Few of my childhood memories are more vivid than the ones where my sister and I are sitting in the back of our Toyota Sienna van, with my parents in the front, driving to some unbeknownst destination. As a family living in the Bay Area, we went on a lot of car trips, from San Francisco to Big Sur or even Southern California. This meant we had a heavy dose of family time spent in that van, and there’s only so much you can talk about. After we had exhausted conversation, after we grew tired of playing car games, my parents would turn the music on.
And then the real journey started.
Our car didn’t have an AUX cable, and the concept of using iPods in a car hadn’t really taken off yet. So that meant CDs. And my parents didn’t appear to be huge music fans; they enjoyed it, they sang along, but it never seemed like it was an integral part of their lives. As a result, our car had a rotation of maybe seven CDs--for the better part of ten years.
The music that my parents played was pretty much all Bollywood music. My sister and I would bemoan when my dad would turn on the really, really old classical Indian tunes; music that sounded like it was recorded in a time when the world was actually black and white. So for the most part, we’d listen to 1990s or early 2000s Bollywood film music.
But before I get any further, a little about me: if you know me today, then you probably know that I’m extremely into music. I’m pretty much constantly listening to music; in the shower, while I get ready, on my commute, at work (and I also happen to work at a music company!), when I come home, pretty much until I fall asleep. I spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to find new music, and will often share music with my friends whether they like it or not. I basically listen to every genre, and it’s probably what I identify as my biggest passion.
A few years ago, in college, someone asked me how I got so into music. And I couldn’t really give a good answer. Music is a universally loved art form, sure, but I don’t know too many people that are as into it as I am. I puzzled over this question for a long time, and didn’t really have an answer until I came home during a winter break. My family and I were driving to some restaurant for dinner, and music was playing, and I realized that I was humming along to the song subconsciously. It was one of the seven CDs that had played throughout my childhood. I didn’t know the words but I knew the melodies, the tune, the way the song went.
I think all of those hours spent in my childhood listening to these CDs set me up for a love of music. They were all in Hindi, which I didn’t understand (my parents mostly spoke Gujarati at home), but something about the songs stood out to me. Since Indian music is so inherently tied to the film industry, the budgets for these songs were exorbitant. I remember thinking that the songs sounded so clean (I later came to realize that this meant the production on these songs was great). Every note, high or low, came across sharply and sounded flawless. The singers had voices that were so smooth, so silky, that it was hard not to be transported to elsewhere while listening to the music. Strings, guitars, piano, tablas, sitars, flutes all melded together to form a lovely swirling of unique and beautiful sounds, a majestic type of music that, as much as I might have denied at the time, I loved.
The most memorable CDs we had were the soundtracks to the movies Fanaa and Kal Ho Naa Ho. One of my favorites was this  song: Its soft strings welcome you before a quiet guitar and simple bass line open the song up as the male singer glides along the composition with an impossibly flawless voice. Background vocals swell up, as tablas come in and a lovely piano comes through, supported by a floaty flute. The song is nearly five minutes long, but it was always over too soon for me. There were countless songs like this throughout those seven CDs, and I loved them, despite hearing them over and over again. I would often hum along, much to the annoyance of my sister.
But one thing about the music that I listened to on my own time or with friends was strange: I never listened to Bollywood music. It was only in that van, only in that car with my family that I ever listened to Bollywood music. I’m sure I could chalk it up to a litany of reasons; I was struggling with my Indian American identity and didn’t know how to resolve it, or I was rebelling against my parents in some way, or I was trying to fit in with my friends who were listening to 50 Cent at the time (why?!). Whatever the reason, straight up Bollywood music was and has never been in my iPod.
I started off with what was popular: the aforementioned 50 Cent, Eminem, etcetera. I wasn’t really into music just yet, but maybe that’s because the music I was listening to did nothing compared to those bright and exuberant Bollywood songs I would hear in the car.
Thanks to the internet, however, I was able to explore music. YouTube would take me on a trip through different artists and sounds that I never heard on the radio. Probably my first and most memorable discovery was the artist Beirut. I came along this video  and was blown away. Here was this guy, strolling around the streets of Europe, singing with this amazingly acrobatic voice that seemed to fly around my ears and somehow convey a wide range of emotions, with people playing violin and banging on trash cans and even an accordion! The amount of instruments being used was reminiscent of the lovely medley I’d hear in that van growing up.
It was my first real foray into discovering music, and I loved it. From then on, I kept on looking for music in a similar vein.
