Sounds from Both Sides of the World by Maya Sinha
Being born mixed-race was a chaotic way to grow up. I have an Indian father, a Chinese mother, and scores of relatives from both sides. As I grew older and became more self-aware, a sort of anxiety built up within me as I negotiated the real-life tensions between what I saw as inherent cultural differences and between being both Indian and Chinese. As I was already experiencing an internal war from my hybrid genetics, throw my American upbringing into the mix and I often felt like a walking tapestry of cultures.
My muddled feelings are not limited only to other mixed-raced children, but extend to many children of immigrants who experience the battle between heritage and assimilation. In her work The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan verbalizes feelings of cultural tension by detailing the interactions between Chinese mothers and their first-generation, assimilated daughters. One of the mothers advises her daughter, “I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other.” While Tan writes specifically about Chinese families, this statement holds true to many children of immigrants. Which face do we choose to show the world? Which face encompasses who we are inside? The evident clash of American and Chinese values drives the conflict of Tan’s book. However, she concludes that there need not be war between things that seem to be different superficially. A cultural blend is not only necessary for peace but also fashions a new way of thinking. With that said, the blend that Tan discusses is not like red and white paint mixing into a smooth, codominant pink. This ‘blend’ is a hybrid mix that retains distinction but is more vivid precisely because of that synthesis. It is more of a spotted red and white creature, born of two cultures and still beautiful.
Music is a beautiful way to tangibly grasp the mingling of different cultures as they blend together. I was able to witness this blending when I learned that my university, University of California, Santa Barbara, has a club called Dhadkan, which has the purpose to unite “people of various backgrounds together to accomplish projects relating to social change and philanthropy.” In an interview with Sonia Patel, president of Dhadkan, I also learned that Nachle Deewane, their main concert event, rallies together the small number of South Asians in the Santa Barbara area. It seeks to bring “the national collegiate South Asian community together in solidarity,” to raise “awareness about the inadequate education in many parts of the world,” and to show audiences how they themselves can make a positive difference.
Nachle Deewane features two styles of dancing: bhangra and Bollywood fusion. Bhangra is a highly energetic Punjabi dance that involves a lot of jumping and is usually performed to fast-paced traditional music. Fusion dancing combines classical Bollywood songs and dancing with contemporary Western music and dancing for greater cultural relevance in an American context.
Through modern-integrated music, Dhadkan and Nachlee Dewane manifest the awareness and celebration of cultural diversity on the UCSB campus, exemplifying a strong unity between different cultures. The next segment of this article analyzes some of last year’s Nachle Deewane performances and interrogates if and how these establish cultural fusion.
Below is a video of the first place Fusion winner of Nachle Deewane 2019, University of Southern California’s Zeher team, who performed a narrative of a young South Asian woman making her way through India, trying to find her identity in her heritage. The performance showcases the diversity of South Asia through the wide variety of music and dancing.
It is important to note the narration of the story about traveling through different states and highlighting specific cultural traditions and dancing styles of India. The video exemplifies the vibrancy of weddings and the sensuality of the Bollywood industry, just to name a few. These translate into the final message that no matter where you end up, your heritage will always stay with you. This piece thematically conveys that a fusion of cultures does not lead to the loss of cultural awareness or the stagnation of cultural domination, showing instead how ethnic elements can be sustained in their uniqueness even in close interaction.
The performance of University of California, San Diego’s Da Real Punjabiz showcases another instance of synthesis, in this case, a fluid combination of bhangra and westernized beats.
In this soundtrack, there is an intentional combination of classic bhangra music and hip-hop beats. The former represents the vivaciousness of traditional India while the latter encompasses the energy of 21st century American popular music. The subtle yet unmistakable integration of modern music into bhangra music establishes that the traditional music takes precedence, yet there is no need to disregard energy from modern forms as well. This integration specifically shows how there is a simultaneous and underlying appreciation of modern American music woven into this display of South Asian celebration.
In this same manner, the performance of University of California, Davis’s Bhangra Crew highlights the way in which traditional instruments can be used to compose highly cultured, ethnically-based, but musically relevant pieces for non-Indian audiences, which is valuable both as enjoyment and celebration.
At the beginning of the second minute, the introduction to Migos’s “Fight Night” is heard. This is meant to catch the attention of the audiences who are most likely familiar with this popular rap song. However, there is more. Gradually, Indian vocals and drums are introduced in the same cadence as “Fight Night.” Because bhangra is quite an aggressive, exuberant style of dancing, the addition of “Fight Night” evokes the same energy that defines bhangra, shows again the musical and cultural convergences, and evokes the same aesthetic appreciation.
The next video features the University of California, Santa Cruz team, Kahaani, who integrates the greatest number of current songs into the storyline of their performance and best conveys the power of fusing different cultures to be able to reach the most amount of people.
At minute 2:09, Kahaani incorporated beats and rapping from Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” to the fusion performance, whose storyline represents the literal genetic ties from father to daughter. At 3:02, Lauv’s “Paris in the Rain” plays—with no Indian instrumentals. The western song is heavily integrated into the story, with the two main characters having run away from her strict father. At 4:17, G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha’s “Me, Myself, and I” mirrors how the girl is feeling isolated without her family and friends back home. Immediately after, a Bollywood remix of Lauv’s “I Like Me Better” plays to symbolize reconciliation between the couple. The performance also features many popular Bollywood songs like “Sweetheart” from Kedarnath overlaid with EDM or hip-hop beats: the effect achieved is one of greater liveliness of the performance.
