When you think of Indian classical music, you probably don't expect to hear beat box, or strains of jazz, and even rock. But that's exactly what Nistha Raj is all about. The violinist is mixing classical Hindustani music with modern sounds to bring it to a new generation of music lovers. Her debut album is titled Exit 1.
Raj joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin for a special conversation and performance, along with her musicians: Christylez Bacon on beat box and spoons, Sriram Gopal on drums, Geoffrey Rohrbach on piano, Rob Coltun on guitar, Ethan Foote on double bass, William Wytold on cello.
(Note: The performances were edited for air time. You can hear Raj's full songs at her website.)
How she got started in music
As a child, I was just drawn to music, and I started learning a lot of the instruments at my temple, where I would go all the time with my mom. ... I formally started learning the violin when I was in the fifth grade at school. And I had an interest in Indian classical music, but growing up in Texas, there really wasn't an opportunity especially to study Indian violin. So I started learning vocal, and I actually took a little bit of tabla classes, just to get introduced to the music. And I actually applied for a scholarship to go to India to study the music.
How people in India felt about Raj coming to study music
I would meet a lot of people, and they were just very confused why I would do that because to them, I left the American dream, basically. They all want to come to America, so they were shocked that I came all that way to study music. But I think people appreciated it too.
Mixing in different musical styles
It was sort of organic in that way that I just started working with some people, and I really liked the sound, and so that sort of inspired me to bring in different genres of music. And I also learned so much about music through the other musicians that I worked with, and their styles. My goal was really showcase Indian classical music in a way that is appealing to a wider audience, so they can get an interest in it and find the beauty that I see in it.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. When you think of Indian classical music, you probably don't expect to hear beatbox or strains of jazz and even rock. But that's exactly what Nistha Raj is all about.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BHAIRAVI BEATBOX")
MARTIN: That was "Bhairavi Beatbox" from Nistha Raj's debut album "Exit 1." She's mixing classical Hindustani music with modern sounds and bringing it to a new generation of music lovers. And that might have a bit to do with her own story, which we hope she'll tell us a little bit about. And Nistha Raj joins us now for a special performance and conversation about her musical and life journey. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you for coming.
NISTHA RAJ: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Do you mind introducing us to the other members of the band?
RAJ: Sure, so today joining me I have members of the jazz trio The Fourth Stream, Sriram Gopal on drums, Geoffrey Rohrbach on piano and Rob Coltun on guitar. And we have Ethan Foote on bass. And then I also have, on cello, Wytold and human beatbox, Christylez Bacon.
MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us. So how did you get interested in music to begin with?
RAJ: As a child, I was drawn to music, and I started learning a lot of the instruments at my temple where I would go all the time with my mom. And the music was very much something that I just felt like I wanted to learn. So I just picked up instruments at the temple, and then I formally started learning the violin when I was in the fifth grade at school.
And I had an interest in Indian classical music, but growing up in Texas, there really wasn't an opportunity, especially, to study Indian violin. So I started learning vocal, and I actually took a little bit of tabla classes just to get introduced to the music. And I actually applied for a scholarship to go to India to study the music. And so once that happened, the music took me there. And ever since then, I never looked back.
MARTIN: How did your folks feel about it? 'Cause they were immigrants...
RAJ: Right. Right.
MARTIN: ...And they had come this way.
MARTIN: How was...
MARTIN: I don't know how did they feel about you going back the other way?
RAJ: Right. So at first, it was an uphill battle. Both my parents were just like, why do you want to go to India to study music? 'Cause they worked so hard to come here, like you were saying. And so they were just really confused about that. But I think they eventually saw my passion and how much I really loved the music and what it meant to me.
And it wasn't easy going to India. Like, growing up here, I had so many comforts around me, and then living in India, it was tough. You know, Delhi is not a very safe city for women as well. And I gave up a lot of comforts to be there. But the music was so fulfilling, it kept me there for a number of years and really just gave me so much.
MARTIN: How did people there feel about your coming there?
MARTIN: I mean, were they - what you doing here?
RAJ: Yes, so I would meet a lot of people...
MARTIN: Like, you kidding me?
RAJ: ...And they would just be confused why I would do that because to them I left the American dream. Basically, they all want to come to America, and so they were shocked that I came all that way to study music. But I think people appreciated it, too.
MARTIN: So let's - play something for us, if you would. And...
MARTIN: ...I think one of the songs on your album is a cover of a famous Bollywood hit.
