Photo: Gui Süssekind Bailey
Anoushka Shankar Wrote A Composition Standing Up For Women & Girls. 10 Years Later, She Questions How Far We've Come.
Anoushka Shankar is firing on all cylinders, with two nominations at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Through an ever-deepening facility with her sitar, the virtuoso communicates her feelings about a global problem with bracing clarity.
Upon hearing glowing press blurbs about her, Anoushka Shankar audibly winces.
"It goes without saying that Anoushka Shankar is a virtuoso sitar player," The Guardian gushed, front and center in her press release. Ditto for Harper's Bazaar, who proclaimed she's "making her own unique mark on the world." Her live show is "Expect to be thoroughly intoxicated," wrote an awestruck Time Out New York.
To which Shankar emits a sheepish reaction through her teeth: "Whoa boy."
"I have that real mix of pride and self-loathing when it comes to this stuff," Shankar tells GRAMMY.com from New Delhi; her London accent rings clear. "On one level, I feel like I'll never be good enough at it, but on another level, I'm feeling great about it."
The nine-time GRAMMY nominee isn't projecting false humility. Through the lenses of her recent music — including a new song, "In Her Name" — it's clear that Shankar is galvanized by more important things than self-gratification. One of them is a magical sense of interplay with her collaborators. The other is an inner drive to address issues that affect women and girls — chief among them, the scourge of sexual violence.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com, Shankar praises colleagues like vocalist and composer Arooj Aftab, composer and conductor Jules Buckley, percussionist Manu Delago, Dutch orchestra Metropole Orkest, and poet Nikita Gill.
With the former, Shankar is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance, for "Udhero Na"; with the middle three, she's up for a golden gramophone for Best Global Music Album for Between Us…, their co-created live album.
But it's "In Her Name," featuring Gill, that's at the forefront of Shankar's mind. She initially released the song about a decade ago as "In Jyoti's Name," in tribute to its namesake: a physiotherapy intern named Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died from injuries as a result of a gang rape in 2012.
Pandey's attack and death sparked protests throughout India; the news affected Shankar deeply. With the 10-year anniversary looming, Shankar decided to revitalize the tune with words from Gill. Hence, "In Her Name," which grapples with this particular horror and so many of its kind through electrifying, evocative language.
"Time cannot devour/ What we will not allow to be forgotten," Shankar recites, channeling Gill's words. "Let the wind take these embers, these ashes/ And build a goddess of wildfire in her name."
Today, Shankar grapples with her innate optimism when considering this subject, as eradicating sexual violence seems to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition. But musical monuments like "In Her Name" do crucial work nonetheless. Because at the very least, they shatter silence — and offer a thread of beauty amid human suffering.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Shankar about this crucial issue, other musical offerings in the immediate rearview, and more. And for a hub of global organizations working to counteract sexual violence, visit here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I became aware of your work 20 years ago, when Concert for George came out. What are your memories of that time?
It's a funny one, that one, because obviously, it was celebrating a loved one. So, on one hand, it was a truly iconic concert to take part in, musically. But on the other hand, the main experience was an emotional one — of connecting with people and sharing our love for someone. So, it was a very unique concert experience for me.
What was it like to be in the room with George?
A bit like being with family, but at the same time, with someone who had a larger-than-life presence as a musician and human.
You're nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance for "Udhero Na," your collaborative track with Arooj Aftab. Tell me about how you and Arooj connect artistically and personally.
It's mutual admiration and friendship and love, but it started off a little differently, because she was in college at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When I would tour in that region, she would be at my shows. I guess she was maybe a fan first, but she also knew some people that I knew, so we became acquaintances and then friends.
At the time, there weren't that many people like us out there touring. So, I think it meant something to her to be able to come see me out there doing what I did.
Then, that kind of shifted as she got older. We became more peers, and it's been really beautiful to see what's happened for her in these last couple of years, with people discovering how amazing she is. So, that's been really lovely.
Can you tell me about the writing and/or recording process behind "Udhero Na"?
It's a song that preexists our working together on it. It's a beautiful piece of music that she wrote long before, and then wanted to release as a bonus track when she was releasing her album, Vulture Prince.
She sent it to me, and I just utterly loved it. I recorded it in my bedroom while I was alone in my house, because I had COVID and my kids were staying with a friend. So, it was a remote and kind of bizarrely chilled-out, relaxing recording process over a cold, dark London winter.
Between Us… is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Album. I find its marriage of East and West so beautiful. How did that live recording come about?
It's interesting that you use that phrase, "the marriage of East and West." I think the reason it works is that we're so many generations past that first marriage. The pieces on this album are more like little diaspora babies that belong to the world in a really authentic and integral way. They're not the parts that make up their whole.
This live record, Between Us…, came about because I wanted to explore my music in an orchestral space. I worked with Jules Buckley to choose pieces of music that we thought could live in that space in a really beautiful way.
Manu Delago had been a dear collaborator of mine for several years at that point. He was central to a few of the songs that I kept wanting to see translated into the orchestra, so we invited him in to almost be a second soloist on the show.
We did this little run of shows in 2018, and then had some conversations about: Let's book some more. In the middle of all that stuff, the pandemic happened. As we started coming out of it, I just found myself going back to that album on my Dropbox now and then; I had the recording from one of the shows we had done.
In isolation, it blew me away to hear so many human beings together, on a stage, playing music together. It was hard for me to even remember what that felt like, and I kept listening to it, saying, "Oh my god, I was! I was on stage with 40 people playing music!"
I found myself getting a lot from the energy of hearing people together playing music. So, as we came out of it, I just wanted to put it out there. We didn't record it thinking I was going to put it out one day, but it's been a joy to share it.
I feel like the most pristine, lossless WAV file in the world couldn't do justice to how it felt with all that music swirling around you.
That's a great way to put it. Especially with music that has lived in different avatars: to hear it expand and grow to that scale feels really magical.
