August 12, 2022August 18, 2022 14min readBy Arun S.
The Berklee Indian Ensemble was founded in 2011 at Berklee College of Music in Boston by the first Indian musician to be invited to join Berklee’s faculty, Annette Philip. The group was created as an open and inclusive space for musicians from all over the world to explore Indian music while bringing their own cultural influences into the collective sound. The Ensemble has collaborated with A. R. Rahman, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shreya Ghoshal, and several iconic musicians over the last decade, and is known for its signature sound that melds Carnatic and Hindustani classical, folk, Sufi (qawwali), and contemporary Indian music, with influences ranging from hip-hop and jazz to Middle Eastern and African flavors. The Berklee Indian Ensemble that just released their debut album, ‘Shuruaat’ (Hindi for ‘Beginning’) already has more than 11,500 monthly listeners on Spotify and more than 288 million views on YouTube at this point. The parent organization, Berklee India Exchange (BIX) is an incubator for Indian culture that produces concerts, tours, artist residencies, workshops, awards scholarships, and more. Continue reading to learn more about the Berklee Indian Ensemble.
As many of our readers may not be familiar with different South Asian musical styles, would you be able to define and provide a brief history of the terms Carnatic, Hindustani, Konnakol, and in your own words?
The musical traditions in India are some of the oldest in the world. Indian folk music predates all the traditions that termed themselves “classical” and between the 12th and 14th century, two streams of Indian classical music rose to prominence. Carnatic or Karnatic music in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent (the word means ‘traditional’ in Tamil), and Hindustani music in the north (the word ‘Hindustan’ is Persian translating to “land of the Indus” which relates to the Indus River and Indus Valley civilization).
In Carnatic music, vocalized rhythmic syllables are called Solkattu. The performance art/recitation of these syllables is called Konnakol, and it mimics the most versatile Indian drum, the Mridangam. In the Hindustani tradition, the vocal syllables are based on vocalizing tabla strokes and patterns, called Tabla Bols.
These ancient rhythmic languages help musicians internalize rhythms, learn and communicate intricate patterns, allow for odd-meters to be understood easily as they’re based on subdivisions, and is also a language shared by dancers who have footwork that corresponds to a stroke on a drum, and recitation of rhythms.
While the roots of Carnatic and Hindustani music of India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism, Qawwali is a form of devotional music that expresses the mystical Sufi practice of Islam in South Asia, mainly in areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. One of the characteristics of Qawwali is the presence of a group of singers who sing in unison, guided by one or two lead singers who use a call-and-response format and a fluid style of alternating solo and group passages with improvisation and repetition.
What was the process of creating the album ‘Shuruaat’ and what were your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, while creating this album?
The ‘Shuruaat’ album was a culmination of 10 years of the Berklee Indian Ensemble journey. After our music videos began going viral back in 2014 (Jiya Jale was the first), we wondered time and again, if an album would be possible. We had a vision for it artistically, as well as from a music business and music rights/legalities perspective. Our goal was to feature our original compositions along with tributes to our musical heroes, and reinterpretations of classic Indian songs. We also wanted to make sure that all contributors (and rights owners) of the songs would be equitably treated from the get go.
Interestingly, we were discouraged from even attempting to procure rights from labels, as it is known as an arduous, lengthy process. There is so much back end research and logistical planning to undertake a project of this magnitude. During the 2020 pandemic, we decided just because it might be difficult is not a good enough reason to hold back. Let’s at least try! It took us two years, and we’re so happy we stayed the course and persevered. As with all creative pursuits, plans evolve, and we’re delighted at the results of ‘Shuruaat’ (Hindi for ‘Beginning’) and this new chapter we’re embarking on!
‘Shuruaat’ features 98 musicians from 39 countries, along with Indian music royalty, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shreya Ghoshal, Shankar Mahadevan, Vijay Prakash and classical contemporary duo, Shadow and Light. It is a labor of love, and what we’re most proud of is how the album came about. All contributors are set up to share in the success of the album, for life! Artists need to know their rights, and positive change can be brought about when there is transparency and open communication about industry processes! And next, we will be submitting ‘Shuruaat’ for the Grammys! Because… Why not?
Moving on we love seeing the group perform a high-adrenaline konnakol conversation. What is going on during the performance and what is the interpreted meaning behind the conversation?