RAJ: The song is called "Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai." It's from a Bollywood film from the '70s called "Shor." I used to listen to this song with my mom as a child growing up, and it has a very simple meaning. The lyrics talk about how life is just so short, and you have to really grab the moments with those that you love because you never know when they'll go away. And my mom's passed away now. It's been about seven years, and I really couldn't listen to the song after she passed away. But then I decided I wanted to make peace with it and created this arrangement of the song. And it's a piece of my heart, really.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EK PYAR KA NAGMA HAI")
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having a special in-studio performance and conversation with violinist Nistha Raj. Her debut album is titled "Exit 1." Why "Exit 1"?
RAJ: So I was thinking about how I feel towards music, and it's always been a journey for me, something that I'm traveling on. "Exit 1" is sort of implying that it's been my first stop on the journey. I worked with so many wonderful musicians. All of the tracks kind of represent all of the stops on this exit and then also "Exit 1" to imply that there are many, many future exits down the line.
MARTIN: The idea of bringing in other kind of musical styles where did that come from?
RAJ: It was sort of organic in that way that I just started working with some people, and I really liked the sound. And sort of - that sort of inspired me to bring in different genres of music. And I also learned so much about music through the other musicians I work with and their styles. And my goal was to really showcase Indian classical music in a way that is appealing to a wider audience and so they can get an interest in it and find the beauty that I see in it.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, I think you're going to play another piece for us.
RAJ: "Shivranjani" is based on a melody that I learned going to my temple growing up in Texas. I left Texas a number of years ago, and it's just kind of stayed with me over the years and sort of, like, haunted me. And I decided I wanted to use the melody to create a song. And I expanded the melody and added a cello part and brought in Christylez and the beatbox instead of using a traditional drum, which would be the tabla. So that's kind of how that song came about.
MARTIN: All right, let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIVRANJANI")
MARTIN: Well, thank you. That was really fun. It sure would be interesting to hear you perform in India.
RAJ: I would love to do that. Hopefully, that's on the horizon.
MARTIN: Do your audiences - it's interesting. I'm curious about what kinds of audiences come to see you.
RAJ: I think a lot of Indian people...
MARTIN: Which one...
RAJ: ...You know, in my age group. And working with Christylez, I think, it's exposed me to his audience, which has been really great because most people that come to see him don't even know Indian classical music is.
MARTIN: Christylez Bacon is the beatbox artist. I was curious how you learned your part.
CHRISTYLEZ BACON: For the piece "Shivranjani," this is like a piece where she has giving me the freedom to create my part to it. The other piece that we do often, "Bhairavi Beatbox," that piece I had to actually learn the instrument, tabla, and the rhythms and then try to adapt that to the human beatbox technique.
MARTIN: Impressive. The other thing I noticed is that unlike in the Western tradition where a violinist would be standing or possibly, you know, leaning on a high stool, you're sitting cross-legged.
MARTIN: And so is Christylez. He's sitting here cross-legged, too. And I just wondered if that required any adjustment of how you hold your body to play.
RAJ: When I switched over to Indian classical violin, it was definitely an adjustment for me 'cause I was used to holding it up, standing or sitting in a chair. But I've gotten used to it now. But there's a reason why I hold the violin this way. And it's because having the scroll resting on my ankle allows the flexibility for me to do this technique which is called meend, which is sliding of the notes instead of going straight to it.
And having the fingerboard pointed down allows me the flexibility to do that. So that's one reason why we sit that way. And then also the music is also in tune with nature and feelings, and we respect Mother Earth so we sit on the floor. And Chris has been kind enough to join me when we perform together down here on the floor.
MARTIN: It seems like his body is still adjusting.
RAJ: Yeah, perhaps.
MARTIN: He's still getting used to it.
BACON: One day.
MARTIN: One day. Well, thank you. Thank you - thank you all for coming. When you were growing up learning classical violin in the Western tradition as well as the Indian classical tradition, I just wondered if you ever envisioned what you're doing now.
RAJ: No, I actually didn't. I just kind of knew that music was something that I had to follow. I just sort of always had faith in that and - other than other things in my life that I'm so uncertain about. But I know music for sure is something that I need to keep in the center of my life.
MARTIN: Nistha Raj is an Indian-American artist. Her debut album is titled "Exit 1," and she was kind enough to join us along with her bandmates in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for joining us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BHAIRAVI BEATBOX")
MARTIN: That's "Bhairavi Beatbox" from Nistha Raj's debut album "Exit 1." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.