The marriage of traditional Indian music with modern, Western-style music has long been an elusive goal for both pop and indie artists. The 1960s was the heyday of this experimentation with Eastern forms of music, as artists like the Beatles traveled to the east and became enamored with the different sounds and spirituality of instruments like the sitar as well as the unique and complicated compositional structure of Indian traditional music. Some Indian artists, like Ravi Shankar, became popular in the West because of this wave, but that was less Indian/Western fusion than slightly pared-down Indian music.
Other, more modern Western artists with Eastern roots, like Sri Lankan-national M.I.A. and trip-hop groups like Morcheeba, have been able to insert small elements of Indian music into their work in new and novel ways, but to attempt a full Indian/Western hybrid is a difficult and daunting task. New Bengali artist Rimi is attempting to do just that in her debut double EPs, The Unveiling and Crossing Over. Even more surprising is her emphasis not only on traditional Indian music but specifically Bollywood-style musical numbers.
In some ways, Bollywood may be easier to merge with Western music because it follows a time signature and beat structure which is slightly more conducive to Western-style rock, hip hop and electronica than more traditional Indian music. In other ways, however, it is quite difficult, because the types of music in which Western audiences are interested are very different from Bollywood-style music and Indian pop. Where Indian pop tends to be light, fast and on the theatrical side, Western pop nowadays is dominated by heavy bass and slow, syncopated rhythms.
Some of Rimi’s choices for this difficult merger on The Unveiling and Crossing Over seem odd to the Western ear and a little dated. Songs like Jaani Jaani, Ele Nah and Sayeba on Crossing Over, for example, are jazz-based with outdated synths, and seem to be odd choices if she is trying to lure in Western fans. In these songs, the merging of traditional Indan music or Bollywood, though keeping up with the syncopation of the jazz, does not really match or go with the Western elements in any cohesive way. The production levels and synths used to create the backing melodies on tracks like these might seem hokey to Western listeners, so for these reasons the goal of “crossing over” may not have been achieved from a Western perspective, though Indian fans of Bollywood and ’80s jazz may enjoy these songs.
Crossing Over is not without its charms, however. The opening track on this EP, called Nesha Nesha, is done with a little more of a Western sensibility in mind. Here, there is a jazz bass opening and Rimi’s traditional and pitch-perfect vocals merge with a trip-hop beat and a bluesy backing track, and Rimi even interjects a bit of rap in English. Another highlight on Crossing Over is the closing track, Shonay. Rimi’s vocals are the star of this piece, and they move between traditional Indian and Western melodies quite seamlessly. There is dab of Western guitar to complement her haunting vocals and this also helps to pull this sultry, bluesy piece together.
The Unveiling has more tracks which may be easier for Western audiences to swallow. This EP’s opener, Surmayee, uses Western guitar riffs and a drum-heavy, modern beat structure to support Rimi’s Indian traditional vocals, and it turns out to be a very impactful piece. The next two songs, Mat Ja and Maahiya, are heavily Bollywood-inspired but have danceable, deep house beat structures, so they will likely appeal to both Western and Indian audiences. Maahiya has just been released as a single with a very sexy corresponding video to which Western audiences will most definitely respond favorably.
The song Habibi inhabits two of the last slots on The Unveiling; one is a slower, original version and the second is a club remix. The original is a Bollywood/Bengali-style mashup with quite a bit of Western influence. Here is where Rimi best achieves her goal of creating a perfect hybrid between the Western and Eastern musical traditions. Tabla drums keep a beat which could be used in both Western and Indian music, and similarly, Rimi’s beautiful vocals strike a perfect balance between east and west. The remixed version does not achieve quite the same success, however, as the dance beat seems a little fast for the melody and the vocals are too chopped up. This remix will likely do well in the clubs, but lacks the musical quality that Rimi and her band have proven to be capable of in other parts of the albums.
Overall, Crossing Over and The Unveiling are solid debut efforts for Rimi. What she is trying to do in merging two of the most diametrically different musical traditions is a very daunting prospect. Despite production problems and not quite embracing some Western techniques and genres, which may have created a higher-quality product, Rimi has certainly come out with a few promising tracks on her debut EPs. If she continues in this direction, Rimi should see success in both hemispheres with her unique brand of Indian and Western pop fusion.
Review by Layla Klamt
Bandcamp.com: Rimi Basu
Youtube.com: Rimi Basu and Kriya Indian Music Band Live Performing Habibi
Images Courtesy of Rimi Basu’s Media Kit