A few years ago, on a visit to the Taj Mahal, Rafiq Bhatia was puzzled by signs that prohibited shooting. “My dad and I wondered about guns and a shooting range near the Taj Mahal. We soon realised the sign was about shooting photos,” says the 30-year-old musician from Brooklyn, US. His father read the cross-connection as a sign of things to come — as English is claimed by more countries, older meanings will give way to new, and those dismissed as the “other” will force the narrative to change.
That was the seed of Bhatia’s new album, Breaking English (Anti-Records), which does something similar to jazz — and which has led The New York Times to describe Bhatia as “one of the most intriguing figures in music today”.
Breaking English, as its title announces, is an attempt at creating a new musical language. It is not just lyrics-less, but also mashes up jazz with electronic music, and a swirl of other sounds — Carnatic classical music, American rock, blues, hip-hop, whispered gospel songs and the azaan of Istanbul mosques.
Bhatia agrees that a Muslim man’s radical interpretation of traditional American genres is political, especially at this time. “In the US, the demographics are changing, there is the fear of the unknown. The result is that they look at people, who they consider to be others, as the ones denigrating tradition and culture,” he says in a thick American accent. He would know. If being brown in America wasn’t tough enough, being brown in its music scene is more difficult still. “It’s a constant negotiation that also comes across in my music,” he says.
It is reflected in the set list of Breaking English — Hoods Up speaks of the Black Lives movement, Olduvai I about his Gujarati grandparents and parents migrating from Africa (they lived in Kenya and Tanzania), Olduvai II, We are humans with blood in our veins is about waking up in Donald Trump’s America, and the delicate Before Our Eyes uses Anjana Swaminathan’s Carnatic violin to tip a hat to his Indian roots.
In Raleigh in North Carolina, Bhatia grew up listening to his grandfather’s ginans (Islamic hymns based on Quranic verses), was touched by his mother’s and sister’s obsession with Bollywood, and his own love for gangster rap. On hearing about his maternal grandfather, who played the violin, Bhatia decided to pick it up when he started learning American rock music. His love for Jimi Hendrix and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane led him to study music at the New York University, in a city he found extremely confining and its music, way too systematic. He dropped out and moved to Oberlin College, Ohio, where he graduated in economics and neuroscience. There he met famous drummer Billy Hart, who he hung out with, as well as Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, whom Bhatia considers a mentor.
He eased himself into the jazz world, with albums like Yes We Will and an EP, Strata. He was drawn to the spontaneous energy of a jazz session, when a group of musicians would improvise and arrive at an idea at the same time. But he remained dissatisfied with the idea of recordings, which simulated a sense that the listener was in the same room as the musicians. “Most of the time, the musicians are in different rooms and there is a blanket over the piano. They simulate the feeling as though it was all made in one room and was perfect. In the process, they edit the noise that human beings made behind the microphone,” he says.
Bhatia realised he was more interested in actively manipulating sound digitally. “Once you’ve recorded in improvisation, it is no longer dependent on execution in real-time. You can bottle that energy. You can take it and build around it.”
He realised that if he wanted to go deeper, he needed to learn how to use a studio himself and not rely on other producers. “I had to take all the things that I had developed expertise in, lock them in a box, throw away the key and force myself to make music from this studio-based approach, learning as I went along,” says Bhatia, who struggled for a while to create this new language. He was even frustrated with the guitar, an instrument he loved to play since high school, often finding it restrictive.
The album breaks new ground in the sounds it creates — synth pieces made to sound like screams by stretching the notes and passing them through a machine or riffs that sound as if the electric guitar is stuck in a chain. “It’s all about taking the sounds I know and presenting them in such a way that you can’t recognise the original… I try to make my music sound impossible. That’s when you see what resonates with you — your experience and background. Music, then, becomes more personal,” he says, over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was been performing for the last two weeks with his band Sun Lux, a trio with Ryan Lott and Ian Chang.
Bhatia’s modes of expression, he says, always “try to convey the feeling you get when you listen to a voice.” If his grandfather’s voice was the first sound he fell in love with, the second one was of American hip-hop. He had no idea what his grandfather or the rapper were singing/reciting. “If I listen to Abida Parveen or Ella Fitzgerald and you took the words and changed them, I would come back with the same experience. My expression of instrumental music is inspired by the voice — not what the words mean but what the voice is saying to you through sound. It conveys humanity, a commonality of experience,” he says.