Onstage, the SF Bay Area-based musician Bhi Bhiman is a one-man-show, armed with an acoustic guitar, a
startling voice, and lyrics that run the gamut from satirical to political to romantic. Critics regularly compare his voice to Richie Havens, Bill Withers, and Nina Simone, though singing is something Bhi came to later, almost a decade after he started playing the guitar at age seven. “I never had the balls to sing,” he says. “I was always humming under my breath.” Even performing is something he admits he took years getting used to, and Bhiman is still unused to the sound of his own voice. “I don’t like listening to myself too much,” he says. “I hear myself all day every day. If people like it that’s great, but it’s hard for me to listen to.”
It’s the combination of his skill on the guitar, his voice, and the uniqueness of his music and lyrics that is making people pay attention. Songs off of Bhiman’s current album, “The Cookbook,” like “White Man’s Burden Blues” and “Talking Nascar,” take a standard folk-country melody and a gleefully satiric look at Americana, racism, and colonialism, while the lyrics in romantic ballads like “Equal in My Tea” sound both earnest and a little tongue in cheek, and the guitar underneath is pretty, almost wistful. “I don’t want to be solely political,” Bhiman explains. “I try to write songs about people, to be honest about how people actually are, they’re not always pretty. The songs you hear on the radio are all love songs. I don’t want to be like what’s on the radio.”
“The Cookbook,” which was released in 2008, showcases Bhiman’s versatility as a musician, with songs that are electric and acoustic, some which bear the distinctive stamp of reggae, and a couple slow, sexy blues songs. On his yet-to-be-titled new album, out early next year, he says that the cohesiveness of the record was something he was interested in this time around.
“More than a lyrical narrative, there’ll be a more consistent sound on this album. It’s all acoustic,” he says. Bhiman plays the guitar and sings, backed this time by an upright bass, and a homemade instrument called a cajon—a box that the musician sits on to play, hitting the center for a bass boom and strings around the corner that make a snare snap. “I’m not going to say you haven’t heard it before,” Bhiman says, with what seems to be characteristic modesty. “But maybe you haven’t. It sounds familiar but different.”
Bhiman is easy to locate in the folk/blues/reggae tradition, but what I find most compelling about his music is the way in which his Sri Lankan identity is navigated, which often surprising. There is nothing traditionally Sri Lankan about the genre of music he is working in, and in fact, the image of a brown guy crooning like Bob Dylan/Richie Haven/what-have-you can be a surprise, at first, in live performances. “When I play live, something else is going on, the visual of me playing that kind of music,” he says. “There might be an immediate novelty about it, but hopefully by the end of the show it isn’t even an issue. My ultimate goal is to make music that doesn’t matter what I look like.”
Yet, Bhiman brings a sensibility to his music that is utterly his own; a sharp wit that seems to be deeply informed by his identity as a Sri Lankan American, while not explicitly about it. Some of his songs seem built around the surprise of juxtaposition, as with “White Man’s Burden Blues,” the familiarity of the sound of the music against the satirical content of the lyrics. Bhiman’s music, like any good musician’s music, is specific to him.
I went to see Bhiman play one night in September at a café in San Francisco where he has a monthly gig. It’s an intimate venue, where the front row of the audience sits about a foot away from the performer, and a couple of times he launched into covers that a member of the audience requested. During songs where he used his fingers to pluck out the melody, he rested his guitar pick on his knee. Every once in a while the headlights from a passing car would come in through the widows and light him up. Eyes closed, he picked out a sweet, delicate melody, and we leaned forward to listen.
Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.
Photo by Avi Vinocur.