Jazz vocalist and composer Kavita Shah was a musician from the very beginning. Since the age of five, she trained in classical piano and at 10 she sang in a professional children’s choir in her native Manhattan. While music was her first love, she cultivated other interests as well, particularly for languages and cultures.
She earned her B.A. in Latin American Studies from Harvard University, where her honors research on contemporary Afro-Brazilian music earned her several prizes in multiple disciplines. She is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and French; additionally, she has knowledge of Italian, Yoruba, Hindi, and Gujarati.
With so many different interests, how did you come to know that music was going to be your primary focus?
When living in Brazil, I saw how social justice, education, and community building could intersect through music. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do something with this. I didn’t want to just be on the sidelines writing and researching–I wanted to be an actor myself.
It’s a constant dialogue between things I’m interested in including travel, traditional music and musical practices, learning about different cultures, understanding how music plays a role in our society, and a general sense of social justice and social equity; Then coming back into the studio and creating things, putting things together, and connecting emotionally to my work and making those things come to life in a way that is meaningful.
In her debut album, “Visions,” Kavita’s vocals shine alongside several instruments not typically used in jazz music, including a West African harp, called the kora, and a classical drum from North India, the tabla. Rather than compete for the spotlight, each instrument and corresponding cultural tradition weave together seamlessly and naturally, reflecting Kavita’s various global influences.
Tell me about your recent project, “Folk Songs of Naboréa,” which was named by NPR as one of the Top 10 jazz concerts of 2017.
Preparation for the world premiere of Kavita Shah’s “Folk Songs of Naboréa,” a song-cycle for seven voices. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory Veterans Room on November 21, 2017. Video by Nyugen Smith.
I did some research in Arizona on the Hopi Reservation as well as in West Africa and East Africa. In a lot of these places I recorded folk songs and talked to people about their musical practices. Some of them were professional musicians and some were regular music-makers int heir communities.
Through this, I was reflecting a lot about the role music plays in society today and the role it has played for millennia. When creating this piece, I was thinking a lot about what elements of sound are universal, and how music plays an important role in human rituals.
What would that sound like even if we had if we had a nuclear armageddon and were thrust into the future with nothing? There’s a sense that we would still make music, but what would it be like? How would it adhere to these unspoken rules that are inherent to human nature? This is another example of how ethnographic fieldwork inspires me in my work.
What was it like performing in India for the first time?
It was a very special and deeply personal experience for me to perform in Mumbai, the city where my parents were born and where I spent so much time as a child. I was overwhelmed by the positive energy and generosity of my fellow musicians and felt really embraced by the audience, who surprised me in their openness to new forms of jazz and creative music. I hope to go back to India soon to do a proper tour and give back to the growing scene there through masterclasses and workshops.
Kavita Shah and bassist Francois Moutin will celebrate their upcoming release, “Interplay,” on Friday, January 12 at 6:20 pm at Subculture, as part of the 2018 Winter Jazz Fest in New York City. Their performance will feature special guest and NEA jazz master Sheila Jordan on vocals; the album features Jordan, 89, as well as jazz legend Martial Solal, 90, on piano. Purchase Tickets for Winter Jazz Fest here.
India Gupta graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Communication Studies from Davidson College, where she formerly served as Editor-in-Chief of The Davidson International. Her passion for identity issues relating to race, gender, and sexuality coupled with her desire to elevate women and girls in media led her to join the editorial staff of Brown Girl Magazine. As Editor of Humanities at Brown Girl, India hopes to foster a space for underrepresented voices to discuss their lived experiences and bring to light the issues that affect them. She currently resides in her hometown of Princeton, NJ and works as a banker and local performing musician.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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“Naatu Naatu” is one of the most memorable sequences from S.S. Rajamouli’s epic action-drama “RRR,” and has assisted the Telugu-language blockbuster in becoming one of the highest-grossing films at the worldwide box office. With music by M.M. Keeravani and lyrics by Chandrabose, “Naatu Naatu” is a celebration of regional music, dance, national identity, and male friendship.
