East Is East and West Is West

Indian-American DJ Navdeep's CD Yaathra (Punjabi for "journey") is like fine travel literature set to music, Paul Theroux with a bhangra/hip-hop beat. It begins with a recording the DJ made in a Punjabi village market, which segues quickly into a rap about his Sikh brothers back in India -- "red turbans sipping bourbon in their Suburbans" -- which in turn fades into a sitar-driven drone topped by a female vocalist. Indian tabla drums bubble over and around their Western cousins. The journey has a beautiful leave-taking, and before it returns to the eternal India 11 tracks later, it moves through hip-hop, drum 'n' bass and jungle phases and is by turns thought-provoking and heartbreaking, not to mention able to transport you great distances.

Music as a mode of transport is an idea Navdeep got from the Moby of the old Everything Is Wrong days. "Moby was a big influence of mine, but that was before he was making what he makes now," Navdeep says from home in his native New York. "I thoroughly analyzed his sound, and it influenced me a lot. He can take you to a certain place with his music. Music can be ear candy, but it can also do more: move you, push you to go somewhere when you hear it. You just shut your eyes with your headphones on and you can visualize those places where the artist is taking you."

Not that Navdeep just wants to take you places. He also wants to introduce you to ideas. "There's a very big market for Indian music, but I wanted to reach other cultures, even to discuss certain issues like growing up brown in America," he says. "I want everyone to be involved and understand it."

An unidentified man in a sound sample calls what Navdeep strives to make "international folk music," much like the works of Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and Miles Davis -- people whose music pushed new limits and had an international awareness. Lots of musicians try this, and lots of musicians fail. On far too many "world beat" records, the stitches between the Cuban son and the Irish reels, or the Malian kora music and the drum 'n' bass, are both shoddily constructed and plainly obvious. The results are multiculti Frankenstein monster albums, staggering around brainless under the weight of their authors' ambitions and chased to early graves by torch-bearing mobs of critics and fans.

Navdeep knows this all too well, and sidesteps the pitfall masterfully on Yaathra. "The way I always describe it is when you listen to something, you listen with both ears," he says. "You're not like, 'Oh, this sound is specifically from my right ear or my left ear.' It's considered one sound when you listen to it overall. So what I say is I have these Indian sounds coming in my right ear and these Western sounds coming in my left ear, but when it comes out of me, it's not like it sounds like specifically this or that. It's the true definition of what a hybrid should be."

And so is Navdeep. The son of Sikh immigrants to New York, Navdeep travels back to India often. In America, he played baseball, and he had to adapt that skill set to a similar game in Punjab, the heartland of the Sikhs. "I used to play cricket with my cousins," he says. "I started to throw the ball like a pitcher, and they had to teach me to bounce it."

Back in New York, Navdeep's parents were schooling him on Indian classical percussion. He also learned to play Western jazz drums. Meanwhile, he was soaking up the sounds of New York. "You can't escape hip-hop," he says. "I also grew up listening to a lot of Depeche Mode and Erasure. That was how I got into this stuff -- not that they were making what would be called electronic music now, but it was the whole New Wave movement. I also liked rock and grunge. I was like any other teenager who grew up in New York."

Whereas most Western pop musicians reject the classical as something old and irrelevant, Navdeep and other DJs of South Asian heritage embrace Indian classical music. "In certain households, you get that classical training while you're young, so you develop an affection for the music before you get to that rebellious teenager stage, where you're like, 'I'm just gonna listen to what's cool,' " he says. "I started learning tabla" -- Navdeep gives it the Punjabi pronunciation, which is something like "dubla" -- "from a very young age, and it kinda just moved parallel to whatever was current at the time. Obviously you're gonna listen to a lot of what your parents listen to at home, and as you get older I think you start to identify with the true artistry behind Indian classical music. It's very soulful and very technical at the same time."

As is what Navdeep does, although he says those who claim he can scratch and play tabla at the same time are exaggerating. Slightly. "It's more of a back-and-forth thing," he says. "I'll play tabla and then mimic it by scratching. I wish I had more hands so I could do it simultaneously -- you need two hands for tabla and to scratch. It can be very seamless the way I go back and forth. That's always been my niche: I'm the guy who can play tabla and scratch."

And until about two years ago, he'd never really thought much about his niche in the greater American society. Navdeep is brown and, as his religion dictates, bearded. Also according to the tenets of his religion, he wears a turban, even while in the DJ booth. Until September 11, 2001, no one paid much attention to him. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then, and Navdeep explores his feelings in "September 12," Yaathra's most powerful tune.

Four days after the attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh who lived in Phoenix, was mistaken for a Muslim and murdered, the first casualty in the wave of hate crimes that followed the disaster. Navdeep samples some of Sodhi's relatives wondering why he was killed and expressing their bewilderment and pain. Sikhs are not Muslims -- their resemblance to bin Laden is purely coincidental.

"I was in New York when it happened, and I saw the World Trade Center in flames before it collapsed," Navdeep remembers. "When they started implicating bin Laden, I could just see this complete change in the way people were looking at me and treating me. It's obvious that those people were ignorant, but I wasn't wondering how this was possible. I knew why: They were pasting this guy's photo all over the news, and for someone who doesn't know the difference, it was easy for people to assume that Sikhs were behind it. Even now there's an elevated terror alert, there's national guard troops on all the subways with machine guns, and they still look at me funny. But that's life."

The tone of "September 12" is not one of anger -- though rage would have been righteous in this case -- but of a sadness that through its very expression transcends fatalism. "The song wasn't about being pissed off, it was more about exposing people to what we experienced, so people would empathize with what it feels like to be transformed from feeling like you belong here to walking down the street and having people look at you," Navdeep says.

And perhaps Navdeep is exaggerating when he says that he felt entirely like he belonged here before September 11. His music makes it obvious that he belongs neither here nor there, but everywhere, and possibly nowhere.

"As far as mixing Indian classical and electronic music and all that stuff, me and all the other guys who do it have all grown up listening to a lot of different things and enjoying a lot of different genres, Indian and non-Indian," he says. "We just got to the point where we just wanted to express who we are -- that cusp of East and West."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax