By way of introduction, you should probably check out a couple links first to get a taste of the type of music Christylez (pron “Chris-Styles”) Bacon and Nistha Raj make, both on their own, taken from a 2012 performance at SubDrift in Washington DC ― https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnDqLIXOR8c ― and augmented by the tabla (played by Sameer Gupta) and the piano (Nita Chawla), 2014, at Joe’s Pub in New York City ― https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt6dHLl79Fw.
Raj, a Houston native of Indian parentage, had been playing the violin and covering the Western composers since she was in elementary school. Around that same time, Raj decided to find out more about her cultural heritage. Since she had the swing of playing a stringed instrument without putting undue pressure on her biceps tendon, her mother introduced her to the music of the old country. In January 2017, Raj established The District of Raga, which gathers last Wednesday of the month at Bossa Bistro and Lounge in DC to hold performances for Indian-classical musicians and the aficionados who support them.
Although Bacon is still catching up on the particulars of Indian-classical music ― which, given that its rules and traditions didn’t pull into focus until the Sixteenth Century, with Hindustani classical music emanating from the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent, including the modern states of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and the Carnatic music of the modern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, as well as Sri Lanka, he might be awhile ― Raj praises him as an avid learner. Listening to him wax enthusiastic about the particulars of his newfound passion, one can almost forget his formidable vocal skills as a human beat-box, his education at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, his performance with The National Symphony Orchestra, his establishment of the Washington Sound Museum, a series of concerts held regularly at the Atlas Performing Arts center in DC’s H Street NE ― not to mention his Grammy nomination, in 2011, for Progressive Hip-Hop. Almost.
Almost? No. Not even. Bacon’s aim to pull disparate musical strands together into a vibrant fabric, along with the challenges of Raj’s own masterly skills pushing him (and he her) to newer and more impressive heights, make them a stark threat to future peace and quiet to the ears of listeners who can’t (and/or won’t) make heads or tails of their endeavors. Long may they disturb the aspiring deaf ― and delight the musically hungry.
I met and spoke with Raj and Bacon on Thursday, 20 September, at Rozz-Tox (2108 3rdAve, Rock Island). After playing a number of schools in the QC during their too-brief stay here, they will return to DC on Saturday. I’m already looking forward to seeing them again…
MH: What was the impetus, the spark, the initial inspiration, which made you go well together, like chocolate and peanut butter?
CB: We met in 2011, at an historic theater in Washington DC called Lincoln Theater, on U Street in the Jazz Corridor. At the time, I was doing a performance at this event called Poetry Out Loud, the National Poetry Recitation Competition. I was going to go over there and do a collaborative performance with a big-band jazz orchestra ― like mixing hip-hop and big-band jazz. At the time, I saw Nistha there. We didn’t know each other, but we started talking and stuff, about music, and we exchanged cards. I saw that her card, it said, “Hindustani classical violinist”. I was like, “Oh, sweet!” I was like, “Yeah, you do Indian-classical music, right?” I’ve been trying to learn about it, but it’s only so much you can learn just by reading books on it, you know? I need to hear and stuff. It was like so complex, it was like over the head. And then Nistha said, “Oh, it’s like jazz. Once, you know, you really get a chance to know it”; and so I said, “Okay, so we got to work together and collaborate on something.” At the time, I was working on a concert series called Washington Sound Museum that was all about mixing my style of music, which I call Progressive Hip-Hop ― it has live instrumentation, beat-box rhyming, a string section stuff, some horns, an upright bass ― and mixing up with different styles of music. So this was like a perfect opportunity, like, hey, we can do this! I think a month later, we started working together in trying to bridge this gap and perform there. And so I really like learning about different people, different customs, and especially the music, in mixing together. I think it’s a perfect opportunity to mix audiences, too, to help different people and different cultures learn about each other, to like really know about each other, instead of like the media curating like what it is, how black people are represented, how Indian people are represented. You know, it’s good to have close, like one-on-one connections, so you can be like, “Oh, no! All these people aren’t criminals! I know a million people!” You know, that thing.
MH: When you two are working together, how do ideas generate? Is there a set process or an evolving, never-the-same-type-of-thing circumstance, where either of you might have an idea and then you flesh it out? Or is it a more rigid process of composition and elaboration?
