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  • Saumya Monga

Underground Desi: South Asian Musicians Breaking Barriers.

Many people are introduced to Desi music through the silver screen of Bollywood. The vibrant colors in the music videos, the upbeat tempo made for dancing, and the sugary sweet voices of the female singers are usually the extent to which people know about the sounds of South Asia.

While there are some amazing singers and producers within Bollywood, there is a slew of artists outside of the mainstream that are making their mark on the underground music scene.

These musicians, in their own right, are forging their own path away from the prototype most people are familiar with. Their songs are not attached to blockbuster Bollywood films, but some have still garnered commercial success, while others certainly deserve some more attention. Here are five artists breaking barriers in the South Asian music scene:

Photo courtesy of @thelocaltrain

The Local Train

The Local Train is very reminiscent of early 2000s indie rock, with their use of soft guitar melodies. They are mostly famous for their insightful lyrics, mixing Hindi and Urdu, the latter being an incredibly old language known for its inherently poetic qualities. The deeper meaning behind their lyrics and the use of softer melodies truly makes The Local Train an enchanting band, one that pulls you into their world of pure wonder.

Photo courtesy of @whenchaimettoast

When Chai Met Toast

Like their name, When Chai Met Toast combines English, Tamil, and Hindi in their delightful lyrics. There is no band quite like them as they show off the different aspects of their identity, reiterating that music does not know any language barriers. Their upbeat, folksy melodies are most definitely going to bring a smile to your face. Give this incredibly infectious band a listen!

Photo courtesy of @delhi2dublin

Delhi 2 Dublin

Delhi 2 Dublin is definitely a unique listening experience as they blend the light, energetic sounds of Celtic music with the traditional, heavy sounds of Bhangra music. "TumbiWOW" uses instruments such as the dhol, flute, and tabla as its base, however, it ends with a full-on tribute to the sounds of Ireland with Celtic string melodies. The combination of two completely different styles of music from two completely different parts of the world sounds like it could never work. However, Delhi 2 Dublin not only makes it work, but affirms that two completely different cultures don’t have to cacophonously clash, but can instead create an entirely new sound based on a beautiful harmony.

Photo courtesy of @aroojaftabmusic

Arooj Aftab

Growing up, my parents would always play the ghazals they used to listen to when they were young, like “Suroor” and “Mohabbat Karne Wale.” With complex instrumentation as a foundation, the prose was extremely poetic and carried spiritual undertones. Aftab, a Pakistani-American singer, stripped back those ghazals on her latest album Vulture Prince. Her voice sounds like butter as it floats over the laid-back guitar melodies. The focus is entirely on the poetry of the lyrics, which are mostly in Urdu. Combining the spirituality of ghazals, which are often present in a sect of Islam known as Sufism, and soft guitar sounds make for a magical experience.

Photo courtesy of @abisampa

Abi Sampa

Haven’t gotten enough of Aftab’s music? Well, check out Abi Sampa for some more Sufi-inspired music. Originally finding success on The Voice UK, Sampa’s music carries much of the variegated sounds present within South Asia. “Man Kunto Maula” is a Qawwali devotional song featuring instruments such as the tabla. In “Little Girl”, she combines English lyrics with the instrumentation of sitars, drums, and dhols. Sampa creates excellent fusion music, showing the various aspects of her identity as well as the diversity present within South Asia alone. Travel the mystical lands of Sufism, or take a walk down the roads of Kerala as you listen to the songs of hers influenced by Carnatic music. Sampa is sure to take you on a journey through the sounds of South Asia from Pakistan to India to Sri Lanka.

While Bollywood has no shortage of great music, many artists in the underground scene deserve the same amount of attention as they push the barriers of what South Asian music actually is.

Filled with a vast number of cultures and perspectives, these artists show us that Bollywood is only one side of the multi-faceted music present within South Asia.

Discover something new and let these songs transport you!

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