My musical taste expanded and evolved over the years; I spent hours on the web finding new music and treating my ears to auditory revelation after revelation. Radiohead! Arcade Fire! Andrew Bird! Sufjan Stevens! Kanye! Frank Ocean! The list goes on and on. During this time, I remember I would often listen to my iPod when our family drove places, so I stopped hearing the Indian music that had become all too familiar throughout my childhood.
And then, one day during one of my music hunts, I found “Quitters Raga”  by Gold Panda. The song opens with a simple loop, some samples playing, and then thirty seconds in, a sitar comes in. Shortly after, a fragmented voice comes in, singing in Hindi as more sitars and strings swirl around the vocals in a fascinating way. I later find out that it’s from Indian musical legend Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jait”. This blend of what I thought to be my music and Indian music blew my mind, and it created some sort of craving within me for more. It brought me back to all of those days in the car listening to my parents’ music.
I started looking for more of this blend of music, and the results weren’t great. There wasn’t much out there, and I looked far and wide. I did find Heems, a rapper who made a mixtape Nehru Jackets. A lot of the songs featured old Indian samples made into hip hop beats as he rapped about a lot of different subjects. It wasn’t a great mixtape; a lot of the material would be seen as pretty problematic today, but it was an interesting experiment in how Bollywood could be used in other types of music. (Heems later formed Swet Shop Boys with another South Asian rapper, and the song “Aaja”  is a straight up banger.)
After my failure of a search for music like “Quitters Raga”, I kind of forgot that it existed. Until one day in freshman year of college, I found Jai Paul, and specifically the song “Str8 Outta Mumbai”  (Jai only has two official songs, so I had to find a Vimeo link for this one, but give it a listen--it’s worth it). After a quick introduction (“Produced by...Jai Paul, one of the biggest, one of the biggest in the game…”) the song blazes open with a barrage of tablas and a female voice saying “Hm...special,” as if a sign of what’s to come. And it truly was special. I don’t really know how to describe it other than it’s the epitome of what an Indian who grew up in an English-speaking environment artist would make. Jai seamlessly blends his distinctive style of music with Indian instruments and samples. Near the end of the song, a heavenly sample of a woman singing in Hindi comes, and it fits perfectly. If you haven’t listened to it yet, please do! Jai Paul is one of my top ten (maybe five) favorite artists.
To this day, I don’t listen to Bollywood music on my own. But I appreciate it so much. It took me a while to come to this conclusion, but I attribute my exposure to Bollywood music at such a young age to my passion for music and overall taste in music today. I love finding music that blends Indian styles and instruments in, and I especially love showing my parents these songs. They’re often bemused and confused--I had to explain the concept of sampling to my dad, after he accused Jai Paul of “stealing” Indian music and using it for his own.
When I set out in writing this post, I wasn’t really sure how I would be able to communicate what was in my head. I’m not sure if I accomplished that “goal”, but if there’s one thing to draw from this rambling post it’s this: being an Indian American is a complex and often confusing state. It’s hard to identify which part of you is Indian and which part of you is American. You grow up in America and are faced with many decisions in terms of how you classify yourself in different contexts. For a long time, I often thought my music taste was very “American”; different and completely separate from my Indian self. But slowly, I realized that what I listen to and what kind of music I like is very much integral to both parts of my identity. The early exposure to Indian music I had growing up largely shaped what I listen to today and how I approach music as a whole (shout out to my parents for playing those 7 CDs over and over again; I’m eternally grateful). Realizing this made me prouder to be Indian-American, and helped me, in some abstract way that’s hard to explain, come to terms with my identity.
So in conclusion: Indian music is dope! Other, non-Indian music is dope! The two together? An amazing combination that needs to be explored more (shout out to fellow contributor Kovid and his sick beats ). If you want to hear more music like the ones I linked in this post, or just music recs in general, feel free to reach out.
Kal Ho Naa Ho - Title Track Video | Shahrukh Khan, Saif, Preity - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0eO74UmRBs
Beirut | Nantes | A Take Away Show - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R781LDKOVJE
Gold Panda: “Quitters Raga” [OFFICIAL] - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muMJtcXcM2c
Swet Shop Boys - Aaja ft. Ali Sethi (Official Music Video) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muMJtcXcM2c
Jai Paul - Str8 Outta Mumbai - https://vimeo.com/85144629
tiwaribeats - https://soundcloud.com/tiwaribeats