(Intro Music Plays)
John Gardner: Hello, hello and welcome again to the World Music Foundation podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we’re excited to have with us Chicago-based Soul singer, Zeshan B. A lot of people became aware of Zeshan B when he performed his soulful rendition of George Perkins’ “Crying In the Streets” on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But by that time, he had already performed for two U.S. Presidents. In fact, President Jimmy Carter said that Zeshan’s was the most beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that he had ever heard. He’s a Chicago-born, Opera trained, Indian-Muslim Soul Singer and there’s a whole lot to unpack there. So, let’s get into our conversation with Zeshan B.
John Gardner: Thanks so much for being here, Zeshan.
Zeshan B: Well thank you, John. It’s my pleasure.
John Gardner: So, we have audience from around the world. We have people in India listening, we have, of course all across the U.S., Australia, so some people will know you, some people might not- even for the ones that do know you, maybe a little bit of an origin story- just how would you answer, “Who is Zeshan B?”
Zeshan B: Whoa, that’s a tough one, man. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself, but I guess in a nutshell, Zeshan B is a son of Chicago, a son of India, a son of immigrants who came to who came to this great country America and came from a great country and a great tradition of, what we know as India, but what I know as Hindustan, and Zeshan B is just as much Hindustani and he is American.
John Gardner: Right on. Great, so you bring a lot of this into your music. What was your first musical memory?
Zeshan B: It’s interesting; I can’t remember which one of these came first. It was one of these two and I was kind of hazy, but it was either Bill Withers’ Lean On Me or MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This. I can’t remember which of them came first, but both of those are very clear in my mind, you know, as to just how much they impacted me. The MC Hammer Can’t Touch This, I just remember the beat and the groove, and you know, I remember I used to have this pair of very 90s kind of- I don’t know what kind of fabric they were- maybe just that kind of swooshy pant kind of thing. I remember wearing that and hearing that song and taking my dad’s beeper, his pager- I don’t know why, but I just remember taking that and dancing around the house and I remember just how much it gave me that electric energy inside and just that groove, that beat, being so infectious. And then I also remember Bill Withers Lean On Me. I remember being so drawn to that- hearing that ascending figure- and I remember the hairs on my back standing up and hearing this man’s voice and being drawn to that. Those are my earliest musical memories, and of course there’s more that came after that.
John Gardner: Yeah, great. It says a lot about the mixture that goes into making music like you do. So, do you remember the first time you heard music, what I would frame as outside of your culture, do you have a memory that’s not straight ahead maybe what you might think as mainstream American, might not be Indu Pakistani, but something outside of those cultures?
Zeshan B: Sure, I remember going to a Lithuanian Operetta, and I remember that not really because of the music or anything, it was more because we were the only colored people in the audience there. The contractor, he was doing some work on our house, his name is Interrage, he’s a good friend of my dad’s, he’s Lithuanian, you know, a very interesting story of what I hear a lot from people who came from the former soviet satellite states of the added degree of engineering and you know in his case he had a degree in engineering; he was a opera singer back in Lithuania and came to the United States, went to construction and this and that, but you know had a hankering for his past and so he had a role in some kind of opera and here we are in a sea of white, this brown family, and everybody’s looking at a us like what the hell are these people doing. I felt like that was such an American experience, being able to partake in a cultural musical event that was very much outside of, you know, what we normally would we would normally associate with you know people from India or people from Chicago. What was interesting, to bring it even more full circle, when we talked to some of these Lithuanian folks, you know we’re quite interesting- what are these people doing here, and so some of them came and approached my parents and I- must’ve been oh 13 years old or so, and I remember them telling us that Indian music was very popular in the Soviet Union back in the day-specifically the film music and the films of Raj Kapor, who was you know sort of our Charlie Chaplin. And Roger Vapor movies that I grew up-my grandparents used to watch, my parents used to watch. Some of these people could even sing some of the tunes in Hindi you know- and so life is strange like that, the synchronicity of these things, the more you put yourself out there.
John Gardner: Yea that’s beautiful. It all started from a personal invitation- from making a friend, going from there. That’s beautiful. So you have these different experiences, different influences. At what point do you start making music on your own?