Konnakol (and Tabla Bols), as mentioned earlier, form a rhythmic language in Indian classical music. It’s one of the most fascinating ways to combine math and music, and is not only intricate, but such fun to hear and perform! Although the sounds are mimicking Indian drums (Mridangam or Tabla depending on which Classical style you’re performing in), what brings flavor and spice into the delivery is the expression, tone, and dynamics with which rhythms are recited. It’s open to interpretation by the audience, but even in a language you don’t speak, you can usually figure out the intent of what someone is saying. This makes for delightful playfulness during live performances!
In some of our pieces, we use more of a call and response method, whereas in others, Konnakol may be interspersed between melodic passages, eventually combining to play melodies in unison with rhythms.
Our debut album ‘Shuruaat’ includes several examples of Konnakol as well as Tabla bols. The songs, Unnai Kaanadhu Naan, 5 Peace Band, and Sundari Pennae are prime examples. In Sundari Pennae, featuring Shreya Ghoshal, our Berklee lead vocalist, Rohith Jayaraman, created an extended Konnakol segment which is incredibly complex. He starts reciting rhythmic passages, and slowly, the tabla and drums creep in, and eventually the entire band plays some really grungy progressive-rock riffs over the patterns Rohith came up with. It’s always challenging to learn, and super satisfying to be able to execute cleanly!
A few years ago, we launched an online video series called #TakadimiTuesdays and invited musicians from all over the world to share their favorite rhythmic motifs, rhythm games, and compositions. One incredible thing about Konnakol is that it’s something you can practice literally anywhere, anytime. It’s fun, amazing as a brain game, and provides hours of entertainment! One of our all-time favorite musicians and mentors is the inspiring Mridangam and Konnakol master, B.C. Manjunath!
Some of our first memories of fusion music are Ravi Shankar working with George Harrison from The Beatles, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, notable jazz musicians, and more. How have these forms of experimentation influenced the Berklee Indian Ensemble?
The cross-cultural collaborations of the past paved the way for more musicians to see their creative works as a playgrounds where ideas, and distinct musical traditions didn’t need to be siloed. That said, I feel the word ‘fusion’ is a little bit overused sometimes. A cross cultural collaboration needs to go further than simply juxtaposing different cultural elements together.
For the Berklee Indian Ensemble, our signature sound evolved over time due to factors beyond just music. Over the last decade, we’ve had musicians from more than 50 countries be part of this family. When someone brings their cultural influences into an arrangement, we first try to learn more about it. The history, the context, the meaning. We try to understand the similarities and differences, and vice versa, the musicians who’ve never heard Indian music before do the same. It is the reason the Ensemble (when it was an academic offering) spent six hours rehearsing each week in class, and several hours outside class, working not only on pronunciation, translations, minute nuances, and collective arrangements, but also spending time cooking for each other, tasting the food of our band members, having them learn about Indian costumes like saris, veshtis and kurtas, and even watching movies and documentaries together. With this mosaic of experiences, when we come back into the rehearsal space, the different nuances are much more assimilated and no musical element is added to ‘spice things up’ but rather, each musician is welcomed to be themselves, creating within ONE symbiotic musical context. If a new element comes into play subliminally, the entire team adopts it, and flows with it. It’s not mere cut-and-paste or juxtaposition. It has to feel natural for us all, not just whoever introduced an idea to the band. And at the core of it all is the story. The intention behind the song, and how best to tell that story with our collective voice.
We have seen many groups and artists from decades past incorporate South Asian elements into their music. Some include The Beatles with “Norwegian Wood,” The Rolling Stones with “Paint It, Black,” Guns and Roses with “Pretty Tied Up,” The Yardbirds with “Heart Full Of Soul,” THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS with “People Like Us” Elvis Presley with “You’ll Think of Me,” Stevie Wonder with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” and more. We would love to get your professional opinion on if these artists utilized South Asian instruments in the best possible way or should more research has been conducted around utilizing South Asian sounds.
I was reading comments on a music forum the other day, and someone brought up cultural appropriation, integrity, and authenticity. It’s so subjective, and a never-ending debate. What feels like an honor to someone feels offensive to another! As Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as an original idea.” So many melodies are inspired by bird calls, and so much of our sense of rhythm comes from our own heart beat. Can more study and research be done by ALL of us at any given point of time? Absolutely!