But long before the song began collecting its accolades, its infectious tune and fast-step dance, performed vigorously by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, became a viral sensation outside of the film. It’s now the first song in a movie from India to be nominated for an Oscar and also to have won a Golden Globe.
When asked about the song’s ripple effect across the world, Keervani remarked,
For us — the musicians and artists — social media is very powerful, because of the internet and reachability. Nowadays, globally, anything that is different by nature, anything that is innovative, a little innovative, will catch instant attention.
It all started with a TikTok dance challenge where thousands of fans mimicked the dizzying hook step, choreographed by Prem Rakshith, garnering hundreds of millions of views, and making the song a bonafide global phenomenon. Today, the official YouTube video has well over 123 million views.
While the science behind why certain songs have a higher virality is widely debated, Keeravani attributes a large part to the song’s instant connection with the masses to its unusual 6/8 time signature, taken from carnatic music — which he believes is “inherently encoded in the human body.”
For non musicians, he vocally percusses the rhythm, “thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha.”
[This beat] will give you instant energy. Like suppose, you’re going low on sugar. So there are things like instant energy boosters; like you consume some aerated drink or a cup of coffee with sugar. And instantly your energy is boosted. So six, eight will give you an instant feeling to get up, create some steps and dance. There is a swing in the beat. So you will react to that beat — involuntarily you will react.
Before Keeravani wrote the music for “Naatu Naatu,” Chandrabose was given the challenging task to pen the lyrics to this rhythm. Continuing a long-standing collaboration that began 29 years ago, Chandrabose has co-written over 400 songs with Keeravani, including this iconic title track — his only co-write on “RRR.”
Regionality played a significant role in the composition.
Ram comes from Andhra and Bheem comes from Telangana. Both dialects are different; the slang is different. So, there is a challenge to write both slangs in one song. Everybody should understand those words. That is the challenge.
Chandrabose explained how he needed to appropriately incorporate the various dialects from the regions the primary characters were from, and reflect colloquialisms from 100 years ago, when the film’s story takes place, that is also recognizable to present-day listeners.
In [the lyric] ‘Yerrajonna rottelona mirapathokku kalipinattu’ (which translates roughly to “like eating a jowar roti with a chili” in English), ‘thokku’ means pickly, like mango pickle. In Andhra, it is known as ‘pachadi’ and in Telangana, it is known as ‘thokku.’ So, everyone can relate and connect [to] that word. And since ‘thokku’ belongs to Telangana, that line is sung by Bheem.
The original Telugu version of “Naatu Naatu” was also dubbed and released across a variety regional Indian languages, including, “Naacho Naacho” in Hindi, “Naattu Koothu” in Tamil, “Halli Naatu” in Kannada, and “Karinthol” in Malayalam, and has collectively been streamed over 92 million times on Spotify.
Chandrabose remarks that he envisioned the lyrics to 90 percent of the song in half a day, but it took about 19 more months to finalize the song in its entirety. This was in great part due to the time spent on researching the dialects and finalizing each word to the overall ethos of the song. Rajamouli had given strict direction that the song should authentically be about one’s nature, their culture and countryside, and be universally respectful.
When asked about how they scaled this process across the other five language releases, Keeravani recalled that they had to prioritize lip sync.
Since it’s a dance number, there is a combination of close shots and long shots. So the long shots are spared, but in the close shots, they need to be as close to the Telugu lyric, I mean, lip wise.
He added that the writing team had to make some concessions,
There will be a certain amount of compromise in the meaning of the lyric. But that is inevitable. As long as the song is conveying its main essence, it has no problem.
Culturally, India has a rich history of celebrating songwriters, composers, and music directors in cinema. However, this recognition does not always translate to credit and compensation. For example, “Naatu Naatu” was extraordinarily successful on TikTok, but TikTok isn’t available in India, creating complex monetization adversities. It’s especially important to understand that India’s non-bollywood and independent music market has a nascent publishing infrastructure and is traditionally known to have a work-for-hire payment model where song contributors are not offered royalties.