Zeshan B: It was through school. You have to remember that I was, what I call, a cadet. A conservatory cadet. It that-I displayed a certain proclivity in seeing classical music. I was quite good at it. I had a voice that was strong enough for it and basically I was good at imitating Pavarotti you know- and these classical singers. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for me I have always been able to imitate people. And I find that with singers that’s a very common strand. And I always tell people that singing is probably 90% imitation you know you hear something and you’re able to kind of recreate it-you’re able to duplicate that and the rest is kind of making it your own etc, but anyway I was a conservatory cadet and I went to a conservatory- Northwestern University in the School of Music. I was funneled through the whole thing of well you’re going to be an opera singer and this is the repertoire- this is what’s right for you- this is you fa meaning this is your voice type-you’re a tenor-this is the repertoire you should do this is the repertoire you shouldn’t do. Basically at the end of the day a lot of people telling me what to do and how I Have to do it and-
John Gardner: And how did this-sorry to jump in, so I’m assuming these are teachers, professors telling you this is your- sounds almost like writing a prescription, here’s what to follow. Did your parents-your parents must have sat down with them, maybe at some point a teacher noticed your talent and talked to your parents about it or do you know if your parents notice the talent and talked to your teachers about it?
Zeshan B: My parents you know had been since middle school been on my case about joining choir you know. And I regret to say that because of the rapid homophobia that was sort of- and you could speak to this John you know we came up in somewhat different generations- but I’m sure the same applies to you, that you know in our generations it was completely acceptable to call someone you know a fagot you know and to use- homophobia, what many people call toxic masculinity, rued the day. And unfortunately the reputation of being in choir is that oh well all the sissy boys go there- all the gay kids, gay boys are in choir and unfortunately I think I fell to that rampant homophobia- and was like no I can’t do that, I have a reputation, I can’t be with these guys you know I just can’t be associated like that- and it’s really sad and thank goodness at some point I figured out well gee there are a lot of cute girls in choir and it’s not what I think it is and you my parents and my grandparents they kind of beat the homophobia out of me anyway at some point thank goodness and you know I got over that but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I would’ve stuck with it- if I would’ve continued on that path. But anyway, I finally gave in and I joined choir when I was a sophomore in high school, and immediately my choir director Mr. Rozepazi, to whom I really owe a lot of my life, took me under his wing and saw what I had to offer and was just very we had a really good music program in my school and he gave me just about every solo that was possible cause he’s like this kid knows how to deliver and I also joined gospel choir you know before I even joined regular choir. There was Gospel Choir which had which had spice in it and the current straight you know white you know choir where we’re singing all these religious text and you know Gregorian chants and all that stuff that you know maybe not the most glamorous stuff, but I either way I was excelling in both of those and Mr. Hize just kind of gave me a lot of direction; I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no clue, I had no inner drive at that point and I think I was lucky that there were people who guided me, and so he guided me to Mrs. Daily, my voice teacher, who was an opera singer with Chicago Lyric. So she then took me under her wing and discovered oh boy this kid can actually sing opera. So yes my choir teacher and my voice teacher-they sat down with my parents and they said you know this young man has what it takes to embark on a career in opera, and what do you think about him you know auditioning for schools, he can get scholarships and my parents were very supportive of that and they love music and they couldn’t be happier, they couldn’t be more supportive of the notion of their son doing something different, and pursuing music. They felt it was a very noble thing which is pretty uncommon I’d said with you know parents- not just parents from India or Pakistan, but really everywhere. We live in a more utilitarian society. Anyway, so I was funneled into the conservatory and I got in all the schools I applied I got in, I got the full scholarships and you know, and I decided to go to Northwestern because I said I don’t know if I am going to do this with my life, I have know idea what this opera thing is all about, and I should get a good liberal arts education you know– and I’m 18 by the way and I’m not saying I had my head screwed on right, but you know I was out there hustling and anyway so I was funneled in to conservatory setting and kind of brain washed as I’d like to say know into thinking that this is you know the only thing out there for me and I have a lot of opinions we could get into maybe later about how that whole system is and the boon and bane of you know of being a music student and the eurocentricity which we’re kind of brainwashed, but anyway I did my bachelors, I did my masters and immediately got hired by opera companies, made my debut in New York in Don Giovanni: Mozart Opera and but you know but it hit me at some point that gee you know this whole thing I’m doing is cool I mean this music is beautiful, I love it–I love Mozart, I love Verdi, I love Beethoven, you know I dig these cats, but see this you know, I’m playing the role of a you know one those 15 century Spanish nobleman- I don’t know–I can’t really internalize that I can’t make that my own. First of all this role has been done for the past 300 years in many different–why are we continuing to just go on this like this never ending cycle of just okay doing the same thing, same pieces. And then the new pieces, the new opera pieces in the new operas being commission, in my opinion, they all sounded like garbage, so it’s like you know I’m like I don’t fit in here like there’s nothing here that really applies to me I don’t know what it’s like to be Spanish, I sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to be a noble men, I sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to live in the 15th century, but I do know what it’s like to be me. You know at the same time I started this band this sort of world music string band with some of my other let’s just say deviant conservatory cadet colleagues who also felt pulled back from the constraints of just pursuing classical music and just thought we gotta create something fresh and do our own thing and that’s when I started writing my own music and embarking on my own path and you know did the unspeakable I decided to leave opera behind, which at that point was actually the most stable option for me I had. Upcoming contracts i had, roles i had, i had work lined up for me and I had the interest of the industry. My singing was acclaimed by opera publications and I was you know, I don’t want say I was a rising star, that would be kind of a stretch but i was definitely putting myself out there and i was very young too you know 22, 23 years old you know doing my thing but uh I just left behind that world of security, so what I should say marginal security and embarked on a path of smoky clubs and dive and you know playing for supper and you know just really trying to make it into the music business. It was a tough decision to make but I am glad I made it.