While I believe it’s best when creators take the time to learn the context of a cultural element they’re inspired by before they use it, and do their best to give credit where due, I don’t feel it’s my place to judge who was more authentic in their utilization of South Asian sounds.
How does it feel to see South Asian sounds sampled in the modern mainstream?
Across the world, we’re seeing more and more sampling, whether it’s from cultures that seem diametrically opposite or even from closer home, as we’ve seen in so many mainstream albums lately. It’s interesting to see how global artists are getting inspired by Indian music and finding creative ways to incorporate them into their artistry. Some of the examples you mentioned include samples from old classics that Indians grew up with. Hearing them in a new avatar is sometimes odd if the meanings of the songs don’t align. Yet, if handled tastefully (and again, that’s so subjective), it’s fun to hear, because a musician from a different culture will often highlight different aspects than you’d expect.
Case in point: I recently watched the amazing Noorani Sisters perform a short acappella excerpt of A.R. Rahman’s Patakha Guddi. Knowing the song well, I automatically heared the original arrangement in my head, although they were singing without accompaniment. Suddenly, tons of mashups emerged online! Guitarist Andre Antunes laid a medley of Red Hot Chili Peppers songs over the powerful vocals of the Noorani Sisters. Beatboxers felt the groove differently than what I was used to hearing, and it was super cool! It helped me enjoy the piece in a totally new way, and I’m really glad and stoked that people were inspired to create their own versions!
Specifically about sampling, for me, even if a producer decides not to worry about the context/meaning of the sample, I feel the most important aspect is ensuring that the original creators of the sampled songs are notified, get the time to grant appropriate licenses, receive due credit (because it’s also educational to listeners all over the world), and get to share in relevant revenue from the new track. I hope this becomes the norm rather than the exception in our industry.
There have been many cross-cultural collaborations throughout the years. We would love to learn which one of the following has been your favorite from this list and the reasoning behind it: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison with the track “Vandanaa Trayee,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Eddie Vedder with the track “The Long Road,” and U2 and A. R. Rahman on the track “Ahisma.”
Hmm… These are rather different songs and treatments to compare. They each have unique aspects that are beautiful that we can learn so much from. Personally, if I really have to choose from these three, I’m drawn the most to “The Long Road” as I remember the original Pearl Jam song well. It’s so interesting to hear harmonium, tabla and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s soulful Sufi offerings along with Eddie Vedder’s more understated vocals. The context of the song in “Dead Man Walking” was powerful and poignant, so for me, there’s a deeper emotional connection I feel to that song, and the artistic choices they made in this reinterpretation.
Moving on, we would love to learn more about the Berklee India Exchange also known as BIX?
I founded the Berklee Indian Ensemble in 2011 at the Boston campus of Berklee College of Music. In 2013, collaborating with another Indian colleague, Clint Valladares, we created an institute, Berklee India Exchange (BIX), that evolved from the momentum the Ensemble had created.
Under the BIX banner, we began to host annual artist residencies which were once in a lifetime opportunities for our Berklee students from all over the world to create and be mentored by musical legends in person. Our first guest artist was Clinton Cerejo (2013), followed by A.R. Rahman (2014), Vijay Prakash (2015), Shankar Mahadevan (2016), Shreya Ghoshal (2017), Indian Ocean (2017), Shadow and Light (2018), Raghu Dixit (2018), and Ustad Zakir Hussain (2019).
Besides productions, BIX began hosting workshops in India and other parts of the world, raised and awarded tons of scholarships for talented musicians to pursue higher students in music, and today, we are a team of 10 core members (including three amazing student employees) who form the backbone of the Institute. Our new 10-year vision is built on 3 pillars: Education, Innovation, and Community. In this post pandemic world, we are also focused on music and mental health initiatives, and believe there are innumerable ways that Indian music, and music in general, can be used to bring about positive change in the world through career and experiential learning opportunities, mentorship, and powerful collaborative projects.
As the group recently collaborated with the very talented Shreya Ghoshal on a reinterpretation of “Sundari Pennae” what was it like working with the iconic singer and how did this collaboration come about?
