Music has been an essential part of my life since I was five years old. I don’t think there’s been a day in my life without singing. When I’m sick or my voice croaks and squeaks, when it hurts, and even when I’m too busy to eat, music has always been there for me when I’ve needed it. When I’m listening to music or singing, everything feels right with the world.
That music has changed over the years. Much of my music comes from my parents, but my older brother affected my music taste the most. As a child, my parents would constantly stream Maroon 5 or Contemporary Bollywood on Pandora radio. As I got older, my brother got me to listen to Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, John Mayer, and Sam Smith. By ten or eleven I was making my own musical choices and when I was fourteen, my taste was completely separate from my family.
But, more than anything, the eleven years I’ve spent in choir has shaped my music forever. I obsessively seek melodic music. I find it hard to enjoy a song without a strong melody, unlike some of my friends who prefer guitar lines or layers.
Inevitably, my musical taste is tied to my choral experience, because the only way I actually learn music is by finding the melodies and harmonies that inhabit it
I’ve discovered that the music I enjoy now is rather different from the rest of my family. My parents cannot stand slow, sad songs – my favorite type of music! It’s not as though I made a conscious decision to like sad songs, but I’ve come to realize that the strong, melodic tunes I love, are often sad ones.
Here why. I believe a powerful melody can carry a sad theme without the pressure to have a catchy, poppy background. A simple setting can make a strong tune stand out.
But that doesn’t mean sad songs are the only thing I like. Once in awhile, I’ll listen to quick-moving, happy tunes like Harry Styles’s “Canyon Moon” or Panic! At the Disco’s “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” – they have strong melodies as well.
At other times, there are songs I can listen to over and over again – mxmtoon’s “almost home” or Conan Gray’s “Heather” they just hit me hard.
But, in that musical search, I neglected one aspect of my childhood: Bollywood music.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Bollywood music. The background is intricate, the melodies are fun, and the storytelling is incredible. I just don’t know enough of it.
Of the hundreds of Bollywood songs I’ve heard in my life, I only know “Subhanallah” from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani fully, mostly because of my mom, and that took me hours on end to learn.
I don’t speak Hindi so learning the lyrics took me almost an hour. I read through it at least fifteen times – it was difficult for me to understand. The melody wasn’t hard because Subhanallah is a simple song, but unlike many Western songs, each of its two verses had different melodies -I had to figure out how the verses changed- not easy!
Give me a song from Bach’s cantata and a piano and I can learn it within the hour. That process takes me half the time. I’ll listen to the song, play it on the piano, sing it through a couple of times, figure out the lyrics, then practice it. Twice. That’s it.
I’m incredibly tuned into Western music, whether it’s choral pieces or theatre tunes or “contemporary” music. It’s expected, easier.
But Hindi songs are difficult. They live by a different set of rules. The language requires a unique technique, while the musical tones, the different runs, vocal flexes, and background, are often more complex than a Western song (unless it’s background-driven).
When singing has been defined by Western classical music like mine has, it’s very hard to switch mindsets.
For instance, when I’m singing a song I’ve sung a thousand times, I can mess with it however I want, but I’m almost always true to the style of the song. It’s twice as hard to do that with a Bollywood song. The intricacies are very different and I have to really think about the nuances of the song.
Sometimes that makes me feel like a traitor to my heritage.
One time I was asked to sing at a neighbor’s Navaratri party. I sang in English. I could’ve sung in Italian, but that would have been weird. I was complimented on my singing afterward, but I know that everyone was disappointed that I hadn’t sung in Tamil or Hindi or any Indian language.
What do I do? I don’t regret singing Western classical. I love my choir and what it’s taught me.
But, of course, music is about give-and-take. From my point of view, I have excellent Western training but I lost a good desi background. Can you have a perfect vocal technique for twentieth-century English music and for twenty-first-century Bollywood? It seems impossible!
But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. For a year my mom drove me to Palo Alto once a week for Carnatic music but I sucked at it. It was not my jam. Then again, it could’ve just been my petulant eight-year-old self.
Yet despite what my fears tell me, I’m not a traitor to my culture for not enjoying Carnatic music when I was eight. And yes, I do want to get better at singing Indian music, but ultimately, that’s not what matters.
My younger brother likes dubstep music, I hate it. My dad loves the song “Take it Easy, Urvashi” and my mom detests it. But even then, my entire family will always listen to songs like Culture Club’s iconic “Karma Chameleon”.
The thing is, music is different to everyone.
Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.