NR: I think all of the above. [laughter] Each experience is different, so a lot of the times we’ve adapted compositions, arrangements that I have come up with, and I play them for Chris, and he listens to how the tabla, the Indian percussion instrument [made up of two single-headed, barrel-shaped small drums], works within how I write those arrangements, rooted in Indian classical; and then Chris will study and see how he can add in his flavor and his style and genre of music, and then we’ve also sort of you know wrote things together, you know, come up with ideas together. So I think all those things, and each one is different, so we have different ways, but ― [laughs]
CB: Yeah, so it’s like, you can kind of say, “Oh, it’s hip-hop coming to Indian classical music”, “It’s Indian classical music coming to hip-hop”, just American styles of music, or it can just be a situation from just like trying to figure out we can just create something totally different.
MH: The synergy of different forms creating a third that’s more than the sum of its parts, right?
MH: How it works out, right… What I had seen on YouTube were clips that were purely instrumental. At present, are you not doing vocals or lyrics ―
CB: Oh, no. We do the lyrics, too, you know what I’m saying? Because sometimes I’m like, “Okay, I don’t feel the need to rap on this song. I have nothing particular to say in regards to this piece of music, so I’m not just going to rap just for the rapping” and then there’s some pieces where like it’s totally my song or arrangement, and this just chimes in, and then we have tabla on it, so ― yeah. Just when necessary raps happen, and there’s some pieces ― yeah, we’re working on a new album that’ll come out next year that’s going to have all these parts in there. There is something in longer shows and stuff. This is something I do. I will like do a piece I call The Freestyle Olympics. I take ten random words from people in the crowd and then I’ll improvise lyrics using all ten of these words as the words in the phrase and rhyme. It’s just picking back up on what Nistha’s doing, and Indian classical music, and also jazz. But then there’s also like composing in lyrics, too, you know. I’m big in the songwriting, so, yeah.
NR: I don’t think we have too many YouTube videos of ―
CB: Oh, yeah. Oh! Man, you gotta check out when we perform this song of mine, it’s called “Bowl Cut: Live at the Kennedy Center” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x_zsJGdy58).
NR: Oh, yeah ―
CB: Yeah, yeah. So that’s a good combination of Go-Go music, which is a DC regional style of music, and with tabla, you know, big-band horn section type of deal, Nistha adding all the flavor and soloing on it ― yeah. It’s straight lyrics, straight songwriting.
MH: You do the bulk of your instrumentation with your voice, which is the thing to hear, to experience, and then playing off against Nistha ― it was quite incredible… Tell me a little bit more about your respective musical training; how you got started in music.
NR: Sure. I started learning Western classical violin in the fifth grade. I was born in Boston. We moved to Texas when I was three, so I grew up in Houston, specifically. I had just started learning violin after school in fifth grade and I got really into playing Western classical style of music. But at the same time, I’m of Indian heritage, so my mom had exposed me to, like, the Bollywood music of India, which is the film music; more spiritual music, like Bhajans [informal, loosely-structured devotional Hindu songs with music, sung in the region’s language] and The Kirtans [a form of narration or shared recitation, particularly of spiritual or religious ideas, with a call-and-response style of story-telling set to music with multiple singers], and also like light classical music. So I was hearing all these things and I had a desire and interest to, you know, dig deeper into the music of my heritage, and somebody gave me a recording of Drupad singing, which is the oldest form of Indian classical music, and it kind of led me on a path of discovery. I heard the music, and it was just very appealing to me. I didn’t understand the context or what was happening in it. So I really wanted to find out more about it. And so when I graduated from college, I had an opportunity: I got a scholarship to go to India to study Indian Hindustani, Northern India classical music, and that was sort of the beginning of like my formal training, and from that point, it just really felt right, that that was the type of music that really spoke to me, allowed me to express myself, and it was ― yeah, I kind of decided that would be my area of concentration and performance, and that was sort of how I got that point in over the last, what, I don’t know, ten years or more. I still study. I have a mentor in DC that I go see all the time. I have a teacher in India that I’m still in touch with and, you know, I think it’s a constant learning experience, right, to always keep growing as an artist. So, that’s my experience.
CB: My training musically? Well, beat-boxing isn’t something you go to a conservatory for, you know what I’m saying?
MH: Not yet, anyway.