All our collaborators on the ‘Shuruaat’ album were artists in residence with the Berklee Indian Ensemble over the course of our first decade. Shreya Ghoshal was probably the most involved guest artist we’ve ever hosted. First off, she was open to all types of experimentation we wanted to attempt. She even chose to sit in on additional rehearsals with our string section, and what astounded us the most was this: there were two young singers, Shradha Ganesh and Shrivant Singh, who were singing duets with her. Shreya Ji agreed to conduct private vocal lessons with both of them! The students were beside themselves with joy, and to date, it’s one of their most precious experiences. For someone of her artistic prowess, legacy, and super-stardom, Shreya Ji is one of the most down to earth, hardworking, kind, and generous people on the planet. We had taken some serious creative liberty, rhythmically, and were humbled by how much time she spent honoring the arrangement of Sundari Pennae, which she took to new heights! To top it all, she was so down to embody our grungy prog-rock inspired version of this Tamil song, she went an extra step for the video and sported a leather jacket! We couldn’t be more grateful and honored to have collaborated with her.
It was incredible watching all of you collaborate with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the track Lady L. What was it like working with the Grammy-Winning Indian Tabla virtuoso?
Simultaneously awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking! Ustad Zakir Hussain is not just the world’s most revered and prolific Tabla master; he lives and breathes rhythm. ‘Shakti’ and ‘Remember Shakti’ have always been pivotal musical anchors at Berklee. “Lady L’s” soulful melody piqued our curiosity, and in true Berklee Indian Ensemble style, our featured musicians from Israel, Iran, Brazil, India, Poland, Australia, and Norway, each brought their cultural influences to the table. Having Zakir Hussain himself play with us on this Shakti tribute and BIE reinterpretation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity indeed!
I remember Emanuel Keller, cellist and producer of this track reflecting on how the experience of sharing the stage with Zakir Ji challenged the Ensemble musicians to hone our communication skills even more by listening, observing, reacting, and enjoying each other’s offerings.
And what better way to learn from a master, than to play on the band-stand with them! We are honored to have collaborated with the maestro himself, and one of our new hobbies is challenging each other to count, and keep time with Zakir Ji’s unbelievably complex tabla solo in Lady L :) A lesson in rhythmic mastery, right there!
As you all have worked with so many incredible individuals including A. R. Rahman, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shreya Ghoshal, and more iconic musicians, what has been your most treasured and memorable experience?
Goodness, impossible to choose one…as there are so many life lessons, hilarious memories, and transformational moments we’ve experienced as a family with our guest artists! Perhaps, I’ll share a memory related to the ‘Shuruaat’ album!
We’ve been delighted and privileged to tour and perform with Vijay Prakash in USA, India, and Toronto! Each time, the Ensemble was floored by his virtuosic improvisational skills and unbelievable vocal range. During his Boston artist residency, one of our then students, Sashank Navaladi, had an original composition, “Arz-e-Niyaz” using the poetry of the great Mirza Ghalib. Our tabla player, M.T. Aditya, loved that piece, and suggested to me during a lunch break that Vijay Ji would sound AMAZING on the song. With Sashank’s permission and bubbling excitement, we asked Vijay Ji if he’d be willing to collaborate on it. He said yes immediately! It was an immense honor to have a musician of his stature agree to learn and perform an original by one of our students. He spent so much time working on the Urdu lyrics with Sashank, and really poured love, care, and attention to detail into recording the song, even working on multiple versions of his improvisation so that we would have full creative freedom to take the piece in the direction we’d like. We’ll never forget that, and are ever inspired by Vijay ji’s musicianship as well as his incredible professional etiquette and work ethic. Truly a gem of a person!
Is there a dream collaboration or dream collaboration for the Berklee Indian Ensemble?
Hmmmm… We are keen to expand our collaborations and include legendary artists from all over the world next! Sting, Ariana Grande, Jacob Collier, Snarky Puppy, Tinariwen, Anoushka Shankar, more iconic vocalists from the Sufi traditions, Tigran Hamasyan… There are so many exciting possibilities here!
