Q&A with Arooj Aftab: “I’m Tired of Exoticized South Asian Music”

Five months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arooj Aftab, a musician who came from Pakistan to study at Berklee College of Music. I first saw Arooj perform August 2011, at Unification in NYC, where she quickly won over the crowd with her haunting Urdu vocals. After Unification, I went back home and started listening to Arooj’s music. Disclaimer: It’s addictive. One frigid fall night, standing outside her Brooklyn apartment, Arooj, one of NPR’s 100 Top Composers Under 40, shared the story of her musical journey with me via phone.

When did you know that you wanted to sing? After I finished school at Lahore, I started college, but it just didn’t feel right. I had a strange feeling that there had to be something more exciting to do in life. I had always loved music, because of my parents’ love for music and because of the music culture in Lahore. But there were no musical schools in Pakistan, which was kind of annoying.

Now your parents must be pretty cool, to let you come to America and pursue your music. Was there ever a “No beta, don’t do this” moment? It’s such a stereotypically unstable profession. So they always have a “Oh god, why did we let you do this” attitude. But I think secretly they’re excited because they both have great voices themselves and a love for music. In 2003, I made my dad sit down and listen to a cover I did of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and he became really quiet. That was when he started to take  my music seriously. Continue reading

Let it Bhi (Part II)

Ahoy-hoy, Mutineers!
Although it’s been a while, I’m taking a cue from Vinod and am holding the sentimentality for a moment, namely to revisit one of the most Mutinous Musicians Sepia has showcased: the inimitable Bhi Bhiman. Since Bhi was first broken to the desi masses, he has gone, well, viral. Not only has he managed to drop another amazing album, but Bhi has been profiled by such journalistic stalwarts as NPRHuffPoPopMatters, and that old rag, The New York Times. All of this without losing what makes him special: that astoundingly soulful and smokey set of pipes that fit his socially aware but catchy folk melodies quite nicely.
As promised, here is the long-awaited interview with the fabulous Bhi Bhiman, culled from email and conversation over a wonderful lunch at San Francisco’s now shuttered Pot de Pho.

Check out his video for “Guttersnipe,” his sultry voice set along a snapshot of “life along the Indian railways,” after the jump.

Top Ten Mutinous Music Moments

When I was a rebellious little punk teenager, the only Brown I saw on stage at shows was Tony Kanal playing bass in No Doubt. And he was dating bindi wearing Gwen Stefani, who was by far the coolest rock chick ever. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Sepia Mutiny as a reader that I noticed other punk, alterno, progressive musicians – the most prominent one being of course, M.I.A.

Here we are in the last week of Sepia Mutiny. On these pages as a reader, I’ve discovered some of my favorite songs and as a writer, I’ve gotten to interview some of the most amazing people. I’ve loved discovering new Desi music and examining musicians exploration of hyphenated identities through lyric, music and movement.

Since I love lists – what better way to remember this then… a Top Ten Favorite Mutinous Music Moments.

  1. M.I.A.- Maya has graced the pages of our site an innumerable amount of times – 100 posts to be exact. From her first “galang”, to her so-called retirement, to a pregger M.I.A. singing at the Grammy Awards with A.R. Rahman. She was the first things that drew me as a reader to the pages of the Mutiny. In the past 8 years peoples opinions of her may have waned, but she definitely has made her mark
  2. Das Racist – Despite Abhi’s first post where he made his firesauce prediction that Pizza Hut, Taco Bell was going to be a Desi fave, could we have suspected these guys would have exploded the way they did? They’ve gone from a YouTube sensation to dropping Shut Up, Dude & Sit Down, Man & Relax to selling out shows as an international music sensation. But by far, PhillyGrrl’s interviews Part 1 & Part 2 were my most favorite interviews to grace these pages.
  3. Vijay Iyer – He’s gone from Still Life with Commentator in 2006 to the #1 Jazz Album of the year IN 2010 for Historicity. Sugi’s interview with Vijay is one of the sweetest interviews Part 1 & Part 2.
  4. The Kominas – Who would have known when I first blogged about these guys in 2006, that my life as a blogger would get so intimately intertwined w/ this band and the taqwacore scene? My first interview with Basim Usmani goes down as one of my favorites. Following the growth if this band personally has been epic to say the least, whether following them on cross country TaqwaTour or as my “camera crew” at Sundance for my Aamir Khan interview. Epic, indeed.
  5. DJ Rekha – the infamous and legendary, we’ve talked about Rekha since she smacked Daler Mehndi down. Whether Basement Bhangra (dance party AND CD) or DJing at the White House Easter Egg Hunt. There’s a reason why she’s one of my Desi Women of the Decade. Continue reading

Shanti Outta Brooklyn

With only a couple of Mondays left for a #MusicMonday, I know I had to make this one a song that will stick in your head for a while.