John Gardner: Yeah very, very bold to leave any kind of job in music with security as a performer. That’s bold very bold.
Zeshan B: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
John Gardner: We’re all glad you did because you are reaching a lot of us that don’t sit down and listen to opera very often so we might’ve not known you Zeshan.
So you sit down to start your own music and thanks for sharing your personal story through a lot of that. So you decide even despite the success that is coming this isn’t fitting right I want to make som-create something new. You sit down to make the music, how far off was that music when you first started off creating from what we hear today? Were you surprised by the music that was coming out of you?
Zeshan B: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised by it but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just kinda was flying by the seam of my pants. In every way really because it was just like, well what is my compositional style? What is my voice? What is my vibe? I don’t know. I took a couple of years to figure that out. It took a lot of trial and error to some marginal success and a larger number of dismal failures and failed ventures and disappointments to discover my voice. I wouldn’t even say that I think I’ve embraced the fact that it is-the more I’m on this green earth the most I am discovering those things about me. I don’t think that will ever end. I don’t think I will ever fully find my voice. I’ll just continue to develop it and to understand myself and to understand my aesthetic.
John Gardner: I see. So soul music when we listen to “Vetted” it comes loud and clear influences: Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cook. This music is before both of our times so someone had to turn us on to this. How did you run across soul music?
Zeshan B: Well I was turned on to soul music and the soul music of the 60s and 70s through my mom and dad. They both had eclectic taste in music. They listened to all kinds of things. Certainly they found a certain comfort or solace in soul music. My dad listened to Sam Cooke, my mom liked Ray Charles. Both of them liked Chicago Blues; Muddy Waters and of course the Civil Rights era music of Curtis Mayfield and Mahalia Jackson, two of Chicago’s greats, and I was lucky to I think grown up in that sort of atmosphere where this things were being inseminated while they were cooking, they would listen to stuff, while we went on road trips they would listen to this, and it always spoke to me for whatever reason it just sort of stuck with me and I once again I really think that singing is a lot of imitation. I would sing around the house and I would imitate Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye and when I became a certain age like I’ve said I joined Gospel Choir. I was the only- I mean it was an all black Gospel Choir in my high school and one brown kid. Initially, I went for tryouts, you know they were like “Bro the chess club is that way you know what I mean the math team is that way,” but then when I should them that I had what it took they were like
Zeshan B: “Well, alright you can stay, alright you’re at the right place.” Exactly I was vetted! So I earned my stripes and I felt a certain solace in soul music. Not just because of the fact that I grew up listening to the American soul music. I think I was lucky to grow up listening to what I call Indian and Pakistani soul music which I mean it’s not termed that way when you talk about the music industry and its gimmicky, you know ways of building music, there’s nobody that calls it Pakistani soul music but Indian soul music but to me I think it was soul music of Medhi Hassan, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, and Shafqat Amanat Ali— vocal stylings of these cats. You know the music that was a lot more full throated and spoke about despair and loss. It didn’t have the same commercial tinges that some of the Bollywood music had. I think that growing up around that aesthetic and of course going to India several times throughout my childhood and throughout my adulthood certainly reinforced that presence of soul music within.
John Gardner: Were you attending Qawwali concerts or Ghazals?
