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Feature Article: East Meets West - South Asian Music in Canada

Feature Article: East Meets West - South Asian Music in Canada

One of hottest touring bands in Canada at the moment eschews the standard instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums in favour of sitar, dhol and tabla—mixed with a little Irish fiddle. Delhi 2 Dublin, a five-piece outfit from Vancouver, is riding a wave of South Asian music that has permeated western culture. This year, the group’s concert appearances have included dates at the Vancouver Olympics, the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Festival D’Été due Québec in Quebec City and the World Routes festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

“We play to mostly white audiences—it’s not brown people who are coming to see us,” says Delhi 2 Dublin’s tabla player Tarun Nayar. “And they don’t get scared away by the fact that there’s a bunch of Indian instruments on stage and that our singer sings a lot of his lyrics in Punjabi. They don’t even care. It’s awesome.”

Delhi 2 Dublin, whose other members include vocalist Sanjay Seran, sitarist Andrew Kim, dhol player Jaspaul Ravi Binning and violinist Kytami, is just one of a number of Canadian South Asian acts enjoying crossover success. The group’s current album, Planet Electric, which was produced by Nayar and mixed by noted UK producer Diamond “DJ Swami” Duggal (Apache Indian/Maxi Priest/Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), is winning college radio airplay and rave reviews in the indie music press for its energetic mash-up of bhangra, Celtic, dub reggae and electronica.

East-meets-West fusions are nothing new to Canadian music. In the 1990s, Punjabi by Nature, a Toronto-based band led by Tony Singh, built a large following with its mix of bhangra with reggae, dance and industrial music. The group performed at jazz and folk festivals across Canada and even opened for hip-hop heroes the Beastie Boys. Meanwhile, Mississauga, Ont. sitarist Irshad Khan released a series of fusion albums and Vancouver’s Indian Lion, who blended bhangra and reggae, issued his Under Cover album on the BMG label.

More recently, Indian-born, Toronto-raised singer Kiran Ahluwalia earned acclaim for her entrancing arrangements of ancient Persian and Punjabi ghazals, or poems. Ahluwalia, now based in New York, won the 2004 Juno World Music Album of the Year prize for her Beyond Boundaries album. After winning the Songlines/WOMAD Newcomer of the Year Award in England in 2008, Ahluwalia and her five piece ensemble performed at the London Jazz Festival.

autorickshawNow, as Hollywood has discovered Bollywood, A.R. Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack has won Oscars and Grammys and even the Pussycat Dolls have taken to wearing saris, the time seems ripe for Canada’s latest wave of Desi-flavoured artists. Singer Suba Sankaran, who performs with Toronto’s Indo-jazz outfit Autorickshaw, agrees. “Audiences have open minds and open ears and they’re ready to take bigger risks,” says Sankaran, daughter of renowned South Indian percussionist Trichy Sankaran. “The fusion in things like fashion, film, books and cuisine, plus the information highway, has really helped to lift the veil of exoticism off the music.”

Raghav knows all about fusion. The Calgary-born singer, who has based himself in England since attending Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, has become one of the world’s leading urban Desi stars by mixing English and Hindi vocals over music that blends r&b, hip-hop and Bollywood-sampled beats. Raghav’s 2004 album Storyteller featured Canadian hip-hop star Kardinal Offishall and sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. His new album, Identity, includes the Bollywood-style ballad “Humrahee,” sung entirely in Hindi, as well as a thumping dance track with U.S. rapper Redman.

raghavRaghav’s manager, New York-based Jay Gatzby, who also represents Montreal’s the Bilz & Kashif, as well as a number of U.S. and U.K. musicians and actors of South Asian descent, believes artists like Raghav can transcend their own communities. “Look what happened to Latin artists like Shakira or Ricky Martin,” he says. “With their talents, they’ve been able to translate their success into the English market.”

Sitarist Rishi Dhir, who leads the Montreal group Elephant Stone, says he doesn’t understand music marketing. But he knows that his five-piece band sticks out from most other groups. “There aren’t many bands that have sitar, especially in Canada, and people are intrigued by that.” A classically trained sitar player, Dhir was a member of Montreal psych-pop outfit the High Dials until he grew disillusioned with the rock lifestyle. “I love Bollywood music, Indian classical music and psychedelic rock, so that’s what I wanted to mix,” says Dhir. With tongue in cheek, he calls Elephant Stone’s sound “hindie rock.”

With more than one million people of South Asian descent, Canada has become a major breeding ground for Desi talent, including Vancouver’s En Karma, currently the country’s top bhangra band, and Toronto’s Gurpreet “the Tabla Guy” Chana, who has recorded and performed with Canadian artists like Jorane, Ron Allen and Nelly Furtado. “That’s the beauty of Canada and our diversity—there are hybrids everywhere,” says Sankaran, who also sings a cappella ’80s hits with Retrocity. “We’re on the precipice of something really exciting here.”

Words & Music  Fall 2010
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