Music brings East closer to the West
Music helps Indo-American singer-composer Mana Bhatt communicate with people and "integrate" her Indian heritage with her American upbringing, she says, preparing to release her debut album Expressions.
For the 23-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey, her album signifies her breaking out of the desi music mould. No bubble-gum lyrics. No lifting from Bollywood soundtracks and no over-produced beats to cover up the flaw in her voice, because frankly, there aren't any.
Expressions, to be distributed soon, is a compilation of a variety of musical genres with global influences. All eight tracks move fluidly through rock, pop, and techno with distinct sounds of Indian, Middle Eastern, and American instruments.
When one asks Bhatt what music means to her, she gets philosophical, according to the South Asian Observer. "Music enables me to convey my deepest thoughts, emotions and beliefs. It allows me to bridge the distance between people - young and old. Music helps me integrate my Indian heritage with my American upbringing, an expression of who I was, an expression of who I am, an expression of who I want to be."
Mana communicates her thoughts in Hindi. She has incorporated her life experiences into the music of Expressions - a childhood in New Jersey, college in New York City, and extended stays in London and India.
English was bound to be a part of the album. But Mana's musical journey began before she could even speak a full sentence in it.
Growing up in a traditional Gujarati household that lived and breathed music, Mana began singing at the age of three as part of her family's travelling show, which had a repertoire full of classic Hindi film hits.
"I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't hear music in our house - I'm not talking about radio or TV. I woke up every Saturday morning to my father singing with my mother as they prepared for some show they were going to perform. Then my sisters and I would be taken to Bharatanatyam class and when we came back, we'd have to sit with the harmonium and sing with my dad for at least an hour before we could do anything else. While other parents made their kids study mathematics and read books, my parents made us sing, dance, and play instruments."
When Mana's parents realised their youngest daughter had an innate talent, they sent her to this Canadian city for piano lessons. She became the keyboardist for the family band, accompanying her father on the harmonium and singing before large audiences.
Through the years, Mana's musical tastes evolved as she absorbed different kinds of music. In the 1980s, she grooved to music groups like Genesis, U2, Erasure, and the Police. In high school, Mana explored R&B and at New York University (NYU) she fell in love with techno and world music.
As a student at NYU, her unique talent for vocally mimicking the orchestration behind songs finally found an outlet. With a classmate, she co-founded NY Masti, an all-girls Hindi group that toured the collegiate circuit across the US.
"As a kid, I always sang the instrumental parts to musical arrangements - the piano, the violins, whatever it was, I sang every note. I just loved the music behind every song. Even now, when I first listen to a song, I hear the melody and the chords, then the instrumentation, and finally the rhythm. It's only after a few good listens that I really hear the lyrics and interpret the words of the song. I interpret the music first and use the words to fill the gaps of the story I gathered from the music alone."
She began writing and composing songs for Expressions immediately after graduation and soon went to India to record her tracks, a feat she accomplished in just one month.
"I dreamt about the music in my sleep - I was completely intoxicated by the music. It was in my mind, in my fingertips as I touched the keyboard, in my voice. And it just poured out of me in that month."
Musicians and artists who inspired her album include Adnan Sami, Alicia Keys, Sarah Mclaughlin, Cheb Khaled, AR Rahman, Eric Clapton, Asha Bhosle, and Shakira.
Mana admires Shakira in particular because the international star sings in Spanish more frequently than English, but both languages are integrated to have worldwide appeal.
"She's not afraid to be herself and have her own style. And she's accepted with open arms by the public. It's inspirational because I want to be a bilingual singer as well."
When Mana returned to New York after her creative hiatus in India, she started working as a relationship manager at the corporate office of HSBC Bank. Despite a hectic schedule, she laid all the groundwork for the album and began pondering a life-changing decision.
Just last month, Mana left her job to chase her dream.
"It's an amazingly liberating feeling. I always envisioned a career in finance, and music was always my hobby. But after spending four years at an undergraduate business school and working for two years in corporate America, I can finally put all of that on hold and give my hobby some full-time attention. It's so much more than a hobby - it's my life. And that makes this decision incredible."
Mana is confident that Expressions will touch people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds as she embarks on this journey.