Nina Shekhar on Indian Music Now...
I grew up in two worlds. My parents were born and raised in India, and they moved to the United States in the 1980s. I was born in the U.S. and raised in a small, predominantly white suburb. My family frequently blended elements from both cultures. During meals, we would enjoy eating my mom’s spicy chicken curry and my dad’s palak paneer, alongside macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. I grew up not realizing that this experience was unique, and I did not know any other identity besides this hybridized one.
My musical identity is similarly hybridized. I grew up listening to santoor recordings of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma alongside the Bach preludes and Beethoven sonatas I was learning on the flute and piano. Some of my earliest musical memories are of my dad playing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records in the car. I played jazz saxophone in high school, and I remember how mind-boggled I was when I listened to Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet no. 2 for the first time.
Because my mom and dad grew up in different regions of India, they didn’t even speak the same language – my mom spoke Malayalam and my dad spoke Kannada! Their only common language was English, and so my brother and I never learned how to speak any other language.
But I was proud of my Indian heritage. When many people think about India, the first thing that comes to mind is the food – the rich, tantalizing spices, the pungent aroma that stimulates all of your senses… But this wonderful boldness goes far beyond the cuisine. Just look at the bright red and blue hues of a woman’s sari, see the explosion of colors at a Holi festival, and hear the quick, complex rhythms of a tabla as they begin the gat. Yet we are also reflective and meditative. We are spiritual and disciplined. And we are diverse – with 23 official languages and countless styles of music.
Growing up as a young woman of color was difficult. I knew that I didn’t look like my other friends in my mostly white neighborhood, I knew that my neighbors probably didn’t watch the same Bollywood movies we watched at home, and I knew that my Hindu parents prayed differently every morning than my Christian friends. And so I struggled with not fitting in for a while. But eventually I realized the beauty in my thick hair and chocolate skin, I embraced the richness of my amazing heritage, and I understood the strength and values that I was raised with as an Indian American.
Identity has always been central to my work, and my primary goal is to emotionally resonate with listeners on a human level, not just a musical one. When writing Quirkhead, the previous piece I wrote for Third Angle and soprano Tony Arnold at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, I decided to communicate my most vulnerable experience: my struggle with OCD. I wrote my own text because I realized only I could tell my story – no one else knew the intricacies of my compulsions and self-loathing unless I explained it myself. Writing “Quirkhead” allowed me to find emotional clarity and to communicate with others struggling they are not alone.
I loved working with everyone in Third Angle, and I was so grateful to them for being so supportive and open to me sharing my story with them. Their musicianship was extraordinary – they could sound so powerful and energetic in one moment and so sensitive and vulnerable in the next. I was incredibly moved by their sincerity and encouragement – whenever I was feeling insecure, they always made me laugh and gave the best hugs.
So I am beyond thrilled to have the chance to work with this amazing organization again! My piece Honk If You Love Me explores India’s unique and playful traffic sounds in an attempt to recontextualize them into something deeply human. And I’m ecstatic to collaborate with the incredible Subashini Ganesan, Portland’s Creative Laureate, who will be choreographing the work with Bharatanatyam dance. I’m so grateful to Subashini, clarinetist Louis DeMartino, and electronicist Branic Howard for their hard work in putting together this piece, and to Lisa Volle, Sarah Tiedemann, and everyone at Third Angle for commissioning this work. I can’t wait for this amazing performance in January and experience all of the raw, powerful, spiritual, beautiful, and emotionally profound works on this concert together with all of you!
- Nina Shekhar
Nina Shekhar in the thick of rehearsing with Third Angle