Speaking optimistically to changing times, Chandrabose shared,
I’m getting royalty from past 12 years (from performing rights societies IPRS in India and PRS in the U.K.).
He explained that, especially with viral songs, some songwriters and composers have only limited careers in the “limelight,” but “after 10 to 15 years, they cannot get more work and they cannot get money.” He speaks to songwriting royalties as a key to retirement for the next generation of song makers.
So, at that time they will receive these IPRS royalties as their pension to meet their needs. They will get these amounts in their old age that will help them a lot.
Upon concluding our chat with Chandrabose and Keeravani, we marveled at the amount of progress that has happened for independent and non-hindi language music communities around the world. The virality of “Naatu Naatu” is a testament to the musical prowess out of South Asia, but also challenges the Western notion that Indian music is narrowly defined by belonging in the catchall ‘world music’ category, or the sounds of the sitar and tabla, or a lightbulb-twisting Bhangra club-hit wonder, or, if nothing else, then Bollywood — all in large part exclusively North Indian. Unfortunately, this distinctly important nuance still plagues Western media and major music institutions.
Recently during a Songwriters Hall of Fame conversation with Oscar-nominated songwriters, Paul Williams incorrectly introduced “Naatu Naatu,” as “the first Hindi-language song ever nominated for an Oscar,” which is spliced with not one, but two errors — not only misidentifying the language but ignoring A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho!,” a Hindi song which was nominated and won in 2009 for the same category. As South Asian artists around the world begin to traverse into global markets, we hope to see more Western entities taking the time to research, hire South Asian contributors, and execute due diligence to minimize inaccuracies and cultural erasure.
“RRR” is streaming on Netflix and Zee5. On March 3 it will be re-released in over 200 US theaters as part of ‘The RRR Fan CelebRRRation’. Check your local cinema guides for one-off theatrical screenings.
In an age where algorithms dictate viewership, Nancy Jay uses her love of dance to propel herself onto TikTok’s “for you” pages. Jay is an Indo Guyanese, Bronx native who began dancing at the age of three. As an influencer and content creator, she amassed a social media following of more than 500,000. Versed in many styles of dancing including Caribbean, Bollywood, urban and Latin, Jay can be spotted in soca music videos such as Linky First’s “Rock and Come in” and “Jeune Femme,” Adrian Dutchin’s “Roll” and by soca king Machel Montano’s “Mami Lo Tiene.”
Many content creators are typecast into the niche but Jay has defied this norm and proclaims she is more than just a dancer.
“I dance, travel, post lifestyle and beauty content. I’m an Indo Caribbean woman who enjoys being myself and promoting my culture. I like showing viewers it is okay to be who they are and embrace what they look like, despite what they see on social media. I did not plan on being a TikToker. As I started posting videos, the love and support I received from viewers was amazing. I have never experienced anything like that before on Instagram, where I started my content journey,” Jay said.
In conversation with Jay, the following answers have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Why is it important for you to create content related to your Indo Caribbean roots?
Growing up, I never felt represented as an Indo Caribbean on television, in movies, social media or anywhere else. My goal as a content creator is to promote the Indo Caribbean culture through my content and be the representation the Indo Caribbean community needs.
Are there unspoken rules about being a content creator or an Indo Caribbean woman on the platform?
Being an Indo Caribbean woman on TikTok can be challenging when you are trying to find your identity and do not feel represented.
Jay explains her frustration with the lack of Caribbean representation and acknowledgment from platforms, as well as her goals as a content creator in this video.
Do you ever experience a block, similar to writer’s block, when it comes to creating content? How do you overcome that?
I have yet to experience a block. However, I do have days where I want to take a break and just relax instead of filming. As a content creator, it is important to take breaks and schedule days to just relax because being a full-time content creator is a 24/7 business. It can be draining and you may lose your sense of reality when you have the mindset that everything is content. I enjoy taking a day or half a day to cook, watch TV or go shopping with my partner without the worry of filming any of it.