But at the same time, I think that's something that's so beautiful about music — some of the songs here, I can play them with just Manu and have the most amazing experience of connection and chemistry in music. But then, it can also grow to include all these other people, and it's beautiful.
Tell me more about the deeper workings of this music — the submerged majority of the iceberg as opposed to the exposed tip.
Working with Jules Buckley in particular, we were able to orchestrate around the sitar in a way that felt modern and energizing as opposed to conventional or overly sentimental.
Because I think it could be really easy to do that, especially with the emotional quality of the sitar. Not that any of this is wrong, but it could be really easy to go into Bollywood strings or kind of faux-Western-classical territory. I think his sensitivity with the way he worked around my music, the ragas… he was just brilliant.
And the orchestra is mind-blowing as well, because I have so much experience working with a truly diverse array of unbelievable musicians — the ones the world says are the best in the world. [But] working across traditions is really, really hard.
People can take the best orchestra in the world, and they might really struggle to play an asymmetric beat cycle with precision, for example, which would maybe be simple for us. We just speak different languages.
So, what I think is happening on that record is, even when it sounds simple, the level of skill the orchestra, Manu and Jules are exhibiting allows all the elements to come together, and the way they do is really amazing.
I get that it's inelegant to say "the marriage of East and West," as that's been happening forever. It's something I've always thought about the Beatles' "Within You, Without You"; it kicked open the door to that idea for me. But it's just one part of the chain.
Yeah, it's part of the chain! I think that's the evolution. We had some first meetings of East and West that started with my father, an iconic legend. Then, generation after generation of different meetings. This just feels like it's an existing rather than a meeting, and that only can come forward from it happening before, and pushing forward from there.
Can you talk about "In Her Name" and its decade-long gestation? What was the germ of the song — the intention — back then?
The intention at the time was more of an emotional response to what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey 10 years ago — her gang rape that eventually led to her death.
Like so many humans in the world, I was affected very deeply by that news, and it led to me telling my own story. It really impacted me deeply, and it came out in a piece called "In Jyoti's Name."
The reason I named it that was because up until that time in India — and usually still — victims' names are protected to shield them from what some may perceive as the shame of what happened to them.
And her family, at the time, actually gave permission to release her name. I thought that was really powerful, because it spoke to how it wasn't her shame. I felt significance in it, so I released the song in her honor, but with her name in it.
As these years have gone on, there have been so many others like her. I'm almost reluctant to continue naming them, because there are so many that I'll miss one. But I found myself noticing the anniversary was coming up this year, and thinking: God, 10 years is a time in which a lot can change.
Yet, I remember at the time saying: This has got to change, and enough is enough. It feels like that's not what has happened. That's why I felt it important to come back to it. Not just to mark the anniversary, even though that is, of course, significant, especially to people who actually knew and loved her.
But to just question where we are. Around the world, in all the ways that women's bodies are impacted. It just felt like an onslaught, and I think this piece of music comes from there.
Can you talk about Nikita Gill? What she brought to the song, and what you appreciate about her?
Ah, she's magic. She has a very powerful way of speaking simply, that is not simple. It takes a great deal of skill to make something seem as accessible as that, but speak a truth that reaches in that kind of way that she makes it.
So, when I realized I wanted words on this version, she was my first and only phone call. She said yes before I even finished asking; for all the same reasons I wanted to make the song, she wanted to be a part of it.
I don't know what to say about her poetry, other than it speaks all my feelings in a way that I would never be able to express, and it's an honor to get to speak them.
Regarding this global horror that you're deeply invested in and making music about, what progress have we made in the last decade, from your perspective? And where do we go from here in order to negate this suffering and death?
It feels like for every step forward, there's a kind of step back. And it feels like as it can happen with progress overall, there's so often resistance.
It can feel really baffling at times that this topic can suddenly become center-stage, and we can be talking about it and listening and learning. Then, suddenly, some politician comes along, or something happens where there's some shaming tweet about someone, and it just feels like we get pushed down again.
So, I don't know if I can say to you whether we've made progress overall, because for every bit we have made, it feels like we're going backwards. I feel like, historically, I've always landed on the side of optimism, and I'm [Uneasy laugh] a little undecided about that right now.
“In Her Name” single artwork. Credit: Shilo Shiv Suleman
I'm pretty young, but I do remember a time when the model of manhood was aggression and derring-do and imposing your will on others. Consent was addressed in the media in crazy ways that wouldn't fly today.
Yes, thank you for bringing it there, because things have definitely moved, and it is amazing to look back and realize how nuanced change is.
I can go back and watch a TV show I feel nostalgic about, and I can feel shocked about what's actually in there in a way I didn't necessarily remember at the time. Which shows how things have changed. As a child, as a teenager, as a young woman at that time, that would have been presented to me as fine, so I processed it as fine. I can look back and go: Wow.
That can be a very strange feeling, because it brings a bizarre kind of grief for myself, or others like me, in the past. As a child, I was raised in what people were telling me was a post-feminist society. We were told everything was fine now.
But like you're saying, we go back and look at the way it was, and it was so far from fine. It's a weird thing to look back and realize I've had to continue learning that, as a woman, I deserve better than that. Or that people I'm next to, or raising, deserve better than that.
I guess what gives me hope is that I'm raising boys. That was something that gave me a heart attack at first, when I was pregnant and realized I was having a boy. I had to work through what that was about. It was like: Oh my god! I'm raising future men! What does that mean?
And then I turned it around and I was like, What an incredible opportunity. And I watch my older kid and his friends, and they're just amazing. Their language, their understanding, their nuance, their care, their awareness. It really, really blows me away.
My older son doesn't want to watch things that don't pass the Bechdel test. You know? Or he gets really frustrated by old cartoons, where it's all about romance; he'll immediately catch when something sexist happens. His group of friends is really, truly mixed and safe and open.
I didn't have a fraction of that when I was his age. That was not what was [prevalent].
I'm sure that extended to your beginnings in the music business, which was and is male-dominated in many regards.