The song is by an MC I’m really surprised hasn’t been covered by the Mutiny before. Brooklyn Shanti, a Bengali DJ coming outta…. well … Brooklyn,  I heard about via Mandeep Sethi, my connection to all the latest in Desi hip-hop. Brooklyn Shanti is ridiculously prolific – his website and his bandcamp have tons of songs available for download and he’ll be coming out with an album in the next couple of months. Of course, I have an affinity for all things Bengali, and I absolutely instantly fell in love when I heard his Bangla lyric-ed song Rani, Rani.

His theme song’s not so bad either. Keep an eye on this guy – Brooklyn Shanti’s going to be going far with these skills.

Check out his bandcamp discography – if you like the above songs, I’m sure you’ll like what else he has. You can download his full album from June 2011 for free right here: Brookylin Circa 2012

I hope you’ve enjoyed the #MusicMonday’s at Sepia Mutiny these past couple of years – I started them because I wanted to have some content to provide for you on a weekly basis. After a while though, it became more of a scavenger hunt and a game to find the songs I would actually listen to on my iPod. I’ve found and befriended many of the artists profiled on these pages – and I’m hoping that my fantastical dream of Alterna-Desi Music Fest on the So Cal desert of Bombay Beach with these bands will happen some day. Some day…

Mathai Rocks ‘The Voice’

Could an 18-year-old singer named Mathai be the next winner of NBC’s The Voice?

Billboard called Mathai’s performance on the show last week “awe-inspiring” and noted she was “one of the few [contestants] who understands nuance and power.”

I hope that as the season progresses we’ll get to see Mathai do more ballads. This 2010 talent show performance, in which a then-16-year-old Mathai covers Adele’s version of To Make You Feel My Love, is incredible. (You can check out more of her songs at her official YouTube channel.)

Spills All Over

This Valentine’s Day, feel free be prepared to spill your heart with this week’s belated #MusicMonday. Breaking into the scene with his first solo album, Feel Free, 25 year old Sid Muralidhar otherwise known as the NYC beat master Spills has released an album that gives The Weeknd a run for his money. The first half of the album start with a slow drawl with songs like Pregnant Silence and the two stepping Siren featuring Basim Usmani’s falsetto and leads up to the second harder half of the album with deep beats, such as in Mariah Carey’s Satanic Offspring.

But you don’t have to take my word for it – the album Feel Free is available … well, for free. So download it for free now!  

Two things I love about Spills. First, I love that he was part of an acoustic dub/hip hop duo called Two Dirty Desis. And the second is this:

For those who want to delve further into his creative mind, Feel Free Ableton session files will be available to be used in any way, shape or form on February 21, 2012. On his decision to release the Ableton files, Spills remarked:

 

“Honestly, I would have never even thought to give away ALL the session files… some would say a hip hop producer is only as good as his samples and synths. But that whole Internet black out thing to protest government and corporate censorship really inspired me – made me realize that we’re only as powerful as our connections to each other. So everyone should feel free to do with this project whatever they want … go nuts.”

 

You heard him. Go nuts!

Brown Finger’s Pointing at You

I think it’s safe to say that today’s #MusicMonday is brought to you by the letters M, I, and A. She might have had only 18 seconds of screen time as a Madonna backup hook girl out of the 13 minute halftime Superbowl show, but M.I.A. made every one of those seconds count.

