Listening In: Keshav Batish, Both/And
Composer and percussionist Keshav Batish has an impressive musical lineage. His grandfather, S.D. Batish, was trained in Hindustani music and worked as a Bollywood playback singer, composer, and arranger. Keshav’s father, Pandit Ashwin Batish, played sitar and tabla in a band that fused rock and various Indian musical traditions. “There were no formal lessons or imparting of stories,” Keshav says by phone from Santa Cruz, where he was born and raised and has stayed on to get a Master’s in composition at the university there. “It all just happened in a very organic way. I remember being in the room with my grandpa when he was composing. And of course, he was always singing, always working out ideas. It’s like I was bathing in this pool of music.”
Batish’s connection to his South Asian roots is strong. “I remember, growing up, having Diwali celebrations, nightly prayers, and singing pageants, just having a very rich spiritual life. I continue to speak a mixture of Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and English with my family, so I am both South Asian and American, but I don’t really feel like either identity, and that’s certainly an idea I’m working through with my compositions.” His efforts are marked by a certain skepticism towards the idea of music as a simple construct. “I have mixed feelings regarding saying music is a universal language. I find it interesting instead to think of it as many languages.”
His first album, Binaries in Cycle, will be self-released in July. The title piece developed because “I was always hopping between worlds, hopping between cultures. I think writing this song was a means of releasing that from me. Eventually, there was this kind of liberation from the idea of binary choice.” As a queer artist of color, he “wanted to accept a way of living that’s more ephemeral, without label.”
“What I’ve always found interesting within my own mediation practices has been trying my best to observe and not to label the thing that I’m observing. At the same time, there’s something so vital about being able to communicate to someone else what you’re seeing and thinking about, and that involves description. So again, there is this tussle between ideas being translated into a means of expression and wanting to experience something directly, rather than having to identify it first.”
The album contains several original compositions that integrate traditional elements of jazz and Hindustani music, as well as two intriguing covers: “Police People” by Ornette Coleman and “We See” by Thelonious Monk. “What I find so heart-warming and fascinating about Monk and Ornette is how true they were to themselves from the beginning. They were always speaking their personal truth. I regard them as my heroes, as these mystics who always honored their own spirits, I feel I need to find that originality in myself and find my voice within the music.”
Binaries in Cycle was recorded at Kuumbwa Jazz, a space in Santa Cruz that means a lot to Batish. “Kuumbwa is central to my development as an artist. Even though it is a small not-for-profit in a small town, they brought through some of the biggest names in creative music. I’ve been a part of their educational programs since I was little, and they have always helped connect me to the larger scene.” He developed there along with two of his ensemble members, pianist Lucas Hahn and bassist Aron Caceres, then met alto saxist Shay Shalov on the Bay Area scene. “There’s definitely an implicit trust with them, and I think there has to be that feeling for the music to sit right. The group has this freedom to it, as well as a kind of through-line and means of organization.”
The sweatshirt that Batish wears in the video he recorded at Kuumbwa reads, in Coca-Cola-style script, “Decolonize.” “The decolonization aspect of my music is about eliminating this feeling of always having to compare what I do to these European-derived forms,” he explains. “I remember Toni Morrison speaking about how, when she started writing, she did not want her work to be seen as existing within a white space. And I think I feel similar in the sense that I don’t ever want my music to be formed in a way that it is focused on trying to explain itself.”
Again, he credits his father, of whom he considers himself a disciple. “He didn’t really put labels on his music, he was always very open, just telling me, ‘Try this groove, try that, see how it supports the rest of the music.’ There’s a freedom of expression that he always allowed me.”
“Also, we both play more than one instrument. I’ve studied on both a Western drum kit and tabla, and also play sitar. Being able to embody both the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the music has really helped me develop confidence in my playing and composing.”
Batish views the concepts of khali (empty) and bhari (full) as central to his outlook. “I’ve developed a really strong understanding of how important silence is to me. There’s something so heavy about sitting with silence for a while and then, when a sound emerges, it’s so stark. When I’m playing, it’s my hope that I’m not trying to force anything into the space that shouldn’t be there.” This sense of the interplay of negative and positive space via sound put me in mind of a part of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” with its trenchant take on that duality:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Again, Batish traces his approach to expression to his meditative practice. “I think I’m trying in a sense to be more passive in order to be more active. I want to let action arise from when I really feel that I need to act.” Yet when Batish does fill the space, he does so with intention and passion; the final track on the album, for instance, “Wingspan,” passes through dematerialized quietude before ending with a blaze of overlapping drum patterns, the rhythms shifting throughout.
Batish celebrates hybridity, while also recognizing its costs. “As one of two Indian kids in a majority white school, I was always having to be an ambassador for my culture. I remember trying to force the integration of my tabla into the school band. I was kind of breaking myself in that act of translation.” He sees some of these same issues writ large around him. “There has been, especially post-partition in India, a tendency to assign music the task of representing this new national entity. What was overlooked in that reclassification was the hybrid nature of the music—of all music, really. There are all these crosscurrents in Hindustani music, with a great influence of Arabic and Persian music, as well. I have struggled with how to reconcile this syncretism, but I’m starting to accept that I don’t have to struggle with it and can just let those different influences exist at the same time.” In the process, Batish moves from an “either/or” to a “both/and” conception and emerges all the stronger for it.