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Talk Time: The Multicultural Musician

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
March 2018
Talk Time: The Multicultural Musician


(Photo: Julien Charpentier)

Jazz vocalist and composer KAVITA SHAH incorporates music from around the world—as in Interplay, her latest album. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies at Harvard, she worked as a journalist and at nonprofits. But the call of music was irresistible. Her compositions and style are informed by her eclectic outlook and upbringing.

What would you say is the most common misconception about jazz that people who don't know much about it assume?
Jazz has become a very nebulous word for a long time. Is Ella Fitzgerald jazz? Is it Louis Armstrong? When you get into what's happening in the jazz world today, it sounds nothing like this kind of classic jazz and really reflects many more decades of development.

One of the elements is having the talent of improvisation, of being a skilled enough musician that you're able to create on the spot, and that makes jazz music different. It is being completely in the moment. And it's almost a spiritual experience.

You seem to have worked your Indian heritage into your music without being labeled as an Indian-American musician. You are known as a multicultural artist. How did you manage that?
I think that's kind of a lifelong question. The one geographic identity that I can say I claim is being a New Yorker. I feel that above being an American, I feel that above being an Indian. I'm a New Yorker. That's who I am. I grew up next to the United Nations. My family and their outlook on the world as well as the things I was exposed to shaped me. I grew up singing in a choir called the Young People's Chorus of New York City; it's a professional children's choir. And we sang in over 20 languages in many different styles: we would sing Gospel and also sing classical music, and in Carnegie Hall. There was an exposure that made me feel comfortable among that kind of diversity and richness.

I think there is this thread of Indian culture that is cosmopolitan that gets lost in the binary story of Indian integration. And you know, we have some stereotype of what it really means to be Indian. You don't have to wear certain clothes and speak a certain language and dance in a certain way to be Indian.




(Photo: Jason Gardner)

You talk not just about the pursuit of virtuosity, but of the use of your work as one of the cornerstones for promoting cultural dialog. Was that something that you always set out to do as your mission?
It is who I am, you know, these multiple identities with my research (in Latin American Studies) and my fluency in different languages, my travels, I am all these things. I actually think in many ways my experiences with different cultures has helped me to appreciate and understand my own. It's my life, you know, where all those things live together and I only feel comfortable with all of these diverse elements being together. I think I would feel very uncomfortable if I walked into a room of people where everybody was homogenous.

You mentioned your family’s outlook helped shaped you as well. Are you able to tease that out?
They really espoused values of multiculturalism in the arts. My parents were both from Bombay; my grandfather was the first person to bring American books to India in the 1940s. So he actually came to New York in the forties, way before the ‘70s wave of immigration. He worked in the book business, and my dad worked with him. There were a lot of books around the house and there was a real value and appreciation for literature and culture. Music, not so much. I brought that into the mix. They gave me the opportunities to explore it.

It's taken me actually until now to really feel Indian. I just actually visited my ancestral villages in Gujarat and I had never been there before. It felt like I was going to a village in Brazil or in Africa except I was finally coming home. It sort of all made sense—this is where I'm from and this is who I am and it feels very good.

What advice would you give to kids who want to follow their heart as you did?
Life is short. Strive to chase your own dreams and not someone else’s, or you might never be at peace. If you are creative, remember that we live in a world where art is much needed but grossly undervalued. To succeed, you must be willing to fail, and find strength not in others’ praise, but in your own practice.




Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.

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