Zeshan B: Oh yeah. My mom and dad would go to Ghazal concerts. My dad actually from back from when he was a student in Mumbai in the 60’s, he arranged some of the first concerts of Jagjit Singh in this college. In some capacity Jagjit Singh was just starting out he was singing jingles and stuff like that and my Dad he was sort of the part of the beat as it were of journalists who went and covered these concerts so he would get press passes and go and see Medhi Hassan, Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali. So certainly coming to the United States later on and once the offspring came into the picture we were privy to that as well so I used to be taken to Ghazal concerts by well known and western known Ghazal singers from India and Pakistan. These concerts would go till 4 in the morning and I got a front row view of just how rich our culture is and how rich our tradition is. Those were the sort of informal house party concerts with big artists coming and singing in someone’s basement and people just sitting around a few feet away. A gentleman or lady would be pouring their heart out and that was the more informal vibe. I used to be taken to the more what I call, the more stiff straight up Indian Classical Music where they would come in 10 minutes before the thing starts. Everyone is quietly sitting there. Was exposed to both those things. I am really lucky I got to see that and I always felt like man this is pretty dope like our people get down with this stuff. My mom and dad didn’t like Qawwali music as much. My grandparents liked it more, It’s interesting, I got exposed to different schools of thought in terms of which music in terms of which music is sophisticated and considered to be more sophisticated and which music is considered to be more sort of, how do I say. Which music is considered to be more ostentatious, you know just seeing the different sort of Fascism within our community and the classism that is in our community and like you know “I don’t go to Ghazal concerts, I only go to classical you know cause it’s high prep it’s more high brow, straight classical music. It’s very interesting to see how there are certain parallels with the snobbery that exists here in America, you know the rich wealthy people that watch opera and sneer on the sort of people that watch Lady Gaga or Bruno Mars, “that music’s pedestrian,” and “this is real high stuff.” People who go to the opera and wear their furs and you know talk about their yachts. It was the same thing in our community with the high brow classical music where wealthy come and express their appreciation and tend to create more pedestrian stuff like Folk Geet and light classical like Ghazal and then Ghazal Music. There’s the official who frown on qwallali and then there’s qwallali people who think ghazal style or music is sinful. It’s so interesting to see all this and be a spectator to parade as I call it. Certainly made me more informed.
John Gardner: No doubt, so your parents are taking to this. Your father has media access to all these great ghazal concerts and that’s what he was reporting on from the media, the ghazal concerts.
Zeshan B: Correct, correct.
John Gardner: Did your father or your family get into American soul music while in India, was there an American soul music movement in Mumbai. Or was it after they came to the US?
Zeshan B: Well. I don’t know if there was a movement but certainly there were pirated bootleg records that made their way over to India by way of the docks and shipyard workers and there were certainly DJs that spun that stuff and I think Mom and Dad definitely were regaled by that but I think in general American music was appreciated and was popular in India and you can even hear that from the film music in India of the 1960s and 70s. I love that stuff because I felt like it was just as beautiful coallensent of Indian sonorities and instruments and yet at the same time every now and then there is a back beat, there’s a drum kit or there’s a farfisa organ and it was rad. Certainly they were hip to that. And you know in the case of my dad, he was writing commentary pieces on African American literature and the writings of the old Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston but also the newer more strident writings and musings of people like Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur, revolutionary writers from the 1970’s and so I think that through that there was obviously an exposure and a profound reverence and love for African American, for black culture and for black artistic expression. That certainly carried over when we came to Chicago and came to the United States.
John Gardner: So that seems like a pretty blatant example of the music being the gateway into the culture. Even just the art, the writing being the gateway into appreciation and respect for the culture.
Zeshan B: Absolutely I mean you know my grandparents and my uncles and my aunts and my parents have interesting stories of how they would go to the movie theaters in India. Before the movie there would be two things: One was a newsreel and they would show clips from things like the Ed Sullivan show, music from Elvis [ Presley], he was known in India. My grandma even knew, she would say whos the guy that would shake his hips and do the thing. Then the other thing they would show before the movie that my parents loved when they were kids was Tom and Jerry. American culture made its way over to India in some interesting ways and unlike now American culture, America had quite a prestige abroad, had a quite high esteemed place in the hearts, minds and consciousness of people certainly in the Indi– I certain can’t speak for the whole world, but certain in the Indian subcontinent, America was respected and our leaders were respected, JFK, LBJ were popular in India. In fact when JFK was assassinated, my parents both you know they say every American remembers what they were doing that day the same way you and I remember very clearly what we were doing on September 11th. Similarly my mom and dad, remember very clearly what they were doing when JFK was assassinated and their schools were cancelled. There was a day for national mourning I mean for the American President that was a prestige that America had afforded and it certainly had an appeal with Indians and Pakistanis who were living in these new countries that were torn apart. I think under unfortunate circumstances but that’s a whole different story. They certainly had a positive view of these countries and by that point India and Pakistan encountered what I consider a brain drain of many of the best and brightest that were encouraged to go, in example the India government the first Indian administer of education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, was very encouraging of Indian professionals, scientists, physicians, doctors, and engineers to go abroad and pursue lives in other countries because he correctly surmised that these people will be ambassadors for us and for this country. Certainly my mom and my dad, my uncles and aunts were part of that so it’s just interesting to see the perspective of America back then.