It really was, but I'm more aware of that looking back than I was at the time.
I remember reading a statistic for which the numbers escape me now — I'm making this up — but say, it took 30 percent of women in a boardroom to speak 20 percent of the time for men to feel like they were speaking more than half the time. Because their presence felt so novel. It felt so loud.
That's kind of what it was like. Now, I can look back and say, "Yes, it was very male-dominated." But at the time, I probably would have seen myself and one other woman there and said, "Wow! This is great!". [Laughs.]
The 2023 GRAMMYs are coming up, and you're in the midst of a press cycle. But what are you planning on when this hectic period wraps up? What will you be working on when there's a clearing?
I just did a mini-tour of India, but I haven't come back and done a proper tour of America since the pandemic. So, that's going to be happening in the autumn, which I'm really excited about. I'm in this very last-minute panic of what that tour's going to be. [Laughs.] I'm leaving it to the wire.
I'm starting to write a new album at the beginning of the year, and I'm very excited about that as well. If things go according to plan, it's a new album and the beginning of a big tour.
Can you drop any hints about that album?
[Hesitantly.] A producer I'm very… excited about? [Laughs.] No, I guess not. Not yet!
Before we get out of here: you've been steeped in the sitar for your entire life. All these years later — even with your advanced facility with the instrument — do you ever feel like you've just scratched the surface with what you can express with it?
I feel like I'm at the beginning section of the whole available journey. There is something about getting good at my instrument that brings true joy. When I play now, there's an intimacy with my instrument that's such a beautiful feeling. I could have had a similar amount of skill 10 or 15 years ago, but I don't feel like I had this feeling when I play.
I know that comes from growth, so I can tell I'm growing through an evolution on my instrument. I can feel that, and that feels really, really beautiful.
One of the frequent stories I tell when people ask what I learned from my dad is that I learned more from example. He was at the top of the mountain with the instrument, but I sat next to him every single day, watching him still journeying and seeking and looking at how much more he had to do.
So, I can't even answer the question in correlation to that, because I know where he was compared to me. Therefore, what he still saw ahead of him. That puts it all into perspective, I guess.
How To Watch The 2024 GRAMMY Nominations: St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, Muni Long, Kim Petras, Jon Bon Jovi, "Weird Al" Yankovic & More To Announce The Nominees; Streaming Live Friday, Nov. 10
The nominations for the 2024 GRAMMYs will be announced on Friday, Nov 10, starting at 7:45 a.m. PT / 10:45 a.m. ET. Watch it live on live.GRAMMY.com and YouTube.
It's that time again: The 2024 GRAMMYs is just a few months out — airing live Sunday, Feb. 4, from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. Which means nominations for the 2024 GRAMMYs are just around the corner. On Friday, Nov 10, starting at 7:45 a.m. PT / 10:45 a.m. ET, nominations for the 2024 GRAMMYs will be announced via a livestream event airing live on live.GRAMMY.com. The nominations will also stream live on the Recording Academy's YouTube channel.
The 2024 GRAMMYs nominations livestream event will feature a diverse cast of some of the leading voices in music today, including St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, Muni Long, Kim Petras, 2024 MusiCares Person Of The Year Jon Bon Jovi, and many others, who will be announcing the 2024 GRAMMY nominees across all 94 categories. Plus, the livestream event will also feature an exclusive GRAMMY Nominations Pre-Show and Wrap-Up Show, which will both feature exclusive videos and conversations about the biggest stories and trends to come out of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations.
City National Bank is the Official Bank of the GRAMMYs and proud sponsor of the 66th Annual GRAMMY Awards Nominations.
See below for a full guide to the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations livestream event happening next week:
How Can I Watch The 2024 GRAMMY Nominations?
When Are The 2024 GRAMMY Nominations Announced?
The 2024 GRAMMYs nominations will be announced Friday, Nov 10. The day kicks off with an exclusive GRAMMY Nominations Pre-Show, starting at 7:45 a.m. PT / 10:45 a.m. ET. Hosted by Emmy-winning TV host and “GMA3” contributor Rocsi Diaz, the GRAMMY Nominations Pre-Show will give music fans an inside look at the various initiatives and campaigns that the Recording Academy, the organization behind the annual GRAMMY Awards, supports on a year-long basis on its mission to recognize excellence in the recording arts and sciences and cultivate the well-being of the music community.
Afterward, starting at 8 a.m. PT / 11 a.m. ET, the GRAMMY nominations livestream event begins. The livestream event will begin with a special presentation announcing the nominees in the General Field categories, aka the Big Six, as well as select categories. On live.GRAMMY.com, exclusive videos announcing the nominees across multiple categories will stream as a multi-screen livestream event that users can control, providing a dynamic, expansive online experience for music fans of all genres. The nomination videos will also stream live on YouTube. The full list of 2024 GRAMMYs nominees will then be published on live.GRAMMY.com and GRAMMY.com immediately following the livestream event.
After the nominations are announced, stay tuned for an exclusive GRAMMY Nominations Wrap-Up Show. Co-hosted by "Entertainment Tonight" correspondents Cassie DiLaura and Denny Directo, the Wrap-Up Show will break down all the notable news and top stories from the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations. The GRAMMY Nominations Wrap-Up Show will stream live on live.GRAMMY.com as well as the Recording Academy's YouTube channel, X profile, Twitch channel, TikTok page, Instagram profile, and Facebook page.
Watch the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations livestream event and make sure to use #GRAMMYs to join the conversation on social media as it unfolds live on Friday, Nov. 10.
The schedule for the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations livestream event is as follows:
GRAMMY Nominations Pre-Show
7:45 a.m. PT / 10:45 a.m. ET
Nominations Livestream Event
8 a.m. PT / 11 a.m. ET
Nominations Livestream Event Ends & Full Nominations Revealed
8:25 a.m. PT / 11:25 a.m. ET
GRAMMY Nominations Wrap-Up Show
8:25 a.m. PT / 11:25 a.m. ET
^All times are approximate and subject to change.