Beyond collaborations, we will be submitting our ‘Shuruaat’ album for the Grammys! We are also planning to tour India at the end of 2022 and again annually (definitely looking at the festival circuit in India). We also hope to do a world tour in 2023-24. A stadium show is part of our wish-list and preliminary conversations have already begun! And of course, we will keep hosting workshops (as education is important to us) and hope our original music will find sync licensing opportunities in Netflix, Amazon, and other wonderful avenues to spread joy and keep exposing our global audiences to myriad musical nuances from the world!
Has the group faced adversity in the music industry?
I wouldn’t say we’ve faced adversity, but I will say that there are many things we intentionally work towards, and sometimes, new ideas are met with resistance. Change is often scary. And with any creative project, you work with a variety of people who have a million different perspectives! It’s fun, and also challenging at times. But that makes us all the more determined to stick with our goals, especially if it means long-term positive change in the music industry.
Some of the things we’re excited to see change include:
Independent musicians being supported both, by global audiences, as well as music industry thought leaders (bookers, curators, managers, A&R reps, etc). As listeners, when we begin exposing ourselves to music from many different creators, we broaden our tastes! There’s such incredible talent in our world, and it’s heartening to see more platforms emerge that promote non mainstream music and acts.
A realization especially in South Asian communities, that the arts and music in particular, are a legit profession. Very often, people will expect or demand free performances, but would never expect a plumber to offer their services at no charge.
More awareness about artist rights in our creative communities through demystification of legal processes, contractual language, and open conversations about music business. I hope artists feel unafraid to enter negotiations and overall, realize their worth, and also prioritize their physical and mental health more.
Credit where credit is due, with more equitable, just, and respectful systems for fair revenue or royalty distribution across the board.
All of us giving ourselves permission to create and explore the arts, whether or not it’s part of our career path, just to find some solace or way to express our thoughts. During the pandemic, although live performances were completely cut off, people craved and devoured so much music, film, podcasts, books, puzzles, crosswords, brain games, and more. I always feel grateful when I’m listening to a piece of music, that the artist went for it, and didn’t hide their creative gift from the world. :)
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I hope people realize that there is so much power in a single idea. The Berklee Indian Ensemble grew into a beautiful quirky family over the last decade, all from two questions: What if? and Why not? Those two questions have allowed us to challenge ourselves, dream super big, and actually do some crazy wild things that a lot of folks thought would be impossible. If you have a dream, a vision, even a seed of an idea, nurture it, please. And share the idea with others. You’ll find your team, your chosen family, and it’ll change from ‘my idea’ to ‘our idea,’ and that’s when the magic happens! Give it, and yourself, as many chances as possible. And beyond that, just be a teeny bit rogue! You never know what’s around the corner for you!
February 2, 2023February 11, 2023 7min readBy Arun S.
Kevin Wu, previously known as KevJumba, is an American YouTuber, from Houston, Texas, with more than 2.68 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 323 million views. His content consists of vlogs, social commentary, musical parodies and more. Wu also streams on Twitch and has released original music as well as freestyles. His most popular YouTube video is titled “Nice Guys” with Ryan Higa. Wu has also worked with many individuals including A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. He has also appeared in movies such as “Hang Loose,” “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” “Man Up,” and more. Wu is one of the first original YouTubers gaining popularity in 2008 and even had another channel, titled JumbaFund, now known as Team Jumba. Continue reading to learn more about Kevin Wu’s journey!
We really enjoyed the project ‘Underneath the Lights.’ On the track “WHY U IN LA” the lyrics, “Don’t know who I might be, it might surprise me. I could be a hypebeast, That’s nothing like me, It’s so enticing.” How do you feel this speaks to the idea of self-discovery? What have you learned about yourself, diving back into making content?
I love that song we did. The artist who sang those lyrics his name is Zooty. I really provided the energy and direction for the musical piece, but I give credit to my producer Jonum and Zooty credit for the lyrics. Both guys are a slightly different generation, gen-Z, whereas I grew up as a millennial. I find that I left a lot on the table when I left YouTube at 23, so when I work with gen-Z I have so much that I want to give. Coming back to YouTube this time around, it’s all about self-reliance. Coming from movies and television, you have to depend on people to get a better product. But with YouTube, I’m going back to my roots and putting my wit and effort into every part of the process again (writing, directing, performing, producing, editing). I want the result to be authenticity and a homegrown feeling.
