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.”
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. It’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!