Hip Hop Meets Hindustani: Beneath the Surface

On the Saturday before break, Swarthmore hosted an energizing exercise in musical stylization. The event was sponsored by a youth development program called Blueprints. The organization works with a group of high-school students from Chester, PA to encourage their academic achievements and cultural engagement. As a part of their curriculum, the group goes on bimonthly outings together. After corresponding with the Project Director of Swarthmore’s Youth Empowerment Program, Ashley Henry, Blueprints decided to visit the campus and experience Christylez Bacon’s and Nistha Raj’s work in Hip Hop Meets Hindustani.

The bridge between Swarthmore and Blueprints parallels a connection between the College and Swarthmore alum Alex Shaw ’00, whose company Intercultural Journeys organized Raj’s and Bacon’s performance on campus. The musical partners had performed at the Ibrahim Theater/International House in Philadelphia the previous day.

The allure of Raj and Bacon’s work lies within the convergence of their distinct musical styles, which are influenced greatly by each artist’s cultural background. Bacon, a Grammy-nominated Progressive Hip-Hop artist, led a portion of the workshop in teaching the audience the basics of beatboxing while Raj, an eminent musician with extensive classical music training, led her portion on the fundamentals of Indian classical music.

“As a kid, there was something I’d walk around the house doing naturally, and it’s right here,” Bacon said, as he proceeded to beatbox rapidly for a few seconds. “Now my mom, she was a DJ and she noticed these sounds. So she played for me an old record and it sounded like this: [Bacon demonstrates beatboxing]. I was like ‘Whoa, Mom, what is that?’ My mom told me that it was Doug E. Fresh from New York City. To me, as a kid, ‘Doug E. Fresh’ sounded like something you’d go to to get orange juice in the morning,” said Bacon.

Except it was not. What Bacon’s mother was showing him was music produced by one of the most famous beatbox artists — just like that, another talented beatboxer discovered his musical affinity. Bacon then went on to explain further the development of his relationship with beatboxing as a young musician.

“This is something we would do in a cypher, … [which] is a circle. All the people in the cypher would be freestyling and stuff. When you’re freestyling in a cypher, someone has to lay down the beat to rap over and I’d be that person,” said Bacon. “When I went to high school and started hanging out with other musicians, I started realizing that this is a musical instrument just like a drum set, so I should have been able to do any style of music that a drummer could do.”

Bacon invited the audience members to refine their emerging beatboxing techniques. He drew a clear distinction between boisterous amateur beatboxing and dynamic beatboxing. Bacon introduced three basic sounds: a crisp “Bmp” sound (think house music and first-pumping), a hissing “Tss”, and a sharp “Cluck”. Skillful control and moderation was at the core of his lesson. Bacon likened beatboxing to “having a superpower”, which he taught himself to hone until it could be an expressive musical instrument.

“I started studying the drum set closely to pick up nuance. I mean, you know it’s easy to do this: [Bacon beatboxes plainly]. With a lot of force, you make it strong…but it’s about the nuance. [beatboxes more slowly] It’s more dynamic … I’m glad I came to that realization because it’s allowed me to exist in multiple spaces, to be able to create an instrument. So I don’t have to rap all the time, I can just do this beat and express myself,” recalled Bacon.

After a few minutes of a beatboxing call and response, the audience could understand the depth of Bacon’s skill. Anyone can produce the sounds of a human beatbox, but not everyone can do it in a controlled and artistic manner.

“The rest of it is just practicing because all it is is getting the muscles in your face used to doing something they don’t normally do,” concluded Bacon.

What followed was a strong yet welcome contrast to Bacon’s Go-Go style. Raj’s smooth glissando notes and calm seated presence called for a brief bout of mental gymnastics.

“I was born in Boston and grew up in Texas so my first introduction to music actually was learning Western classical violin, which I played for a long time. For me, music was just music. It was a great escape, a way to connect with something and have something beautiful in my life,” said Raj. “No one in my family is a musician — I don’t have that background, but my mom used to play great music at home. A lot of music from the Bollywood film industry from the 60s and 70s was more classical-based so that was my introduction to the raga.”

After earning a prestigious scholarship to study in India during college, Raj went abroad in pursuit of further education in Indian classical music. There, she discovered what she had already begun to experience: a closer connection to a music style directly rooted in her heritage.

“In India, it was a bit of a challenge being a woman studying there. Sometimes I would not be taken seriously, as a woman, but you make the best of what you have. I think music has given me strength over the years,” Raj said on her experience abroad.

Raj’s workshop and performance featured what she explained to be a raga. The audience accompanied her as she led a count of all the beats in a raga and made sure everyone understood the mechanics of the music she was about to perform.

“The music is based on two things: melody and rhythm. A melody is called a raga. A raga is essentially a collection of notes that has a particular ascending and descending pattern. It’s kind of like a scale, but more than a scale because some notes within the raga are more important and embellished. Ragas are really created to establish certain moods and feelings according to times of day and season. The rhythmic component is played by the tabla, a two-headed drum,” Raj explained.

She went on to demonstrate a 4/4-rhythm cycle of a 16-beat tintal, one of the most standard taals of Northern Indian classical music.  Raj made sure to point out that the improvisational quality of the music style depended on a return to the sam of the cycle, or the first beat, as well as a skip over the khali, the empty ninth beat.

“Indian classical music is in conjunction with being reverent to your audience as well as Mother Earth. If you go to any traditional Indian concert, you’ll see the musicians are all seated,” said Raj.

The rest of the workshop was filled with performances from Raj and Bacon, as well as Jomy George, the renowned tabla player completing Raj’s ragas, and John Stenger, a talented Philadelphia pianist accompanying Bacon’s beatboxing. First came an afternoon raga from Raj and George, then a call and response with Bacon’s beats and George’s tabla, that later incorporated Raj’s violin.

“What’s the rhythm cycle? The rhythm cycle is just groovin’, just droppin’ to it,” added Bacon. “This is funny because when Nistha and I started working together, it was like this. We’d count in and it’d be like ‘Alright, 1, 2, 3 , 4 /beatboxing/ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa’ because I’m not used to that. This is Nistha bringing her Hindustani understanding to my music. We don’t clap on the ‘1’ that’s like against the law, we clap on the ‘2’ and the ‘4’. That’s the difference in our styles; it’s really interesting learning how people just do things in a totally different way.”

Occupying the same stage, the two musical styles had no choice but to merge into each other. Curiously, each artist was able to sustain their distinctive musical elements without trampling or disengaging from the other. What the audience was witnessing was a synergy that could only emerge from the intersectionality of two cultures respectfully engaging with one another.

“I love this part about collaborating. Here’s the metaphor: if you’re in America, the majority in the situation … could be like, ‘You’re in America, speak English!’ Well, what about you learning another person’s language? And in learning the language you could learn so much about customs, culture, and food. What we do is we get together and we listen to each other’s music. So we start listening for all these things. Nistha will share a piece with me or she’ll play something and I’ll say ‘Oh! That sounds like something that comes from my community, my culture.’ Then I’ll throw something out there and we’ll build from there. I’ll do some stuff and Nistha will be like, ‘That reminds me of something that we do over here.’ Because we have so many parallels…all music is built on the foundation of time. If you can figure out the timing, you can make anything work. Melody and rhythm is the base,” said Bacon.

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