Who's Announcing The 2024 GRAMMY Nominations?
Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. will be joined by GRAMMY winners Arooj Aftab, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Jimmy Jam, Jon Bon Jovi, Samara Joy, Muni Long, Cheryl Pawelski, Kim Petras, Judith Sherman, St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, and "Weird Al" Yankovic, along with "CBS Mornings" co-hosts Gayle King, Nate Burleson, and Tony Dokoupil, to announce all the nominees for the 2024 GRAMMYs.
When Are The 2024 GRAMMYs?
The 2024 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 66th GRAMMY Awards, will air live on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/5-8:30 p.m. PT from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. Music's Biggest Night will air live on the CBS Television Network and stream on Paramount+.
Mark your calendars now for the 2024 GRAMMY nominations happening Friday, Nov 10.
With additional reporting by Morgan Enos.
Photo: Ian Dickson/Redferns
From Fanny To Madam Wong's & The GRAMMYs: How The Asian Community Has Impacted Rock
While K-pop is Asia’s most dominant musical export today, the continent and its diaspora have a rich rock heritage. GRAMMY.com takes an in-depth look at guitar heroes of Asian descent who have made a significant impact on Western soil.
While K-pop is Asia’s most dominant musical export today, the continent has a rich rock heritage that has traveled much further than you may imagine. Indeed, while the genre is the result of a cultural interplay between Africa and America (with fruitful trips to the UK), its history encompasses numerous important names whose roots trace to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and beyond.
Who can forget the impact Yoko Ono had on John Lennon and his post-Beatles career, for example? And then there's the unsung heroes: the Californian restaurant owner who played a vital part in the rise of punk and the little-known '60s singer who single-handedly brought the sounds of the West to Vietnam.
With the likes of Mitski, Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som now steering a new revolution in rock, what better time to take an in-depth look at the guitar heroes of Asian descent who have made a significant impact on Western soil?
While first- and second-generation Asian artists had previously enjoyed crossover success in the fields of jazz (Toshiko Akiyoshi), doo-wop (the Kim Sisters) and teen pop (Eden Kane) in the first half of the 20th century, the burgeoning rock 'n' roll scene remained out of reach. That is, until a band of Filipino American brothers paid tribute to the post-war era's version of Tony Manero.
The Rocky Fellers reached No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1963 with "Killer Joe," named in honor of "King of the Discotheque" Killer Joe Piro, and later worked with Neil Diamond on the song "We Got Love." But their sole album on Scepter Records got lost as attention switched to the first British Invasion, and it would be another seven years before a predominantly Asian rock act graced the U.S. singles charts.
Formed by sisters Jean and June Millington nearly a decade after their family moved to Sacramento, California from the Philippines, four-piece Fanny also broke barriers. As the first all-female outfit to land a major label deal, they paved the way for the Runaways, the Bangles and the Go-Gos (Fanny drummer Alice de Buhr would later serve as theGo-Gos' publicist).
Reprise Records reportedly signed Fanny without hearing any of their music — presuming the novelty of four women playing their own instruments was enough of a selling point. The original quartet proved they were far from a mere gimmick, though, with four albums of anthemic rock which inspired David Bowie to hail them as one of the genre's true unsung heroes. Incidentally, the Thin White Duke was the subject of Fanny's biggest hit, "Butter Boy," while Jean was briefly wed to his regular guitarist Earl Slick.
Bowie was just as enamored with Vodka Collins — a Japanese rock supergroup fronted by native New Yorker (and future Arrows frontman Alan Merrill). The cult favorites are rumored to have inspired one of his many alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust. Sadly, a major financial dispute led to their disbanding shortly after the release of their 1973 debut, Tokyo – New York.
That album's producer, Masatoshi Hashiba, however, would also steer a more enduring group to the fringes of the mainstream. Fronted by married couple Kazuhiko Katō and Mika Fuku, Sadistic Mika Band supported Roxy Music on their mid-1970s Siren Tour, while drummer Yukihiro Takahashi later co-founded the pioneering Kraftwerk-esque Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Sadistic Mika Band's name was actually intended to parody the Plastic Ono Band's, the conceptual project co-founded by arguably rock's most prominent Asian crossover artist. Ono helped to push the boundaries of rock music while simultaneously paying homage to her East Asian heritage, drawing upon everything from hetai, a vocal technique hailing from the kabuki form of Japanese theater, to the ancient classical style of Gagaku.
Released on the same day (and with a similar title) as husband John Lennon's solo debut in 1970, Ono’s debut solo album charted 176 places lower on the Billboard 200. Yet it unarguably had the bigger impact: Its uncompromising avant-garde sound credited with ushering in the birth of punk, alternative rock and no-wave (Sonic Youth, tUnE-yArDs and the Flaming Lips are just a few of the artists who have since acknowledged Ono's influence through collaboration). Ono has occasionally flirted with the mainstream — see 1981 Top 40 single "Walking on Thin Ice" — but it's her fearless experimentalism that positioned her as an icon.
Continuing the Beatles-adjacent theme, Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar informed much of George Harrison's work, both as a member of the Fab Four and as a solo artist. The pair worked together on several albums and essentially paved the way for Live Aid with 1971's legendary The Concert for Bangladesh, a star-studded benefit show boasting performances from Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.
Of course, some of Asia's most culturally significant artists had to wait decades before receiving their dues. Phuong Tâm, for example, was pivotal in bringing the sounds of the West to the East in the early 1960s Saigon. During her late teenage years, she spent up to eight hours an evening performing Vietnamese compositions heavily inspired by the growing presence of American GIs.
Tâm's music career was cut short when her army doctor husband landed a job hundreds of miles away. Remarkably, she kept this past life a secret from her own children until a film producer requested the use of her recordings, much of which had been misattributed. Two years later, a compilation assembled by daughter Hà, Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul 1964-1966, finally showcased Tâm's youthful grasp of the genre to a wider audience.