CB: Yeah, well, you know, hip-hop has a history that’s really similar to jazz. You know, at one point in time, people were saying that jazz, these places where jazz was being played, people were getting shot and killed and whatever, and it’s low-life music. But now you can study ― “Oh, I study jazz at Harvard!”, and I’m like, “Oh, you got a degree for playing jazz saxophone at Harvard!”, you know what I’m saying? And so hip-hop, you know what I’m saying, it’s one thing because it’s from the streets and it’s from people of color, so people are like automatically like put in this boat like this, and so you know like saying that it’s low-life music in a way. But you know, we have the same history: I mean, there are people right now that are doing classes at Berkeley School Music on Hip-Hop Turn-Table-ism. Ninth Wonders, a really famous hip-hop producer, is doing classes I think at Harvard now, you know what I’m saying? But you don’t really go for beat-boxing. Beat-boxing is something I learned just messing around with sounds. You know, I just ― [replicates intricate beat with tongue, lips, and palate, rather like a built-in beat found in old organs] ― I just did that as a kid, and then my mom put me on to like records like Doug E Fresh because my mom’s a deejay; and from there, I knew that in human beat-boxes is something that I’m doing right now, you know what I’m saying? But just unstructured. So I started doing that, just on the side, messing around. Played in a little marching band: just all percussion. DC has this style of music called Go-Go, and that’s everything. That’s the heartbeat of the city. It’s really polyrhythmic, so DC people have a good swing, I will say, and a good understanding of percussion, you know what I’m saying? It just formed in the environment.
So I started doing that. I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which is like a really dope music school and a school for performing arts and visual arts in general in DC. I went there for visual arts because I couldn’t get in there for rapping and beat-boxing. [laughter] Making beats. But I hung out with all the musicians on the third floor, where they would be taking all the classes and stuff, and I would poach the information off of them. I’m like, “Hey, what’re y’all learning right now?” “Oh, we’re learning about these modes.” “Oh? Do tell?” You know what I’m saying? I would read up on that. So everything I know about music is pretty much self-taught: guitar, orchestration-arrangement, self-taught. But I found that visual-arts training actually does carry over well into music because it’s like the same language. The same things that we’re using to design foreground, middle-ground, and background are the same thing that happens in music, you know: foreground/melody, you know what I’m saying? Middle-ground you can say is counterpoint. And you can say the background is the rhythm section. So, yeah.
MH: It seems that the vitality of a given musical form resides in its ability to syncretize other forms of music into its matrix; and hip-hop seems to be doing that better than any other form at the present moment. You can hear Cardi B on the radio with Dominican tones. It just seems that hip-hop has usurped the place of rock in its malleability and adaptability to get these other structures incorporated, while at the same time keeping its identity. I just wanted to get some thoughts on that from you.
CB: Yeah. It makes sense that it’s this way with hip-hop because it’s in its DNA to incorporate other forms. Hip-hop is an art-form that came up because people didn’t have access to instrumentation ― you know, like, the Reagan stuff, a lot of music and arts is like [garbage-disposal sound] out of the schools and all that stuff ― so people took to their parents’ record collections, right? The creator of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc ― he’s a Jamaican immigrant, by the way ― and he’s doing a party, right? He DJs a party for his little sister in the South Bronx. He plays this beat, you know what I’m saying? And there’s no hip-hop at the time, so everything is just all these other styles of music. He plays this record, and then, when it gets to the drum-like solo section, the percussion breakdown? Everyone’s losing their minds! And so this cat decided to buy two of the same records; and so while this record is playing, he cues up that breakdown right here: he extends the break; and then people that dance over the break are break-dancers; and then hip-hop is created. So, that, and now hip-hop composition is always about, because of lack of instrumentation, taking like, oh, “I’ll take this James Brown sample for the percussion” because he always has like these breaks and stuff and this stuff is really repetitive; it’s good for that. “Oh, I can take these horn parts from like this Miles Davis album right here, put that right here; I can take the vibraphone from this cat right here and put this ― you know, and we create compositions right there. And then you have hip-hop groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. A Tribe Called Quest sampled all jazz. De La Soul was sampling folk music, you know, whatever. They take a yodeling track and put that on there and create music. So in its DNA, it’s all about collage and samples. So this is what I like about hip-hop and this is what I like to do. So I’m like oh, we can always take something and make it rock, you know? So hip-hop of course would be really good at incorporating other styles because it’s in its DNA.
MH: And it retains its identity. Jazz, particularly in the Seventies, didn’t have that distinction. When it started incorporating more international sounds, there was Stateside criticism that it was being diluted, that it was no longer jazz, it had become an offshoot of European, or even African, forms. I think the argument switches to a more problematic ground because it seems like some cultures’ music appears averse to incorporating other forms, or other instrumentation, even ― I remember listening to an album of Ravi Shankar introducing listeners to Indian music, particularly ragas, and he mentioned how irksome it was to hear people say, well, it’s being improvised, it has to be jazz, and Shankar said [stern-voiced], “It is NOT jazz.” I don’t know if you had, in your community, encountered any of that type of line-in-the-sand mentality drawn.