When you started your YouTube channel you were known for your vlogs and social commentary. How do you feel about the new age of content creation — where content is in surplus but individuals aren’t feeling the content?
It’s hard to say whether or not individuals are or aren’t feeling content — the taste is just so wide now. It’s like living in Los Angeles; food is very competitive, and when picking a restaurant you have every ethnic variety and even fusion foods. I imagine opening a restaurant in LA to be very competitive and the attention to detail in what you make has to be authentic or hit a certain demographic. I feel on the Internet, YouTube does a decent job of catering to your sensibilities, the so-called algorithm. However, the personal connection you get with content creators has somewhat been shifted, and now it’s become more interest-based (ie gaming, how-to, music, politics, etc.)
How do you feel the original algorithm has changed, and what do you miss most about that time?
I don’t remember talking about algorithms back in 2010 to 2012. People watched their favorite Youtubers because their homepage included their subscriptions first and foremost, and then if your subscriptions hadn’t posted anything new, you would typically check the most popular page. Then trending became a thing and now you have algorithms generating your timeline based on a bunch of data. I think it’s forced creators to think externally and hanging onto identities i.e. what are my interests? Am I a gamer? Am I a streamer?
We parodied your music video for “Nice Guys” for our orchestra music camp skit back in high school. If Chester, Ryan, and you, had to recreate “Nice Guys” today, would you focus on the concept of self-love for the current generation? We also really loved “Shed a Tear.”
I definitely think self-love would be a very nice theme. Recreating it would be nice, actually. I think it’s hard to get three people to all be in the same room again, especially after leading different lives. But “Nice Guys” was something special for each one of us, and Chester See deserves a lot of credit because of his musical talent. It’s made me realize today the impact of music. I really enjoy the expression of music because it forces you to be more artistic, versus just saying what’s on your mind. Like poetry, or hearing harmonies.
You’ve worked with many individuals and groups in the past including, A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. If you could create content with any group of individuals who would be your dream collaborators?
At this stage in my life, I really enjoy coming back and rekindling those creative connections and checking in with previous friends or acquaintances. Doing a video with Ryan Higa, Jeremy Lin, Chester See, David Choi, Wong Fu, Jamie Chung, those would all be very fun. But the first step would be to just see how they’re doing. So that’s the closest thing to a best case scenario for me. I’m not trying to force any collaborations at the moment (haha!). Unless it’s convenient.
As an NBA fan you expressed you would like to talk more about basketball on Ryan’s “Off the Pill Podcast.” How do you feel watching sports and has playing sports helped you become more in tune with yourself?
After going through a lot of physical adversity after my car accident, reconnecting with sports has been really helpful. I played basketball for a while and I’d like to get back into soccer. I wanted to talk about basketball on Ryan’s podcast because I was still dipping my toes into Internet content/social media and didn’t want to talk too much about myself at the time.
As a content creator how do you balance not letting validation get to your head and authentically connecting with your audience?
We all seek validation. It’s innate, but it’s about where you seek it. Nowadays I remember to validate myself first, by starting with my mind and body. After a while, you can get a sense of when you need validation versus being totally unconscious of it. Sometimes that sense of validation is important, so we know to check in with our parents, or see if a friend needs positive feedback. To connect with the audience, that’s like number five in my priority list (haha!). Having an audience can be scary; you definitely want to be in tune with yourself first.
How do you deal with comments consisting of “I miss the old KevJumba?”
As live streaming has become a new form of content now, how have you enjoyed live streaming on Twitch for the Head In The Clouds Festival both in 2021 and 2022? We really enjoyed seeing Ylona Garcia sing “Nice Guys!”
It’s fun, I enjoy live streaming and I really appreciate 88rising and Amazon Music for inviting me both years to be the host for their livestream.
What was the decision behind putting your family in your videos?
I put my Dad in my videos accidentally; we were on a ski trip. I think people responded really positively in the comments, and then I just sat down had a conversation with him on camera, and it became a hit. After that he just became his own character. I think I tend to come alive more when I am interacting with someone on camera.
We really liked seeing you upload videos to Team Jumba. Is the mission still to donate earnings to a charity that viewers suggest?
At the moment, no. The Supply, which was the charity I donated to before, has since shut down. I also don’t make much money on YouTube anymore, since I was inactive on my channel for a while, so that format from 2009 will be difficult to replicate.