Formed by brothers David and Romeo Bustamante in San Francisco's Mission District, the largely Filipino collective Dakila prided themselves on bringing a pan-continental flavor to the early '70s rock scene. They were the first U.S. major label signing to perform material in Tagalog and made a conscious effort to align themselves with various Asian-American causes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Epic didn't exactly handle such an outlier with the utmost sensitivity. Not only did they instruct producers to meddle with Dakila's self-titled debut behind the group's backs, they also released first single "El Dùbi" with a patronizing spoken word instructional on how to pronounce their song titles. Luckily, the double whammy of a more faithful 50th anniversary reissue and forthcoming documentary Searchin' for My Soul is set to give the first true Asian American rock album some long overdue props.
The artwork for Dakila's eponymous LP also featured a wicker chair originating from what would become an unlikely hub of the punk scene. At the time, the Mabuhay Gardens was a Filipino restaurant but within a few years, owner Ness Aquino had joined forces with promoter and punk magazine publisher Jerry Paulsen to reinvent the struggling business as a thriving venue.
The Mab, as it would become known as, attracted some of the West Coast's rowdiest bands including Black Flag, the Nuns and the Dead Kennedys while also welcoming further afield acts such as the Damned and Sex Pistols, hosting one of the latter's final ever shows. Thanks to another sideline in stand-up comedy, the once-flailing business stayed open until 1987.
This San Francisco joint's pivot into the world of mohawks and safety pins appeared to inspire other Asian proprietors in Southern California. In 1978, promoter Paul Greenstein and owners George and Esther Wong helped to transform Madame Wong's into a haven for West Coast punk. The Chinatown venue had a strict policy on vandalism: Rumor has it Esther once confronted two of the Ramones about their bathroom wall graffiti while they were still performing on stage.
Frustrated with such defacing, the Wongs decided to focus on a slightly more "civilized" genre when they opened up a second venue. Madame Wong's West helped put new wave on the Santa Monica map, giving early gigs to the likes of the Police, the Motels and the Knack. But the original remained their bread and butter, which is why a major rivalry — problematically dubbed the Wonton Wars by the local press — started when another nearby struggling eatery muscled in on their territory.
Barry Seidel, who'd rented out the upstairs banquet hall of Cantonese immigrant Bill Hong's family restaurant Hong Kong Cafe, was much less discerning when it came to wanton destruction. When Madame Wong's prevented anyone under 21 from entering the premises, for example, Seidel made his punk nights all ages. To placate Hong, Seidel agreed that performers would pay for any damage caused, a much-needed stipulation as punks with a disregard for crowd capacity regularly broke in via the roof and air conditioning ducts.
But by the dawn of the following decade, the punk boom had given way to hardcore, a style too aggressive even for Hong Kong Cafe who called time on its musical endeavors in 1981. Madame Wong's closed its doors for good following a fire six years later, but its West branch stayed open until 1991 having added the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. to its impressive resume. Esther's standing in the community was confirmed in the wake of her 2005 death when the Los Angeles Times dubbed her the "Godmother of Punk."
The GRAMMY Winners
Although Larry Ramos of the New Christy Minstrels and the Association, singer/songwriter Yvonne Elliman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma had been nominated at Music's Biggest Night, it wasn't until 1992 that an act of Asian descent won a GRAMMY in a rock category.
Born to an Indonesian mother, guitar hero Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex picked up Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal for their eponymous group's ninth LP, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Their victory which appeared to open the floodgates.
Just three years later, Indian American lead guitarist Kim Thayil and Japanese American bassist Hiro Yamamoto helped Soundgarden land Best Metal Performance and Best Hard Rock Performance for their album Superunknown. It was the latter category that Smashing Pumpkins, featuring Japanese American guitarist James Iha, also triumphed in at the 1997 ceremony thanks to "Bullet with Butterfly Wings." In 2002, the same award went to Linkin Park for "Crawling," a track boasting the turntablism skills of Korean American Joe Hahn. And let's not forget Tony Kanal, a child of Indian immigrants, whose basslines steered No Doubt to Best Pop Vocal Album for Rock Steady that same year.
Remarkably, the most famous rock star of Asian descent never got the chance to make an acceptance speech. Freddie Mercury, whose parents hailed from western India, received four nominations as frontman of Queen. The band was honored with a Lifetime Achievement in 2018, 27 years after his untimely passing.
It also took decades for another rock giant to hear their name read out. Co-founded in 1985 by Korean American bassist John Myung, prog favorites Dream Theater won Best Metal Performance for "The Alien" in 2022. Also nominated that same year for Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist were Japanese Breakfast, the indie-rock outfit fronted by Korean American Michelle Zauner, and one of several artists spearheading a new wave of Asian American indie rock.
The Indie Scene
The first wave of Asian American alternative guitar acts signed to independent labels began to blossom in 1995. It was here when the palindromic Emily's Sassy Lime released their one and only album, Desperate, Scared But Social, through Kill Rock Stars while still at school. One of the few Asian American acts to align themselves with the riot grrrl movement, the all-female trio had to write, record and perform on the odd occasion their parents allowed them a break from their studies. And although they split shortly after graduation, Yao sisters Wendy and Amy remained regulars of the DIY art scene.
That same year, Satomi Matsuzaki joined noise-pop experimentalists Deerhoof, another Kill Rock Stars act, in the same week she emigrated from Japan to America. Obviously not averse to throwing herself in the deep end, the bassist/singer headed out on tour with the band just a few days later, too. Having since tackled everything from tropicalia and conceptual prog rock to sheet music experiments and classical ensembles, few contemporary bands have been so brazenly audacious.
Blonde Redhead, the similarly creative outfit co-founded by Japanese art students Maki Takahashi and Kazu Makino, also released their self-titled debut in 1995. Produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and released through his indie label Smells Like Records, one of the no-wave scene's defining records was followed by equally atmospheric excursions into shoegaze and dreampop, while a guest appearance from Ryuichi Sakamoto on her 2019 first solo effort Adult Baby cemented Makino's status as an icon of the avant-garde.
