you ask him” & you came back with some witty douchebaggyness about a “power failure” – but as Bhi’s answer (see quote above) shows… even tho u did interview him you didn’t ask dat question – which i’d guessed and thus mentioned that you should ask so that in your forthcoming publication of the interview you’d address this issue…

    not sure if a lot of you know it but the govt of sri lanka is in a major push to attempt to redefine the ‘diaspora’ from that island as “sri lankan diaspora” in order to negate the ‘tamilness’ that some may or may not feel… most Tamils (on the island & off) see (due to the war or just cuz?) themselves as Tamil rather than sri lankan…

    BUT NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH Bhi’s MUSIC WHICH IS INCREDIBLE… i downloaded the album from itunes after reading your article and haven’t been able to stop listening to it for the past few days… it is really, really great songwriting, his voice is amazing (which doesn’t come across in the live youtube clips due to sound quality) and i’m definitely looking forward to his next release… & hoping he comes to the UK sometime soon…

    but i do still have a bone to pick wit you DJ…

    viz thiz:

    “@going to listen 1) I thought I explained myself in the last paragraph”

    you didn’t… in fact i think you made “going to listen’s” point – your evident dislike of MIA comes across & actually could impact the readers view of Bhi – why do you need to slam her in an article about him? why not just write about him? and by mentioning that you’re not mentioning her you actually make more of it than if you had in fact mentioned her… it’s the ol’ elephant in the room thang… leave your desi insecurities about MIA out of it… she’s brilliant and if you don’t get it that’s fine, move on… don’t let it corrupt your review of Bhi – which is what he originally wanted you to do seeing as he requested that you not bring her into it, no?

    and your convoluted explanation of why you mentioned call centers etc reveals your own hang ups about “ethnic authenticity” – MIA had a very different life to Bhi’s and that is reflected in her story – she lived in Jaffna & experienced the war whereas he did not (you can hear it in her accent which is not entirely british & not entirely Tamil – a bit of a mix o’ both), and she actually worked in a call centre… thus she mentions it… like an actress saying she waited tables… YOU’RE the one giving it a ‘ethnic’ slant because you’re insecure about your own brownness… this whole website/blog is a buncha brown peeps whining about being brown and not ‘appreciated’ by the ‘mean white people’ and ‘marginalized’ and, and… waaaaah (as artie lang would say) get over yourselves people!!! (for example making us type ‘brown’ to prevent spam rather than just having a random word generator)


  16. Thank you for introducing the wonderful Bhi Bhiman. Double thank you for reintroducing the literate Juggalos aka the rabid fans of you-know-who. I needed a song and a laugh on this Friday afternoon.

  17. Whatever will Bhi! will Bhi!

    As long as his music is thought provocative, entertaining, soothing, appreciated and peace prevails, who cares? As they say in Asia “Who cares, who hulls the paddy or how it is hulled, as long as the peasants get the rice?” Who cares how Bhi is classified as, as long as his songs are music to our ears?

    So, Bhi can be a Jaffanese(coll. for a person from Jaffna), Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American, American Sri Lankan, Tamil American, Sri Lankan Tamil, Eelam Tamil, Illankai Tamil, Ceylon Tamil, World Tamil or Global Tamil. After all, who cares?

    During predominant British presence in the world, famous saying was ” I will walk a mile for a Tamil.” Camel plagiarized to “I will walk mile for a Camel.” Many misdeeds all the time. Let us all get along. Let it Bhi. Let it Bhi

  18. “she’s brilliant and if you don’t get it that’s fine, move on”

    Actually she kinda stinks and you don’t get it then you should move on “keep it ral”

  19. Simply Bhirilliant! Thanks for unearthing these gems, DJDP (Usha Uthup’s California Dreamin’ was simply smokin’ too!)