We really enjoyed the ‘KevJumba and Zooty Extended Play,’ specifically the track “With You in the Clouds” featuring fuslie. How has Valorant inspired your music as well as other forms of content creation?
The album was really experimental. I find the personal connections I made in gaming to be the most enlivening. “With You in the Clouds” was inspired by TenZ and, since he’s such a legendary figure in the pro FPS community, we had to do a worthy tribute. I think paying tribute to the things you like is a really great way to think about content creation.
How do you feel your childhood experiences in Houston, and playing soccer, have shaped you to chase your dreams of acting? How have you enjoyed acting in comparison to YouTube?
I love acting. It’s a wondrous lens at which to see your relationship with others. I find that in studying acting, you are often really studying the human experience or the mind. It’s like learning psychology but you are on your feet, or you are reading great theater. Playing soccer and growing up in Houston don’t really contribute directly to why I enjoy acting, but I very much enjoy coming from Houston and thriving in soccer. It made me commit to something and seeing how consistently “showing up” can really ground your childhood and prove to be valuable, later in life.
How do you feel we can uplift each other across the Asian diaspora and unify to create ripple effects of representation?
I think listening is probably the best thing you can do. Just genuinely hearing about something, or someone, helps you really invest in them during that time that you are there. So I think that’s probably the first step.
What made you go back to school and finish your degree at the University of Houston in Psychology?
No one reason in particular. I was also studying acting at the time back in 2017-2018 when I completed the degree, so it was just testing my limits and seeing what I could balance. I finished it online.
What are your upcoming plans?
Just experimenting on YouTube for now. Making videos with my own effort.
Your first video was uploaded back in 2007 and was titled ‘Backyard,’ where you are dancing to a song called “Watch Me” by Little Brother, off of the “The Minstrel Show.” We also really enjoyed your video with Ryan Higa titled “Best Crew vs Poreotics.” Are you still dancing these days?
Yes. The body does what the body wants.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Nothing in particular. I try to let my mind flow when I answer questions. I may have jumped to conclusions before fully investing in some of the questions, so I apologize. If you are reading, I thank you for your time and patience. I also thank Brown Girl Magazine for putting together a vast array of questions that allow my mind to stretch and work out a bit. I hope you find a stronger connection to your own truths, and I hope I did not disturb those in any way. Regards.
Tina Singh, formerly known as Mombossof3 online, understands how to make her presence known in the parenting space. Seven years ago, she set out to create and share content related to motherhood, and there’s been no looking back since. Singh has mastered the idea of evolving with the times and the needs of her audience while staying true to her number one role in life — mom!
As she navigated her personal and professional life through the lens of a parent, she came across a void that just wasn’t being filled. So, in typical Singh style, this mom of three put her entrepreneurial hat on and got down to creating a solution for Sikh kids who struggled to find a helmet that fits over their patkas (a small cloth head covering).
The problem was personal — all three of Singh’s sons wear patkas and just couldn’t find the right helmet for their safety — and so the solution had to be homegrown. Enter, the Bold Helmets.
Singh gave Brown Girl Magazine an exclusive interview in which she talked about the Bold Helmets, the change in her journey since she’s become a public figure, and what it was like to innovate her very first product!
Here’s how it went:
Let’s start from the beginning. How did this idea come to mind?
This idea has been in my head for many, many years — over five years. I had issues with my kids and having helmets fit them after they turned age four or five.
I worked as an Occupational Therapist, in the head injury space, so I was always the one saying, ‘Okay kids, you’re gonna have to tie your hair in the back, do braids, or something in order to put on a helmet properly because I’m not gonna let you go down these bike ramps without a helmet!’ That’s just not okay for me.
So I talked to my husband and said, ‘there’s gotta be another way this works.’ So we did all the things that parents in situations like these do — they hollow out the helmets, some people go as far as cutting holes at the top of the helmet — you do what works. But I had in my mind an idea of what I think the helmet should look like based on what a patka looks like, and what my kids look like. I then found an engineer to draw it out for me to bring [my idea] to a place where I can actually take it somewhere and say, ‘Okay, how do I make this?’
But, yes, it started mainly with my kids and facing that struggle myself.