A year later, Korean American Mike Park founded Asian Man Records, a predominantly ska/punk label run from his California garage. Park and his label helped kickstart the careers of Stateside cult heroes such as Less Than Jake and Alkaline Trio, while also giving a platform for acts of Asian heritage including India's Nicotine and Japan's Yoko Utsumi.
Asian and Asian American indie artists have remained in the public eye through the mid 2010s, crafting devoted followings across the globe. With eight GRAMMY nominations to her name, South Korean-born Karen O has kept the flag flying over the following two decades as the frontwoman of garage punks Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Osaka's Shonen Knife, the one-time Lollapalooza regulars championed by Kurt Cobain, did as much alongside Tokyo's Buffalo Daughter — the Shibuya-kei pioneers who signed to the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. Meanwhile, the music of Cornelius, a.k.a. the "Japanese" Beck" has graced everything from NFL ads to Scott Pilgrim vs the World. And then there’s David Pajo, the Filipino American guitarist whose journeyman career has incorporated everyone from Slint and Tortoise to Zwan and Gang of Four.
The Asian American rock scene has further coalesced in the last few years with women leading the way. Whether it’s the dreamy indie of Leslie Bear's alter ego Long Beard, intimate bedroom pop of Filipino American singer-songwriter Jay Som or, perhaps most notably, the sonic adventurism of Japanese American Mitski.
Indeed, Mitski's 2018 LP Be the Cowboy was named Album of the Year by both Pitchfork and Vulture, and she received an Oscar nod for her contribution to the soundtrack of Everything Everywhere All at Once alongside New York post-rockers Son Lux, two-thirds of whom are also of Asian descent In another landmark in Asian American representation Mitski had also previously invited Som and Japanese Breakfast to provide support on her North American tour.
And with indie chameleons such as Korean Canadian Luna Li, American Korean Deb Never and Chinese American Sofya Wang all emerging in the 2020s, the future seems bright, too. Indeed, despite concerns the convergence of artists with Asian heritage would be dismissed as a passing fad, it’s clear that rock grounded in this community is thriving stronger than ever before.
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse
When these three came together to make impressionistic, genreless, meditative music, they rose to support and bolster each other — and the result is 'Love in Exile,' a work of quiet integrity that exudes friendship and otherworldly beauty.
Which is borderline axiomatic, as all three musicians hail from improvisatory spaces.
Aftab, a GRAMMY-winning Urdu vocalist, has been clear about improvisation's importance to her work. Genre-spanning pianist and composer Iyer has forged a legacy throughout the creative-music space, including in what we tend to designate as jazz. As for bassist and Moog synthesist Ismaily, his sheer versatility and range in that realm is staggering.
Still, did the music the three made together count as improvisation? Not so fast, says Iyer.
"I don't even think that 'improvisation' is the right word for it, because it's actually just co-composition in real time," the pianist — also a Harvard professor — tells GRAMMY.com. "It's not taking solos or something. It's really like, OK, well, this is what the song is. Whatever's happening now, this is the song. So, what should happen next in the song?
That sovereignty of the now — and of each other — governs their new album, Love in Exile, the fruitage of this triangulation that arrives on Mar. 24. Together, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily seem to slow time; the sound of tracks like "To Remain/To Return," "Eyes of the Endless" and "Sharabi" is capacious but never diffuse, abstract but never aimless.
Aftab's frequently described as "ethereal," but that doesn't really do her justice; despite the transportive nature of her natural instrument, she sounds steadfast, planted to the earth. On piano and Rhodes, Iyer adds tremulous textures that never intrude; they always buoy and support. The resounding heartbeat of Ismaily's bass will wham you in the solar plexus.
If any of this sounds a touch self-serious, the music sounds as natural as breath. And in conversation, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily have an easy rapport and are quick to laughter.
Will they make more albums? Nobody's raring to prognosticate. "I love them," Ismaily says of his accompanists — in this sphere of ambient, drone, experimental, or whatever on earth you call it. "I love spending time with them, and for that reason alone, I hope that there is more time that I share with them.”
With the album release mere hours away and a tour coming up, read on for an in-depth conversation with these leading lights about the making of Love in Exile, the confluence of their experiences and expertises, and why they could make 50 more albums — or zero.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you three creatively triangulate in the first place?
Aftab: I met Vijay at Merkin Hall in New York. I was invited to play a set before his set. He was doing this special collab: that was Thums Up with [Das Racist MC] Himanshu Suri [a.k.a. Heems], [rapper and drummer] Kassa Overall, and <a href="https://www.grammy.com/news/meet-son-lux-composer-trio-behind-everything-everywhere-all-at-once-movie">[Son Lux guitarist] Rafiq [Bhatia] as well.
I knew Vijay and his music from before, and I had always been like, "Wow, this guy, he is amazing." So, meeting him, I was a little, for sure, intimidated. Not intimidated, but definitely like, "Oh s—, it's Vijay."
But we did a little collab that night — just an impromptu, kind of improv thing — and it felt really great. I was so surprised that it was so easy and so beautiful and so musical. You don't expect that just happening, you know? You have to work hard to find that sort of musical collaborator.
And Shahzad: I had been told lots here and there in New York, "Hey, do you know Shahzad?"
Ismaily: [Singer/songwriter, rapper and bassist] Meshell Ndegeocello gave me [your record Bird Under Water] before I met you. She was like, "Hey, I think I'm going to be working with this person." So, she gave me that, and then I was obsessively listening to it for a while.
Aftab: Yeah, she connected us, basically. Meshell was going to produce Vulture Prince, before we even knew what it was — before we knew anything at all. But then she got busy, and then I produced it myself. But one of the things that she did was, like, "Hey, if you want to record in Brooklyn, there's this guy, Shahzad, who has this studio."
And I was like: Shahzad — this guy Shahzad again!