…a member of M.I.A.’s camp, speaking Sunday night from the Super Bowl host city of Indianapolis, said M.I.A. was struck with “a case of adrenaline.” “She wasn’t thinking,” said the source, who requested anonymity but was with the artist at Lucas Oil Stadium. “It wasn’t any kind of statement. She was caught in the moment and she’s incredibly sorry.” [link]

 

So, it wasn’t a political statement – she was caught in the moment. She has yet to issue an actual apology. The song itself, as I mentioned before, is pretty lame and a brown middle finger was the highlight of that tune. The full SuperBowl halftime show was, on the other hand, pretty awe inducing.

As for M.I.A. and her brown finger. Well, everyone is stumbling to point the blame finger at someone else.

NBC has apologized for airing footage of M.I.A. flipping off the cameras while delivering the line “I don’t give a shit” during Madonna‘s Super Bowl halftime show. “The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show,” NBC said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. “Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers.”

 

The NFL have also issued an apology for the incident, but placed the blame on NBC’s censors. “There was a failure in NBC’s delay system,” spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans.” [link]

Continue reading

Redistricting in Nehru Jackets

Himanshu Suri of the infamous Das Racist is stepping out from behind the microphone, kind of. He’s teaming up with his childhood friend Ali Najmi (of Desis Vote) and joining the board of Queens based SEVA-NY to bring awareness to a very heated issue, redistricting in immigrant heavy Queens because the plans that are being drawn up will make you want to yell, “Das RACIST!”

Prominent Queens-bred rapper Himanshu Suri is adding his voice to the contentious redistricting debate, joining the board of directors of SEVA, a Richmond Hill-based immigrant rights group.

 

Suri’s childhood friend, Ali Najmi works for SEVA and introduced him to Gurpal Singh, one of the founders of the group and also a music producer. Within two hours of meeting one another, Singh and Suri were tinkering with tracks and discussing local politics. SEVA has an “army” of volunteers, Singh said, but Suri adds some much needed star power to the organization. [link]

 

Himanshu is at a SEVA community meeting performing right now (Monday night). It just so happens that his solo album titled after his very popular tumblr site Nehru Jackets also just dropped online on SEVA‘s website (thx for the tip, Pardon My Hindi!). For your #MusicMonday pleasure, you can find the link to the download here. Continue reading

The (r)Evolving Kominas

A belated Christmas present for all y’all for this #MusicMonday – our oft written about friends The Kominas have released an (almost) self-titled album called “Kominas.” If you thought the previous albums were too punk/too political/too “taqwacore” for you – then it is time to give the band a second chance – this album might just be for you. With a more Desi-rock sound, gritty riffs, lo-fi vocals and lyrics taking a back seat, the band’s path has turned and taken on a new sound. Gone are the sing-along playfully raunchy hooks, this album is all about the bass line and dirty drum beats.

The band members of The Kominas have shifted to not only to now include the duo from Sunny Ali and the Kid, but also in instrumental roles – three of the four bandmates take a turn on the mic for this album. With multiple talents acting as the driving force between music and lyrics, the album is eclectic and completely different sounding from anything previously released by The Kominas. People have been saying that their sound has “matured” but instead, I feel the new album better reflects the skills and sounds of the new band members trying collaborate and create a new cohesive sound (Basim Usmani is the only original band member that remains from 2005).

Don’t just take my word for it. Follow the link here to the megaupload site to download the album. And if you are too chicken to download the album before listening to a song – here’s the demo to Ren, a song off of the new album.

Frankly put, it sounds like our punks have evolved – they just may be growing up.

The Donkeys Rock

It always surprises me when I find a band that is really good that should have been on my radar a long time ago. The Donkeys are on their third album release, Born with Stripes. The song below, Don’t Know Who We Are, is a single off of this album and my selection for today’s #MusicMonday.

But like California, the real-life Donkeys (best friends from Southern California, Timothy DeNardo, Jessie Gulati, Anthony Lukens and Sam Sprague) are much more… real. If their backstory contains those top-down cars and suntanned utopian surf tableaus, it also contains the malaise and the escape fantasies familiar to all suburban kids of the 80s and 90s. Miraculously, the music manages to comfortably communicate both moods at once. [deadoceans]

Turns out the making of this album was side tracked just a little bit when guitarist Jessie went to India for sitar lessons. The influence can now be heard on sitar influenced tracks “West Coast Raga” and “East Coast Raga” peppered throughout the album.  Check out The Donkeys on facebook and at their site. And let me know what you think!