How has your social media presence changed your daily life?
When I am in public, supporters approach me to express their love for my content and sometimes ask for a selfie. When I find people staring at me in public now, it’s most likely because they recognize me from social media and not because I look funny.
In May of 2021, I used my platform to reach out to brands and ask for their support in a project I named ‘Nancy Jay Gives Back.’ I put together care packages, using products donated by brands, and drove around the Bronx sharing them with people experiencing homelessness or those in need. Seeing the happiness on their faces upon receiving these bags was priceless. Additionally, I spread some extra joy through dance. I remember one lady telling me she’d never been to a club or party so I told her I’ve brought the party to her and we danced to her favorite genre of music right there on the street.
Jay plans on continuing this project as her social media presence has grown.
How has your family reacted to your social presence?
My family has always been supportive of my talents and the path I have chosen. My first public dance performance was at the age of 12. I performed a fusion of Bollywood and chutney music at middle school events. When I got to high school, I participated in our talent show to a fusion of Bollywood, chutney, soca and top 40. I won the talent show three or four times. I also performed for fundraisers organized by mandirs in Queens, the Bronx, weddings, sweet sixteens and other social events.
My family always came out to support me. They love seeing my content and always encourage me to film and create. My mom in particular tells everyone about my TikTok videos.
While enrolled at John Jay College, Jay founded the first West Indian student organization called “West Indies Massive.” She captained the dance team, taught dance classes and won the talent show multiple times while pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with a minor in law and police studies.
Any advice for creators who may not have the support of family?
Do not let this discourage you. If content creation is something you truly want to do, stay consistent and eventually your family will support you for doing what you love. Social media is still new to some and the idea of it being someone’s career or business is new as well. I say be patient. Also, talk to them about your social media goals, as perhaps they do not understand the full picture.
What is your dream partnership and why?
My dream partnership would involve acting. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, preferably a Bollywood actress because I know I would kill those dance numbers (haha!). Also, I would love to partner with Sandals Resorts and bring that Caribbean flavor they should be promoting.
Jay has collaborated with major brands like Samsung Mobile, Norwegian Cruise Line, AC Hotels, Disney Music Group, and Dunkin which is paramount for the Indo Caribbean community.
“I am the first Indo Caribbean woman to work with Norwegian Cruise Line as a content creator. Cruise travel is a huge part of my content journey. I love cruising and creating unique experiences and content. While cruising, I connected with the crew while most people typically do not. I treat everyone with respect,” Jay said
“I started a fun series called ‘Cruise Dances with the Crew’ back in August of 2021. There’s a playlist on TikTok with all of the fun dances. Prior to my first video, I had not seen anyone dancing on cruise ships with the crew. I guess you could say I started that trend.”
Nancy intertwined this partnership with her content and further put herself on the map.
Another pivotal partnership for Jay occurred in March 2021 when Dunkin chose her as one of 10 from a nationwide competition to feature her signature drink on the local menu.
How has content creation changed in the past two years?
Within the past two years, my content and style has grown tremendously. My gear list has also grown tremendously. I’ve been a content creator full time for a little over a year now. I have had more time to focus on the presentation and editing of my content.
What else do you want your viewers to not know about you or your work?
I stay true to who I am. Supporters who I’ve met in person can attest that I am the same, in-person and online. I like to keep things relatable, fun and authentic. I am working with a lot of big brands. I try to incorporate dance in all my content to capture my passion, diversity and culture.
I started teaching Caribbean Dance Fitness classes and private dance lessons officially in 2016. Since Covid, I moved everything online. Not only have I helped many learn how to dance but I have also helped build their confidence through dance and expression.
Lastly, I love traveling and encouraging others to live their best life.
Jay is more than a dancer; she is unapologetically herself. She maximizes opportunities and is building a brand that highlights her Indo Caribbean roots – a culture often not highlighted in mainstream media.