Iyer: I met this being named Shahzad pretty early after he moved to New York through [drummer and composer] Qasim Naqvi, who brought him into a Burnt Sugar situation. So, I was one of the OGs of Burnt Sugar, the band that [late writer, musician and producer] Greg Tate formed.
We would do these kinds of very open, improvised shows, or not even. It would really just be whatever happened, we would make something out of it. And that was where Shahzad started showing up and playing. It always just seemed like I never knew what he was going to play. One day, it might be drums. Another day, it might be acoustic guitar. So, he was this wild card.
And then we didn't really have a lot of chances to do anything together outside of that, until I finally called [Shahzad] and said, "Hey, can you do this thing with me and Arooj at [NYC avant-garde performance space] the Kitchen? That was in June of 2018. But I was certainly aware of Shahzad for eons.
What was the nature of the first music you made together? What mutual artistic groove did you all settle into?
Ismaily: It was truly an immediate, spontaneous listening response to what each of us were giving to each other in that moment.
Whether it was Vijay dropping a chord on the piano, and me putting my ear to the bass and trying to figure out, OK, where is he? Therefore, what will I play right now? Or, I may have started with a pulse on the bass and then Vijay came in, and then Arooj came in when she did. It was really the chemistry of who we were in the moment, and then it stayed there.
Iyer: I think it mattered that it was live.It was actually just like, OK, we've got to commit to this second. There's no do-overs here. This is a show. And I think that put us in the frame of mind of: OK, everything that happens is correct, is right. Everything that happens is meant to happen. So then, we just sort of aided that process, and it came through us.
Once your live dynamic as a trio was established, how did you go on to establish artistic parameters in the studio? How would you describe the ratio of improvisation versus previously written material?
Iyer: I think the method has always been co-construction. And since we committed to that from literally note one, or sound zero, at the first show five years ago, it's never not been that.
Aftab: I think there were definitely some soaring moments that we felt from the previous six gigs that we played before we went into the studio, but we never really wrote anything down or planned a structure. I definitely remember that even the first time we did it, we were dared to do it, really. There was a lot of super-hardcore listening and trust that was happening.
I was trusting where I thought I should come in. You know how you're like, Oh, I don't want to step on this person's toes? If it's not planned, you don't really know what the f— is going to happen. Or, If you're coming in, are you actually interrupting someone's thought? or whatever. But there was so much unspoken trust and communication between the three of us, anyway, and there was just such a great language of listening and playing happening.
Sometimes what happens is that when I start singing, everybody sort of steps back to give me space. And I hate that, because I'm just like: I am going to go with you guys. Don't make a clearing for me. It's boring now, because it's just me here alone. Play with me.
And they never backed away, and it was amazing. They have so much more than I do in terms of experience and wisdom in being musicians, and I think that every entry and exit point is coming from that — that experience that we carry as composers and musicians in our own right.
So, it's not prepared, but it is coming from [that]. It is a learned thing, and it is a skill, definitely, that's being applied there, that is a very difficult one — which is trust, intuition, listening, and basically being creative in that sense.
Ismaily: When we went into a studio after a few performances, I still felt an equal amount of gravity and focus as when we were playing live. So, I didn't have much of a different experience between the two.
Iyer: Yeah, it was basically that we learned from our live experiences how the music should go.
Arooj, I remember reading a quote from you about how you were more focused on the sound of your words than their literal meaning. What was your approach to choosing words in that regard — aurally, or even orally, as per open and resonant syllables?
Aftab: Yes, you're correct. The approach here was definitely to pretend to be an instrument, as well, to whatever extent that is possible as a vocalist.
I feel like there's this kind of idea that sometimes, vocalists are like, Yeah, I want the vocals to be an instrument, but to some degree, that's just not possible because it's not the same. You need vowels and stuff, and you need words to really get things going. Sometimes, the words are the instrument too. They're actually the keys sometimes.
So, I had fragments of poetry. Some of it's from Vulture Prince. Some of it's from Bird Under Water. And then, some of it's completely new stuff that I'd been thinking about. But I chose it based on the mood of where I thought the songs were going musically.
It's not entirely disjointed, but in terms of my intentional approach, it's not meant to be the focus. It's not meant to be the song. It's not meant to tell the story. I think I wanted the three of us to be telling the story — not just me, the singer. So, in that way, my intention was for it to be less intentional of an approach.
But of course, it's subtle. The listener and listen and be like: There's a vocalist, and bass player, and piano player, and it's a song. But, if you see, also, I'm not there 90% of the time. There's long sections where I'm not there.
So, I was interested in f—ing with this thing. The role of the vocalist and the lyrics and the storytelling, and how we can equalize the thing, for real. I'm still really inspired by it and playing with it. As you can see, I'm even messing it up in my own language of how to describe it. But it's fun, and it's great.
But the tone of the music itself: in a lot of the pieces, Vijay would start, and then it would definitely be something that I'd think of how it's making me feel, and go from there. Is it a theme of spring? Is it a theme of longing? Is it a theme of super-absolute despair? Is it feeling like: should I take it to a more hopeful place? That kind of stuff was all going on there.
Vijay, can you describe your pianistic approach to this music, perhaps as opposed to other music you're involved with?
Iyer: You know, what I think I was able to do inside of the music was focus on unity rather than focus on standing out as a pianist. So, really, all the choices are compositional rather than playerly or musicianly. I'm really never trying to grandstand at all, or say, Check this out. It's never that.
It's always more like, How do we hold each other together, and how do we keep it moving, and how do we build it? How do we sculpt the totality of this? So, all the choices I make are about that. It's not about piano stuff or keyboard stuff.
Sometimes, having the piano, the Rhodes, and various electronic things I'm doing gives me an expanded palette — a certain way to think compositionally. Even if it's just setting a certain tempo using the delay pedal on the Rhodes, so that then I can just play one note and I'm still in the song somehow. The pattern is kind of in line with what else is happening with Shahzad or something.