NR: Yeah. I think that there are always going to be those people. But, for me, I find that, you know, taking elements of Indian classical music and bringing in something like what Chris does makes the music more accessible to people who may not really want to sit through a two-hour classical concert, you know. There’s always an audience for that, I think. But, I don’t know, I think, for me, I really appreciate ― music is one language, and, you know, I think it’s important for us to find those ways, those common grounds, to, you know, build on and find our ways would really intersect, so I think ― yeah, maybe there’ll be people who don’t accept the fusion aspect of our collaboration, but I mean I think you know there’s a lot of people who do appreciate it and find ways to see that it’s not only musically like bringing in different genres, but, like Chris said, it’s bringing people together. That’s the deeper angle there, I think, that we’re bringing in, you know. We performed at the embassy of India, where mostly there’s audiences of Indian people, but other people, too, but I think ― and people appreciate it so much seeing you know how Chris has learned how to do the rhythms, the tabla, the talas, the [indiscernible], with his beat-boxing, you know? So ― I don’t know. It’s an individual thing, too, right?
MH: I was listening to a Syrian maqam the other day, and I thought, “What would King Tubby had done with this stretch of audio? Applying dub-reggae techniques to certain instrumental segments?” It seems some cultures lack exposure to the wider world, even in the Internet age, you know? Almost willfully, at that.
CB: I feel you, though. I think there are two ― like just doing this line of work, like my careers in collaboration like this ― I think there are two types of folks out here, usually. There are cats that are like purists, right? They’re like, “I don’t want this watered down,” you know, “I want this to be in its pure form,” you know, “I don’t want to hear all this other stuff in there. I want to hear the rap over the raga.” You know what I say? I can dig it. They’re kind of like preservationists. And then there are the cats who are like this open: “Hey, man, just whatever. If it sounds good to me, it sounds good to me.” The funny thing that happens, though ― and I understand the purists and I understand the people that want to preserve it, yes. I think there’s ― both people should exist. There should be bands and ensembles and people that live to preserve the culture, because we need that history and we need that foundation.
But also, there should be other people who do this [collaboration] stuff, too, because this right here, if it wasn’t for cats like The Beatles, you know, say, working with Ravi Shankar, we wouldn’t be even here. We wouldn’t even be hip in the Western world like that, to all this music. So there’s a great thing: we serve to kind of fuel the preservationists and the purists ― it’s all a cycle, you know ― so we build off of the traditional music, too.
NR: Exist together.
CB: Yeah. It’s just like, hey, we serve each other, you know what I’m saying? It’s like you can’t hate night; don’t hate day. You know, man, there’s this yin and yang. We all work together, in a way.
MH: Pessimism isn’t my usual fallback, but it’s been my observation of the competition among different intra-musical forms for grants and performance space and funds ― jazz again ― and the failure of its institutions to proportion the recognition duly; that a preference for conservation of certain musical forms over others threatens the livelihood of musicians who thrive on innovation. The neo-traditionalists want to pension off the likes of Sonny Rollins, massive talent that he is, but also deprive not just up-and-coming talent, but middle-aged non-traditionalists, of funds that would allow them to not only perform, but to simply function.
CB: Ah, yeah. That’s a really interesting thing, because when you think about early jazz recordings, right? Man, who were recording and distributing these [records]? Now the average artist ― jazz, hip-hop, whatever ― we know waaaaaay more about the back-end than cats like Sonny Rollins and then other cats. So, you know, it’s like, “Man, we missed that train. We might not even own these masters, so ―” so it’s like for the elders, it’s like, “Man, our livelihood is we still got to hit the clubs, because we can’t just sit on the residual side. We can’t just sit back and just coast on the residual income off the recordings and the royalties.” Honor our elders and make sure they are taken care of. We should. You know, we should. We shouldn’t cry about it, as we have more opportunities to really expand. But also they should be funding for the newer cats, too. But, yes, do a little bit of both; but younger cats, we do have to see that our older cats need our support, too, and like make sure we leave a space for them to be taken care of, you know what I’m saying? Young cats, we can still hit the gigs, you know what I’m saying?
MH: It seems like a tricky ―
CB: It’s tricky.
MH:― balancing act, and the wire may be too far up for some people. Sorry if that sounds like an unnecessary tangent.
CB: Oh, no, it’s all good, man. Yeah, man, we’re grant-savvy for sure. We write grants all the time to fund projects, you know what I’m saying? So, for sure.