You mention that this idea had been brewing in your mind for over five years. How long did it take you to actually bring it to life?
To this point, it’s been about two and a half to three years. I let it sit in my mind for a while. Winters come here in Canada and then we forget about it again until we have to go skiing, and then there’s another problem, right?! I did let it lay dormant for a bit for sure, but once I made the commitment to do it, I made up my mind to see it all the way through.
You recently pivoted and changed the name of the product to the Bold Helmets. Can you talk me through how you came up with the new name?
Bold Helmets became the name because they’re designed to be bold, to be different and who you are. I also think that the way the helmet is made, even though it’s made with Sikh kids in mind, there are other applications to it. I do think that taking the Bold Helmets approach embodies its [the product’s] uniqueness and really focuses on being bold and who you are.
And the Bold Helmet is multi-sport, correct?
This helmet is certified for bicycles, kick scooters, skateboards, and inline skating. It is not a ski helmet. So every helmet you use for a different sport has a different safety certification or testing that it has to go through. So, this helmet is called ‘multi-sport’ because it covers those four sports but I wouldn’t take this helmet and use it for skiing. I’d have to make sure that this helmet, or a helmet like this, gets certified for various other standards for other sports.
Makes sense! I want to change the course of the conversation here a bit and talk more about how you pivoted from Mombossof3 to innovating your very first product. How was that experience?
So what I did throughout this journey was that I went from marketing myself as ‘mombossof3’ to ‘Tina Singh’ because I was sharing more of my life’s journey as my kids were getting older and in an effort to respect my children’s space as well, and letting them decide how much — or how little — they want to be involved with what I was doing online. And part of that was about the journey of what I was doing next, and the transition came naturally to me.
I think right now, truthfully, I’m struggling in the space where I kind of have a shift in audience and so my usual, everyday self that I share on social seems like it doesn’t work. I feel like I need to find a new balance; I will always be true to who I am, and I will never present myself as something that I’m not. But, just finding a space for me to continue creating content while also taking on this new endeavor with Bold Helmets, is important right now.
Aside from this struggle of finding that new balance, what is that one challenge that really sticks out to you from this journey?
I think my biggest challenge being an entrepreneur is finding that balance between my responsibilities as a parent, which is my number one role in my life and there’s no one that can take that role for me — my husband and I are the only parents — and passions outside of that.
Do you think it helped that you were creating a helmet for Sikh children so it allowed you to pursue your passion but also work with your kids in some capacity since they inspired the whole idea?
I never thought of it that way, but yes actually, it did! So all my entrepreneurial projects have involved my kids. Even now they were involved in picking the colors, all the sample tests we did they tried the helmets on! They’re probably sick of it since they’re constantly trying on helmets, but I get their opinion on them. Even as we pivoted with the name, we involved them and got their feedback on it also. So, they were involved in very large parts of this project.
And my husband is also a huge part of this project. He’s been heavily involved in this process, too!
You have a huge online presence, and I know that you’re probably not new to trolling and bullying that comes with being on social media. More recently, Bold Helmets was subject to a lot of backlashes. Is there something that you took away from this recent experience? Was it different this time around?
The extent to which things got was different this time around and that’s not something I have faced in the past. But I have been in the online space for about seven years now, and I’m accustomed to it. I think what I learned this time around is that sometimes silence and reflection is the best thing you can do. Sometimes reflecting and not being defensive on feedback that you get — and this may be something that comes with age as well as experience — is best.
But, I’m happy with the pivots we made, the feedback we’ve gotten, and the way we’re moving forward.
You mentioned that this isn’t your first entrepreneurial venture. But each experience teaches you something different. What did you learn while working on Bold Helmets?
I learned to be okay with taking things slow. I’ve never been that person; I’ve always jumped the gun on lots of things. It’s understanding that it’s ok to slow down and recognize that things have to just run their course.
And while the interview wraps up there, there is more to come with Singh on her journey! Catch Lifestyle Editor Sandeep on Instagram LIVE this Saturday, January 28, at 10 a.m. EST, as she has a more in-depth conversation with Singh on Bold Helmets and more!
In the meantime, Bold Helmets are available for pre-order now, and as a small token of appreciation, Canadian pre-orders will get $10 off their purchase until the end of January 2023!
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.