John Gardner: Yeah and how they might contrast now a days
Zeshan B: (Laughs) Well we are entering an interesting time but part of the contrast now a days due to the ascendancy, I could speak for India, is coming up in a huge way in the world and asserting itself. And I have great hope for India and of course India has its problems and I think that just like any other society, any other country unfortunately right wing nationalism has taken hold, but that has also given life to resistance of Indians who want something better for their country and are working hard for it. It just amazing to see how far India has come since when I was a kid. The first time that I went in 1992 and where it is now. I mean we–India–elected an Italian woman, a Catholic to be the Prime Minister and she ended up giving the post to a Sikh. Just the enormous diversity and multiculturalism and pluralism that unfortunately right now is under attack by some nefarious sources, but I think will prevail at the end of the day. I think I’m very privileged to have the Indian, English, Desi Identity as part of my own and claim it as my own. I can claim India when I go there as part of being my own. It is a part of me that I’m really excited to see you know what it does.
John Gardner: Absolutely. So the music that you make, soul music, I’m just interested in the perspective that goes across generations but your extended family back in India. Obviously everybody has to be excited and hopefully supportive cause the amazing things. I think pretty much any genre that you sing if you’re doing it for even one president much less two, the family is going to be excited. Are there some that are saying “you know with that voice you really should’ve dedicated to Ghazal?” Are there some people saying “we wish you would represent traditional Indian quote on quote “Indian Music?”
Zeshan B: No unfortunately not you know by and large my extended family has at least the ones in India are mostly my dad’s family are very supportive and excited and open minded I would say. I haven’t encountered much of the this sort of purist thing you should’ve stayed with Ghazal. You should have stayed in this or not. I have encountered some sort of backlash within my mothers side of the family tend to be more adherence of how Islam is that I shouldn’t be doing music at all. I don’t really get bummed down with all that. Those voices have been largely silent because of the support that I have form the true matriarch and patriarch of my mother’s family, and those are my grandparents who were extremely supportive and extremely full of glee at prospect of coming to any of my shows. Any time they would have time to come to my shows they would. Any time they had the chance to listen to the radio interviews they would listen and I wish they were still alive today but I would like to think that they are up in heaven both drinking a chai together and bickering over something here or there like they sometimes would. My grandmother would put my grandfather in his place, just the cute relationship they had. I like to think that they are up there excited to see all the things I’ve been doing. They went to great lengths to tell me how proud they were of me. Even then when I didn’t have much going for me. I had the support of them and with our families, it’s the elders that have most authority by in large India families like my own, so I had the support of them and the endorsement of them and that all really matter. Anyone who had something else to say it didn’t come into… really come into focus. Yes there were some people who took issue with my engagement in a sinful act and to them I say “Well I guess we are really on our own path and I’m on mine and I think that I am pursuing something noble. Once again I had the endorsement of grandma and grandpa were behind it so come at me you know what I mean.” Yeah like, my mom and dad are fine with it and grandma and grandpa are fine with it so sit down. Take a nap!
John Gardner: (Laughs) no question you are doing a great and noble thing. Just like you said before the idea of sending out ambassadors for the country and for the music. I’ve seen you, maybe not like your grandparents but I was very grateful to experience your concert I’ve been able to a couple of times. I know a lot of people in the audience felt the same way but I saw- I saw you literally open minds through music just in that time. And again this is through singing primarily, and I hope if you’re okay with that I would classify as primarily soul music, you’re a soul music singer, but In there you find such effective ways to integrate harmonium of course and I heard you have to explain to everybody… you have to get this question a million of times, “what is that box? What is harmonium?” Just the fact that you take the time and you point that out, your drawing attention to sufi poets. You have a song that you sing a translation of or that you sing and do a interpretation of. Those kinds of things from just the audience I was sitting in were really large eye openers. I can imagine there is a lot of people who listen to soul music that don’t know Qawali, don’t know harmonium and I wonder how much in the U.S. and maybe other places I’m sure in India also, but in the U.S. I come across desis that say “ Hey what’s that box? what Qawali?” They don’t have the education or knowledge of this style of music.
