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Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
When vocalist Shilpa Anantha Narayanan peers into the future, she sees a first-of-its-kind contemporary music school in her native India. And she sees herself as its architect.
Narayanan’s path to Berklee wasn’t straightforward. But looking at the arc of it—full of dissonance between the East and the West—one can see why she would be a great candidate to create a school where the best aspects of music from India and abroad are cultivated.
Born in Dubai to an Indian family, Narayanan studied a South Indian classical music form called Carnatic. But Western pop influences filtered through—Beyoncé, Linkin Park, the Beatles—and she dreamed of learning R&B, funk, and soul. Her dream—particularly the part where she studies in America—was met with resistence. Her family’s expectations did not include sending their only daughter halfway around the world to pursue a field with no guarantees.
She completed a degree in media and communications at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, and then, unbeknownst to her parents, auditioned for Berklee when admissions staff came to India. Today, she’s thriving at Berklee, performing funk and R&B, as well as traditional Indian music, and bringing it all together.
The following is a condensed and edited account of our conversation.
What was your exposure to Western music growing up in Dubai?
My brother exposed me to most of it. But I didn’t have a sense of the different genres of Western music. I mostly heard whatever was popular at the time. Backstreet Boys, Linkin Park. But also what I heard people talk about. Like the Beatles. But this was all at a later age. I first heard of the Beatles when I was 15. Most kids would’ve known about them already. It wasn’t like I was listening to all jazz musicians or something. I just listened to everybody.
What did you perform for the Berklee audition?
When I was in India, American music was big there. When I sing jazz, people are amazed—that I don’t sing with an Indian accent or the fact that I can do a jazz scale. So I auditioned with a jazz piece. There were a bunch of exercises that they did. It’s funny; at that time I didn’t even know what a melody and a harmony were. We have a different idea of what melody and what harmony is. So when they asked me to sing a harmony, I think I ended up singing an Indian scale. I was like, I really don’t know what you want me to do! And they said, “You’re doing it. Don’t question it. You’re doing what we want you to do; you just don’t know that you’re doing it.”
What were some of your parents’ concerns when you decided to come to Berklee?
When I first came to this school, my parents were really worried, and one of the things they were worried about was sending a single girl to America: “She’s going to adopt the culture over there, she’s going to change.” They were really worried that I might start singing profanity.
The Contemporary Indian Music Ensemble was a blessing for me, and also for my parents. They got to see me perform on the BPC stage wearing an Indian sari. It was a huge deal for them because they were like, “Wow. We’re not worried anymore.” And they were able to proudly send that video of me singing. They’re happy that I’m holding the Indian flag, being proud about it. But at the same time, I’m not here to just hold the flag and hold on to what I had before. Because I already have that. I am here to expose that, but also learn whatever I can and bring a combination of what I learn and what I already know.
What professors have you connected with here?
Annette Philip and Christiane Karam. Both of them were students at Berklee and now they’re both in the Voice Department. Annette manages the Indian ensemble. I joined right away, and I’ve been in the ensemble every semester. Our shows are always packed, I think because people are dying to see what we have. We always create a proper Indian ambiance. We have a proper repetoire. It’s not commercial at all. It’s very traditional but also what’s good and current.
Christiane manages the Middle Eastern Ensemble. Once I got into the Middle Eastern Ensemble, the next semester I was in the Flamenco Ensemble. And that opened doors for me, because at the show, we did songs about Gypsies going through Andalusia, Greece, Turkey, and India. In that show, I was able to sing Spanish music, as well as stay true to my roots and sing Indian music. Next semester I’m going to be joining the Balkan Ensemble. I’m getting a taste of different kinds of music and will hopefully be able to put some of the influences and inspirations into my own music.
What do you ultimately want to do musically?
What I’m trying to do is get a little bit of funk, a little bit of soul, and mixing funk and soul with my Indian roots and making kind of Indian soul music. I don’t think there is any such genre, but I’m trying to create that genre—trying to create some kind of mix between the East and the West.
What do you see yourself being able to bring back to the Indian musical community?
I want to be able to go back and possibly start a contemporary music school. That’s a long-term plan. The Indian mentality and mindset is changing. That’s why the older generation is very afraid that we will lose our culture. But it’s not about losing our culture; it’s about learning other cultures. We watch American TV from the time we’re children. We read your books. We’re watching everything that happens here. So why not study the music? Like, we don’t have harmony in our music, so maybe bringing these new concepts and showing them just what we can do with it and making it our own. If we can do that, maybe they wouldn’t take it as a joke. Maybe they will understand it’s as complex.
What would you say to an Indian student thinking of coming to Berklee?
I would say chase after your dream. In a field like music, it’s really easy to be doubtful about what’s going to happen, and if it’s going to be okay. But if you believe in anything, the money will come and you’ll be fine.