So, [it's] that kind of thing, where it's really constructive decisions about how to strengthen what's already here. How to offer something that others can strengthen. It's that kind of thing.
I just listened to Love in Exile on a terrific sound system, and I felt the pulse of your bass so powerfully in my chest. In my last interview with Vijay, he was talking about the primacy of the pulse, and I imagine you all feel the same way.
Ismaily: So, Vijay and Arooj and I have certainly had a plethora of experiences in music outside of this trio — playing with other people, playing in other contexts. And then many of those things make their mark on us, and then we bring that sense of personage into this trio.
I remember quite early on, when I began to play with [guitarist] Marc Ribot and [drummer] Ches Smith in this trio that we had. Marc would often say, sometimes somewhat aggressively: "Listen: rubato does not mean there's no pulse. If you start to hear me play in a free, nontraditional, non-chord-changes, rhythmic way, it does not mean I'm not feeling a pulse underneath that.
Marc Ribot had a very anti-languid, or lack-of-tension feeling about ambient spaces. He felt like when something ambient is taking place, you still viscerally feel the heartbeat of a pulse within that. Whether or not you indicate it, whether you only play a drone, you still feel a sense of time and connection with a rhythmic undertone.
That's one thing that flows into my positioning in this group. So, as things are taking place and Vijay is making a beautiful landscape and Arooj comes in with a few words, I'm still feeling a pulse, and then I start to play from that — whether I'm indicating it quite strongly and giving some sort of 5/4 doot-do, doot-do, or whether I'm still playing much longer phrases, but feeling an internal pulse within that.
The second thing is that I want to give a little shout-out to Badawi — [multi-instrumentalist and composer] Raz Mesinai, who I played with. He would call me in to play bass with him and suggest that I play in a hypnotic way, so that you just felt like your consciousness was unfolding across the desert — unfolding across a limitless landscape of sand dune after sand dune. Which feels the same, but you still feel movement and the subtlety of change.
These two threads of exterior experiences to this trio make their presence known as I'm sitting and playing with Vijay and Arooj.
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
After these album and touring cycles wind down, are there any concrete plans to make this particular configuration a going concern? And as an addendum to that, what would you like to tell the readers about anything else you're excited to be working on in 2023 and beyond?
Ismaily: It's been interesting to be doing press these last few days, because I often spend time with Arooj and Vijay just performing on stage, and not with a great deal of frequency. Over the last few days, here I am in a room with them, listening to them speak, sharing company with them.
Whatever comes — it may take place, it may not take place. I can get hit by a bus, so who knows? But, internally to myself, I have that feeling. And because I have that feeling, I will probably request to look toward it, at least with my own eyes and my own time and my own voice and my hands.
There's this band, Ida, whose music I was absolutely in love with in the '90s when I was working on becoming and working as a musician. They went on a long hiatus, and it looks very much likely that they're going to make another record, and I will get to produce it or be a significant part of it with them. That's what I'm looking forward to outside of this trio.
Aftab: I'm really excited for the album to come out, and I'm excited to see people's reactions to it. We're going to go on the road a little bit this year, which is going to be great, and that will probably ascertain if we're going to keep doing this. It's really all about how we feel — if we're really into that for this particular project. No advanced decision-making here.
So, yeah, we're probably going to do one [more], or maybe we're never going to do one again. Who the f— knows, right? I love it. I think that's the vibe. There's no business model.
And since we are going to play a lot of these shows without writing down anything, there will be so much new material. So, we may as well put out 50 more albums after this tour.
Iyer: So we could be like the Dead?
Ismaily: Oh, let's get your Grateful Dead space where we just have a huge parking lot of crazy people all the time!
Aftab: And then, yeah, my boring answer that is everyone's answer is: yes, I'm working on a new record. My new album is supposed to come out in 2024. I just produced a short album for Anoushka Shankar, which is going to come out in the fall.
Iyer: I do have a couple of things that may or may not come out this year. We kind of have to figure out what's the best moment for those things to happen. One is a trio album with Tyshawn [Sorey] and Linda [May Han Oh]. I guess you could say the follow-up to Uneasy. It may come out at the end of this year, or beginning of next year sometime.
The other is that there's a recording of three different orchestral works that might come out sometime this summer, by Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
And then I have pieces I'm writing for different ensembles. A classical pianist named Shai Wosner — I'm writing a piece for him and a string orchestra. I'm doing a piece for Sō Percussion, and a piece for this pianist named Vicky Chow. And I wrote a cello concerto that got recorded that may come out sometime as well.
[As per the future of this trio,] I imagine that anytime we are invited somewhere and are able to do it, that we will rise to it. And I imagine that could happen at any point in the rest of our lives. That's the kind of guy I am.
Whether that means there's going to be a bunch more albums or zero more albums almost doesn't matter to me at this point. If there's more music that we cherish that we want to share with the world in that particular way and go through a similar cycle again, then that would make sense. But I think that we'll always have the capacity to come together and create. And so as long as that is nurtured, then I'm content, as far as that goes.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Here's What Harry Styles, Brandi Carlile & More Had To Say Backstage At The 2023 GRAMMYs
Backstage at the 2023 GRAMMYs, established and emerging stars alike — from Harry Styles to Samara Joy — opened up about what Music’s Biggest Night meant to them.
Like every edition of Music’s Biggest Night, the 2023 GRAMMYs featured a wealth of funny, touching and inspiring onstage speeches — both at the Premiere Ceremony and the main telecast.
But artists tend to express themselves differently, more intimately, backstage — and this certainly applied to GRAMMY winners and nominees at this year’s ceremony.
In the litany of videos below, see and hear stirring, extemporaneous statements from artists all over the 2023 GRAMMYs winners and nominees list, from Album Of The Year winner Harry Styles to Americana star-turned-rocker Brandi Carlile to Best Global Music Performance nominee Anoushka Shankar and beyond.
Throughout, you’ll get a better sense of the good jitters backstage at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, and hear exactly what the golden gramophone means to this crop of musical visionaries.
The list of videos begins below.