MH: Concerning Indian music, traditional and even maybe some of the more pop-oriented markets, do you see that having a greater market penetration Stateside, now and in the years to come? Or do you see us being in that cultural space where reactionary forces are too ascendant and aggressive to permit that ― at least for the moment?
NR: I think there is always going to be people who want to listen to it in this country, in a population of many people that’s so big, right? So you’ll always find people interested in it. But I don’t know about in India, how things are going on there, but ― yeah, I think there’s a lot of Indian classical music that is being mixed with pop, too, in different ways. There’s so much, I think, diversity now, and you can access all of it through the Internet. You can hear and see so many different types of things happening and going on, so, yeah.
MH: An interesting thing I’m noticing among local American radio ― pop, R&B, country, the MOR acts ― but they’re sounding so much likeone another in many ways. I don’t know if it’s tribute being paid from one artist’s shtick to another’s on the opposite end, or if they’re sharing the same Swedish production teams ―
CB: Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s a thing. Yeah.
MH: It seems like a “for better and for worse” situation right there, doesn’t it?
CB: I think that’s a microcosm of the macro, right? Yeah. It’s globalism. Like, I like studying regional slang, right? You see we have our slang and our vernacular. I love learning the slang of different places. I love how Chicago folks say “bogus”. [laughter] “Nah, that’s some old bogus ―” I’m like, “What? Bogus? Damn! I haven’t heard that word in a long time, but, yeah. So with the Internet, right? We’re watching a lot of memes and stuff and we’re connected to the same channels on the Internet. And so now, yes, we have our local and our regional slang, but also there’s a collective slang, like someone say, “Oh, yeah, I see you. Shoe game on, fleek,” you know? Man! A random person just was trying to say the flick of their eyelashes, like all they all flick; but he’s got the accent because he’s Latino, and say “fleek”, and then it became a big thing. And now, all these areas in the United States and abroad, somebody will say, “On fleek”. And that’s a noun. It’s like that. And so I think what music we’re all getting access to some of the same channels, and so now there’s this influence, and we’re kind of like creating this overall type of culture, this global culture in a way, you know? Yeah, it can be for better or worse, you know? And it not normally happens with music and slang: it happens with the manufacturing of products, you know? I’m saying it’s been happening before the Internet, you know. Yeah, it’s pretty interesting.
MH: To strike an optimistic note, there are so many different cultures in the world that one could combine any number of them profitably (in the artistic sense); and by the time you’re ready to turn in your badge and call it a day, you’ll have barely scraped the surface of it.
CB: Man! And then, inside of one country, then there’s all the thingsinside of that country. So it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re doing a collaboration with Brasilian folks?” “Oh, you do the bossa nova?” “Oh, that’s one genre.” “Oh, down there, samba.” “Oh, that’s another genre.” “Oh, that’s ‘E Po' Che’.” “Oh, that’s the Afro-Brasilian stuff. That’s another thing.” So ― Man! You could ― it’s like, how deep you want to go? Like, you know, I’m working with Nistha and I’m learning about all typesof stuff, you know? I’m learning about Hindustan, I’m learning about Carnate, I’m learning about the ― well, what’s the mus ― oh, the music of Rajasthan, right? And how they get down, and what makes their stuff different; and what’s the other music that’s like really like slow and chill? [Indiscernible] was playing and he did a concert with some folks visiting.
NR: You mean like Khayal music [“Khayal” being a short song, comprising two to eight lines of lyric, accompanied typically by a harmonium or a bowed string instrument, such as the violin or the sarangi, the most popular musical instrument in the Western part of Nepal and said to resemble the sound of the human voice more closely than any other instrument]?
CB: I think that was it!
NR: So Khayal is based on Indian classical music, but there’s different ― you probably knew the vilambit, right? [“Vilambit” referring to the slow tempi.] Like he was playing ― accompanying, like, the traditional classical music?
CB: It wasn’t like Sufi music, eh?
NR: Oh, no, no. I don’t know ― I actually don’t know what you’re talking about.
CB: Dang! Maybe ―
MH: [Trying to be helpful…] Sufi Islam? The Qawwali music […and failing: This form of Islamic devotional music is more the preserve of Pakistan, and was made popular in the late Twentieth Century by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan came to international prominence when he recorded albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label]?
CB: Was it Qawwali? [No.]
NR: I don’t think ― [No.]
CB: But interesting. But yeah: there’s so many things inside, it’s like, Wow, how deep you want to go?
NR: Yeah. Within Indian classical music, you have sub-genres, right? Then there’s the folk music of India, too, right?