Zeshan B: I’d say that when it comes to the box, of the harmonium or Qawali, or Ghazal or any of that, most of the Desi that I come across unfortunately are hip to that or woke to it whether or not they listen to it in their spare time. Most of them don’t, but they are certain aware of what a harmonium is and oh yeah my grandpa had one or my uncle has one or my sister plays it. There has been one that has been sitting up in our attic, Its collect quite a bit of dust and by the way do you know how to tune it because you know. So it is embedded in our culture thankfully and I don’t encounter that as much but what I do encounter is many Desi folks who did not get exposure to soul music or of course music that is not necessarily within the commercial confines of you know the what I call “the Bollywood Industrial complex.” turns out in India every 10 minutes. It’s certainly winning hearts and minds with them. One thing I have noticed though is that–One thing that I have found interesting is that there are many organizations and entities that are striving to, much like yours, striving to bring awareness about our music and our culture that are not run by Desi, that are not run by brown people. Even with yoga, nobody in my family, maybe my dad’s family, nobody did yoga that I can remember. The point is it’s interesting that there are so many white folks out there who in some ways appreciate our culture and canonize it more than we do. I think sometimes we take it all for granted but there are just some things that are embedded that you know, I’ve never had a brown person come up to me and ask me what my Harmonium is they all know that at least they know that.
John Gardner:… Good, then I can sleep a little better at night because —
Zeshan B: (laughing) Maybe that’s because you’re doing your job right —
John Gardner: (laughing) Yeah, I’ll travel with a sitar player and I’ll have Indians coming and asking “what’s that” you know? “What kind of guitar is that?” — “No, it’s sitar!”
Zeshan B: Sure!
John Gardner: So that puts my panic level down a little bit at least.
Zeshan B: Of course, but the point is: what’s interesting is that people like you, John, might know more about Indian Classical Music and our heritage than even Indians themselves who are inundated with music from the film industry now that is by and large — like I said, the music from the 60s, 70s and 50s I think really tastefully incorporated traditional melodies, instruments and vibes, and now I don’t see much of that anymore. Sometimes I do and that’s the stuff I like. That’s not to say it’s not there, it is there, but there is this certain hankering to be the west, to espouse western values, which I think can be good in Indian society. There are certain things that I think we are behind in, but this veneration of the west that’s like this post-colonial — almost like this “daddy-issues” sort of thing. I don’t know, it’s a very complex thing because — I try to tell other brown folks: the west plundered us, and destroyed us and took us from being a wealthy nation, as Shashi Tharoor, one of my favorite Indians of all time, points out, a wealthy, viable nation with enormous wherewithal and shipbuilding in spices, in technology, in textiles, and reduced it to a poster child for third world poverty. And so my thing is: let’s stop trying to be like them. Let them do their thing, but we have our own thing too and of course for me it’s perhaps even more complex because I was born and raised in the west, so the west is a part of me, America is a part of me and has an indelible impact on me. So to be American is certainly to be myself. But I do get to have the complex and at times confusing identity of being Hindustani. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
John Gardner: Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about Meri Jaan.
Zeshan B: My baby!
John Gardner: On that track I hear Little Walter – My Babe. Was that conscious when you made it?
Zeshan B: Well no I wasn’t thinking Little Walter did this, let me do it. Certainly I have a reverence for Chicago blues, whether it be Little Walter or Muddy Waters, JB Hutto, Bo Diddley but no that just came about because I wanted to do a song that was more traditional blues. Meri Jaan, I guess colloquially, to make it sort of — and this is what’s hard about translating things because you lose beauty — unfortunately I have to pedestrianized it a little bit by saying it means “My Baby.” Really what it means in Hindu is “my life,” but it is a term that we use in a romantic context. I would refer to my wife as “meri jaan” because she is my life. Or we say “jaanu” which is a very endearing term which we would refer to our spouse or our love interests. So I just wanted to write a song that had that, and I wasn’t thinking about Little Walter at the time but certainly I’d be remiss not to say that Little Walter or Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf didn’t have an influence in my musical pallet the same way Donny Hathaway Curtis Mayfield or Mahalia Jackson had influence on me as well.
John Gardner: I also heard some sneak peeks of what might be coming out on the next album, obviously well deserved accolades all around for for the debut album but I understand you’re probably not just going to rest on your laurels and head towards the next one.