While the combination of songs speaks to the integration of Western pop culture into South Asian tradition, the modern songs chosen also speak for themselves. For example, the lines taken from Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” are “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” In these lines, Lamar describes how his mother taught him about loyalty to his family and how he intended “royalty” to refer to his Black heritage. By bringing this into their performance, UCSC Kahaani highlights the tragically ironic parallels in the case of Indian culture, where fierce loyalty to one’s family can sometimes be detrimental and specifically — as seen in the storyline of this performance — can result in extreme measures being taken against culturally frowned-upon interactions.
When celebrating the vibrancy of other cultures and bringing these into one’s own life, it is important to be careful about where the line is drawn — from respectful appreciation to ‘unintentional stealing.’ Cultural appropriation is a term that often surfaces in discussions about combining tradition with its modern usages. Cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status.” The problem of ‘taking on’ another’s culture is not problematic with the integration of novel cultural practices into everyday life — like drinking espresso or wearing espadrilles. However, “when somebody takes something from another less dominant culture in a way that members of that culture find undesirable and offensive,” it can be disturbing and cause offense. Appropriation has less to do with intent, and all to do with respect.
For example, Coldplay’s “Hymn for The Weekend” music unfortunately has been accused of being marked by heavy cultural South Asian appropriation.
The difference between a show like Nachle Deewane and this Coldplay music video is that the former celebrates Indian culture in a way that is neither patronizing nor condescending. It is unfortunate to hold Coldplay’s feet to the fire over this video, they do present aspects of Indian culture in an unrealistic light. Holi is an extremely colorful festival in all senses of the word, but also carries specific meanings in the Indian context; however, in this video its representation seems inauthentic and used simply for token diversity. The broader intent in the video does not seem to celebrate cross-cultural backgrounds. Instead, Coldplay ‘takes’ and invokes South Asian culture selectively as their own purposes and simply exploits the vibrancy of a cultural festival to energize their video and benefit from this cultural invocation.
One of the purposes of Dhadkan and Nachle Deewane is to raise awareness about the everyday conditions of some communities in South Asia. At the same time, they use their concert and performances as avenues to show non-Indian audiences the richness of the Indian culture. Although Coldplay, of course, cannot be expected to present the complexity of any one culture in a single music video, there is an inherent ignorance underlying the video and pure exoticization of South Asian women that rightly raises eyebrows.
I could talk about how it is unfair to marginalize people for one’s convenience, as the theory of cultural appropriation explains; however, while naming the root of the problem is important, it can only do so much. The members of Dhadkan have taken it upon themselves to be active participants in supporting a racial community and addressing its problems with alternative solutions through a combination of celebration and education. It is through efforts like these that unnecessary tensions between different peoples can be addressed and ameliorated, and events like Nachle Deewane can rally together a community bigger than just UCSB itself.
If a primary goal of a university education is to expand one’s scope of knowledge and critical understanding of the world, a club like Dhadkan ticks all the boxes. Their commitment to creating a respectful, diverse, inclusive, and safe place for the South Asian community in Santa Barbara is vital. This would ensure sustainability of one’s heritage and core identity in a space where it can be so easy to assimilate to American culture. However, Dhadkan represents more than ‘the Indian club’ at UCSB. This initiative is much bigger: to surface and give visibility to global problems that are quite literally foreign to most Santa Barbara residents. In doing so, they exemplify how one can engage in cross-cultural endeavors that can be appreciated by everyone.
Growing up as a mixed-race child in America was certainly interesting, albeit at times confusing. I had my Indian family, I had my Chinese family, and I had my American friends. In these early years, I envied those ‘lucky’ friends who never had to choose who to be or what culture to adopt. I had then thought they were blessed to avoid the internal struggle with these integral questions of identity and cultural belonging. Over time, though, I have come to realize and relish in the richness and uniqueness of my heritage and ancestry, which is rich precisely because of the cultural fusion, hybridity, and synthesis that I embody as an individual. I am learning to value this and am now, literally, comfortable in my own skin. But this realization goes beyond personal value. To understand the abstract blending of cultures that present themselves as vastly different is to understand the process of empathy and appreciation between any two different peoples. The tension between two faces is dissolved, and a new face appears: a face of sensitivity and empathy. A face that everyone can wear as members of the human race. And from these faces sings a new tune. From this, we hear the chorus of sounds from both sides of the world.
Coldplay. “Hymn for the Weekend (Official Video).” YouTube. YouTube. 26 January 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YykjpeuMNEk.
“Cultural Appropriation.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/cultural-appropriation?s=t.
Hundal, Harjot. “Da Real Punjabiz – First Place @ Nachle Deewane 2019.” YouTube. YouTube. 22 July 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJo-Ze2YcGg&feature=youtu.be.
Hundal, Harjot. “Davis Bhangra Crew @ Nachle Deewane 2019.” YouTube. YouTube. 29 July 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tx3kBdmyFA&feature=youtu.be.
Hundal, Harjot. “UCSC Kahaani – Second Place @ Nachle Deewane 2019.” YouTube. YouTube. 16 July 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3QUrDeO-GY&feature=youtu.be.
Hundal, Harjot. “USC Zeher – First Place @ Nachle Deewane 2019.” YouTube. YouTube. 17 July 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEGC9pmfTXg.
“Kendrick Lamar – DNA.” Genius, 14 Apr. 2017, genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-dna-lyrics.
Reuell, Peter. “Music May Transcend Cultural Boundaries to Become Universally Human.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 9 Jan. 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/01/music-may-transcend-cultural-boundaries-to-become-universally-human/.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Penguin Books, 2019.
“What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Offensive?” The Week UK, 9 Sept. 2019, www.theweek.co.uk/cultural-appropriation.
Maya Sinha is a first-year biological anthropology and math double major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This piece was written in a sound-focused humanities class to investigate how music influences and is influenced by cultural blend. She is excited to delve into her anthropology major to learn more about cultures over the next couple years. She also would like it to be known that her hair is no longer brown but rose gold, and it probably will be fiery red next week.
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