Music liberates her in a unique way. And the music she creates shakes the souls of her listeners, transporting them on a journey towards bliss. But her music isn’t for everyone.
Using a dizzying array of musical instruments and multimedia experiments, introspective Indian American performer and improvisor Sharmi Basu focuses on creating experimental music as a means of “decolonizing musical language.”
From ‘NorCal Noise Fest’ in Sacramento, Calif., to ‘Empowering Women of Color’ conferences at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, this Oakland, Calif.-born artist is making her presence felt at various venues across the country.
Commanding respect in this genre, Basu, known as Beast Nest, is currently riding critical acclaim for “A Taste of India,” a 40-minute-long album comprising of two songs.
“It was a very organic record that came out,” Basu told India-West. “The reason why I called it ‘A Taste of India’ is because a lot of the people see me and ask, ‘oh! You play Indian music,’ or hear my music and think that I am a white guy or something.”
Basu added: “‘A Taste of India’ says, well, this is Indian music because I am Indian and this is my heritage and this is the culture I grew up in. It is also in many ways influenced by something that I didn’t acquire later in life, it’s like I grew up with this and I have it internalized in my body.”
By stepping into predominantly white male territory, Basu is clearly breaking new ground. She expresses a myriad of emotions through her music, and attracts like-minded individuals from marginalized communities or people of color who have experienced and successfully or unsuccessfully tried to navigate various forms of violence, instances of racism, cultural appropriation and systemic poverty.
These dark, intense sounds are her political weapons. Basu, 28, is also known for organizing various workshops often using them to address questions whirling around how her experimental music sans lyrics can bring about political/social change. One of the workshops is called ‘Decolonizing Sound,’ which attempts to teach “mindfulness, listening, resistance, and improvisation as sides of the same die.” This workshop also emphasizes the importance of shared politics within musical communities and, further, the importance of solidarity through material resistance.
“In many ways music allows me more freedom and the ability to rewrite a different type of story for what it looks like to actually create change,” Basu stressed to India-West. “A lot of the times activism seems like fighting against something, but in music all over the world being able to bring the community together in a form of empowerment, it’s like a mode of change that doesn’t feel accessible. It’s not as acknowledged that it has so much power.”
Having access to the musical resources at UC Davis, from where she obtained her undergraduate degree in political science, really fanned her musical aspirations. She was also an integral part of the student radio station where she picked up the numerous ways in which music could be created.
Basu went on receive her MFA in electronic music from the Oakland, Calif.-based Mills College, where she is currently teaching.
“None of the things were working for me in terms of the type of immediate impact that I wanted to have,” she said. “I got into political science to do a lot of the social justice oriented stuff. Especially being in the Bay Area, the work that I have been able to do I can see much more immediate impact, especially in the younger people who are inspired. I played a concert recently and someone came up to me and said, ‘I have never seen a desi person on stage doing this kind of stuff.’”
Basu recalled that while she was at UC Davis, she realized the influence and scale of the Indian music that she had grown up with.
“Growing up in a Bengali family, I grew up in an environment of music around me. I didn’t appreciate it very much when I was younger. I was very resistant. My parents used to make me go to Hindustani vocal classes and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do Sa Re Ga Ma Pa,” she told India-West. “But as I got older I started to understand it.”
Explaining how she gravitated towards noise music, Basu said, “It’s very harsh and very heavy but there is a lot of interesting things I could see for myself. It became like, ‘I am feminine and I want to hear this thing that is getting through the suffering and struggles and reaching like a peaceful euphoric and, so, for me it’s like attempting to create this environment where I feel isn’t available in the material world we live in.”
Another of her workshops is known as ‘Oppositional Consciousness.’
“A lot of the Oppositional Consciousness and Decolonizing Sound workshops use music as a social justice practice and as a resistance and resilient practice in some ways,” Basu told India-West. “Really based around identifying ways in which we can think about our practices as a means to write new stories, like find new ways of empowerment instead of focusing on music as a thing of self-preservation or my identity as a movement towards collective liberation.”
Another group that she hosts is the ‘Mara Performance’ class, which is about actively talking about struggle and what it means to experience certain institutional systemic oppressive forces and turning that into music, Basu explained.
“Sometimes we’ll talk about ancestral histories, different spiritual backgrounds, about processing grief, or processing self-love,” she noted. “And then we’ll have discussions around it and then we’ll play music from that discussion. That’s really a beautiful way to integrate music as a healing practice for people of color and for people who have experienced struggles.”
Her audience members, Basu said, are aspiring music artists, DJs, people of color, and one of her workshops in Portland, Oregon, last year saw an all-white, all-male crowd.
“We are mostly exposed to white man doing this type of thing,” Basu commented. “For me, when I was first starting to play music, there was no one who looked like me or doing this kind of music. I think a lot of the people who come are looking for encouragement and inspiration and trying to understand the history of who has done this kind of thing for a while.”
Even though her family eventually came around, the cultural pressures of what she should be doing loomed large, she said.
“I also define what it means to be this person and the identity doesn’t have to look like anything,” Basu told India-West. “My family had a very similar expectation from me that many immigrants/ South Asians/ Indian families have coming to the U.S. My daughter is born here and she will go to Stanford and be a doctor and all the stuff.”
Basu said her parents were skeptical of the career choices that she had made for herself but now appreciate that she has carved her own path. “I am very lucky that I am self-sustaining and I teach recording and teach music. It’s definitely been a process of me moving towards success and being somewhat successful in the thing that I do that allows them to be very supportive of me.”