Zeshan B: No, I have a short attention span.
John Gardner: I heard Get Higher, Brown Power of course is going to be a hit— no question about that. What kind of things have you been working on coming up next?
Zeshan B: That is certainly being explored right now in the studio. As much as I’ve been touring the past year, I’ve been in the studio in New York, in Nashville and also in LA working with some fantastic songwriters. We have a song or two that we feel really speaks to where I’m at right now. I unfortunately can’t get into too many details, you’ll just have to keep your eyes and ears open but some of the tracks that you mentioned certainly we’re exploring releasing them and we’re looking at a release very soon— most likely November. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself but I’m really excited about putting out new music and sharing where I’m at right now in my life and my career.
John Gardner: From what I’ve heard it’s definitely worth being excited about.
Zeshan B: Thank you.
John Gardner: Thank you for sharing what you’ve been able to.
Zeshan B: Of course.
John Gardner: How would you explain soul music, or encourage somebody from India maybe, or someone from the U.S. who listens to, they think, I don’t know, jazz is the end of the world, or country music, or how would you explain soul music, and what do you listen for when you’re listening to soul music?
Zeshan B: Well, soul music is one of those styles of music that just really leaves nothing for interpretation, you know, it’s all laid out there, it’s your soul, it’s your innermost convictions and feelings and sentiments. And, you know, It speaks for itself really. And that’s why people dig it, because it serves their soul. It serves, like I said, their innermost convictions and their desires and their despair and their loss or their frightful glee or their ecstasy. Mostly it’s loss, mostly it’s despair. And everybody has that, everybody goes through that. There isn’t anybody on this green earth that doesn’t feel pain, feel desire, and feel longing and feel loss. And soul music, it speaks to that. And, like I said, it just leaves it all out there, it’s full throated, it’s as authentic as it gets really.
John Gardner: Now, I’ve played soul music and blues for people in India, people in Singapore, that have never heard it. And instantly, like you say, exactly how you describe, they felt it. It had a reaction. Can you help us understand, and I’ll include myself in this because I respect opera, and there’s some opera that I love, but how would you explain to somebody who is a fan of your music, and of soul music, how would you explain to them what to listen for in opera, and how would you describe opera to them?
Zeshan B: Wow. Well! Oh boy. Boy, you really ask the tough ones here. I think with opera, with good stuff that’s out there, I think you listen for the same things you listen to in soul music. Does this speak to you? Most of the time, it probably won’t. Because chances are you’re not a shepherd in 18th century pastoral France, you’re not a Spanish nobleman, you’re not an Italian bohemian painter in the 1890s. For better or for worse, it’s very palpable, it’s very localized to whoever the character is, so the challenge is finding a character who speaks to you or finding a protagonist that speaks to you. That said though, even if you can’t find something that speaks to you I think listening to the richness and the complexity of the harmonies and what the orchestra is doing these will be what the protagonist or the singer is singing, those relationships are very interesting and I think there’s probably no better composer out there than Mozart who really understood human emotion. The relationship between the libretto, the words that the singer is singing, and what’s going on in the orchestra are just magnificent when it comes to Mozart, but you probably have to work on your Italian to figure out the libretto and the translations are there but then once again, you know you lose something in translation, and fortunately with the operas that are written in English, I mean I can’t, there are a few that I think are very interesting I mean I like the stuff that was written by Kurt Vile, like street scene. I thought that was brilliant. I think Langston Hughes was wrote the libretto for it, if I’m not mistaken, this was 1920s New York and you know that’s performed in the opera world but that’s also considered musical theater, the purest would say that’s not opera.
John Gardner: Thank you. I’ve got four questions that I wanted to speed through, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to ask. You talked about the ethnocentric experience during your music education in the United States. You were studying opera. Through any step of your education did they talk about musicians that had similar backgrounds to you? That looked like you? If not was that ever something that dawned on you or that impacted you in any way? What was that experience like?
Zeshan B: I think that requires some deliberation and some review. The curriculum that I had in the conservatory was–in my opinion– very Eurocentric and not representative of learning music in a broad sense. The music of people who “look like me,” for lack of a better word, was relegated to one course. It was called world music, which was poorly taught and poorly administered to the point where the professor even asked me to teach a section of Indian classical music, I’m like 19 years old! It was really weird. They would call on me to answer a question about Turkish music– I’m like, I don’t know, I’m Indian. Why don’t you know? Why is it that we have some amazing professors going to great detail about the music of Wolf and Schumann and Schubert and even the Russian composers, I mean you could specialize in all these things, and when it comes to music that’s not from Europe we have this one dinky class with a very inept professor who, I don’t think, was very passionate about what they were teaching and certainly wasn’t equipped to teach it, and students who I think were interested in learning more but just caught a glimpse. I thought the textbook was pretty bad too. To me, at least with the Indian section, I thought it mystified the music of India with images of magic carpets and elephants and snake charmers– very much this sort of orientalism. You can’t make this stuff up, you know? I had to jump through all kinds of red tape to get an independent study credit to go to India and study Indian music. Thankfully there were some bleeding hearts. My voice teacher Professor Hansen was very supportive and pushed it through and made it happen for me, but he had to go through a lot of hurdles to get approval from the Dean. I think it’s damaging. Students pay all kinds of money, I was lucky I had scholarship money, but most of the kids there did not. Students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get an education in music, whether it be the teaching of music, the conducting, or the performance of it, and are just learning largely the music that is restricted to one continent, when we live in this huge world that is becoming smaller and smaller every day. I just think that people who teach classical music in these conservatories, at least then, I don’t know if it’s different now, have their heads in the sand when it comes to music nowadays, and I quickly learned that there’s more out there, there’s more that I have to say and more that I have to offer being who I am, and where I come from, and the influences that I have been fortunate to have. I was lucky to figure that out soon. But I think that it’s an issue it’s a problem that should be visited and should certainly be corrected because I think that kids that go to these schools are not being exposed to an entirely different world. And if someone’s going to learn classical music and that’s what they want to learn, great! That’s wonderful! I think that maybe there should be a broader curriculum that does explore that stuff. And if you want to explore so called “world music,” that term that I dislike, there should be avenues for that that aren’t just research based that aren’t just academic where it’s ethnomusicology and people study that– you know, these music academics– there should be avenues for performing it or for teaching it. But that also falls on us. People like Indians– unfortunately we don’t have many good teachers out there who can explain this stuff. I had my guru come and do a presentation there and I thought it was dismal because I think he had his own snobbiness about Indian classical music and it being superior to western music, which I thought was just as pig headed as a western conductor saying (affects British accent) “our music is the richest out there, the harmony and the– you know.” I thought he left a poor impression on the kids who were genuinely interested in learning about Indian music. He just wasn’t good at teaching it. So I think there’s so much to be done, but at the same time I think on the positive side there are so many organizations– like the World Music Foundation that you’re a part of– that are working so hard to create awareness of other musics. Or the Old Town School of Folk that does its very best in getting people to be hip to these things. Is there work to be done? Certainly. But I do appreciate that in America you can educate yourself in music in a very sophisticated and legit way that perhaps you can’t do in other countries.
John Gardner: Again, this has been wonderful, thank you. In respect to your time– we don’t have time to get into these too deeply– I’m just going to ask you just kind of a wrap-up, just a few questions. First one, nice and easy: what’s your favorite food?
Zeshan B: Oh… Fried chicken.
John Gardner: What do you enjoy doing outside of music? Any hobbies?
Zeshan B: I like reading, I enjoy working on cars, and woodwork. I like building stuff, working with my hands. Watching interesting films and travel.
John Gardner: And the last one: If you could ask one question and you could instantly know and understand the full answer to that question, what would it be?
Zeshan B: Why am I here? Why am I here on this earth?… Well another big question I have is: who figured out that ketchup goes really well with a hamburger? Who is it that figured out that ketchup just goes really well with fries and with a burger?
John Gardner: I would have hated to be there when they tried… Oh, maple syrup! That’s what’s going to go with burgers… Failed attempt number 332…
Zeshan B: (laughter)
John Gardner: Zeshan B thank you so much for the time. I honestly love speaking with you, wish you the best and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Zeshan B: Absolutely John, we’ll be in touch and thank you once again for reaching out. Let us know when you’re ready to put this out.
(Outro Music Plays)
John: Real talk! He said students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get an education in music and they’re largely only being taught the music that is restricted to one continent when we live in this huge world that is becoming smaller and smaller everyday and I’ve got nothing to add to that. We’re so thankful that his personal experiences with music broke through the highly Eurocentric education that he received in school. Check out his fantastic album, Vetted. Follow him on social media to see what he’s up to next.
And regarding this podcast, tell a friend about the things you’ve heard here today. But most of all remember, to listen widely. Open ears equals open minds. We’ll catch you next time.