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  • Amira Hassan

Unveiling ROYAL’s Debut Album: A Fusion of Bengali Heritage and Modern Sounds

In recent years, our diaspora has witnessed a remarkable rise in South Asian representation in mainstream media and the arts industry, with talented artists breaking barriers and bringing their unique cultural heritage to the forefront. One such artist is ROYAL, a rising star in the music industry, whose debut album is set to captivate audiences with its fusion of Bengali heritage and modern sounds. With growing interest in music fusion and the blending of different languages, ROYAL's upcoming album promises to be a groundbreaking musical journey that transcends genres and identities.

In an exclusive interview with JORE Magazine, ROYAL opens up about his musical influences, the inspiration behind his debut album, and the challenges and opportunities of fusing Bengali heritage with modern music. He shares his vision of breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope in the music industry, and how his unique fusion of Bangla and English in his upcoming album reflects his artistic identity. Join us as we unveil ROYAL's highly anticipated debut album and delve into his creative process, musical vision, and the rich cultural tapestry that inspires his music. I am particularly excited about this interview because I am a HUGE fan of ROYAL’s work. Nevertheless, let’s get ready to dive into the world of ROYAL's music and discover the captivating fusion that awaits.

Thank you Shaunak for agreeing to interview with JORE today! I have been looking forward to this for a while because I’m a fan of your work and am excited to learn more about your upcoming project. Before we delve into that—let’s talk about your musical journey and how you got started in songwriting and music production.

It’s a pleasure to be here today, Amira!

I come from a musical family and both of my parents are very talented vocalists. When I was around 3-4 years old, they had purchased a Yamaha synthesizer keyboard and noticed that I was very drawn to it. They decided to put me into Western classical piano lessons and it all really took off from there! Growing up, I learned how to play piano and then through various school activities learned how to play the flute, drums, and other percussion instruments. Along the way, I also taught myself how to play guitar.

In high school, I came across a software called Ableton Live which opened my eyes to the world of music production. I began producing original beats and creating marching band arrangements of existing songs (I was on the drumline). In college, I was a part of a “South-Asian” fusion a cappella team and fusion dance team and began creating vocal arrangements, mixes, and mash-ups for our competition sets. These few years were pivotal in allowing me to practice multiple aspects of creating music and after college, I began to explore creating original music. I started off producing songs for Punjabi and Hindi language vocalists. However, working in these languages ultimately made me curious if I could write and perform in my mother-tongue, Bangla, and sparked the expansion of my musical expression through lyricism and vocal performance.

[For those of you who don’t know, ROYAL sings in more than one language and emphasizes on singing in Bangla and English].

In what ways has your Bengali heritage and use of Bangla language influenced your musical style and approach to the creative process?

I was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents when I was very young. Although there were certainly identity struggles as we moved through different phases of life, we always loved Bengali arts and entertainment. We were heavily immersed in the Bengali Cultural Society of Cleveland and would regularly attend the annual North American Bengali Convention. I believe this exposure and emphasis on Bengali culture and language growing up was instrumental in shaping how I presently incorporate Bangla into my music. It’s important for me to be authentic in how I express myself - I am Bengali-American through and through. I feel most creatively fulfilled when I fuse my identities together because it is representative of who I am. As such, the rhythms, scales, and motifs I employ in my creative process are rarely adherent to a single style or genre… I describe my music as “neo-desi”.

Can you share any stories or experiences from your family history, particularly during the Bangladesh liberation partition, that have influenced your music?

Like many Bengalis, the partition of India followed by Bangladesh’s fight for independence is an integral part of my family’s history. When I began writing songs in Bangla, I started digging deeper into our history. My grandparents' generation lived all over Bengal but as religious tensions continued before and after India’s partition, most of them fled to what is now West Bengal in India. As we are Hindu, those who remained in what is now Bangladesh were then ultimately violently displaced during Operation Searchlight and the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Although the following sentiment is sometimes romanticized and there are complex political layers, I always found it amazing that a country fought for its independence because of the love of its language - Bangla. One of my first solo songs, “Amaderi Same Pride”, touches on this in the chorus: “সব জুড়ে একসাথে পৃথিবী কে দেখায়, doesn’t matter what side, ভাষা ভালোবাসা এই তো আমাদেরই same pride” [let’s all come together and show the world, doesn’t matter what side, the love of our language is our same pride].

Who are some musicians or artists who inspire you within the Bengali community—or even beyond?

There are different aspects of so many Bengali musicians/groups that inspire me, I’ll try and short-list the ones who I feel have been most influential and why: Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s respective lyricism and legacy, Chandrabindoo’s live performance showmanship, Shreya Ghoshal’s technical mastery and dominance in the Bollywood film industry, and the magical combination of Arijit Singh, Pritam Chakraborty, and Amitabh Bhattacharya (must be because they’re all Bengali right?) 😉

How has the South Asian diasporic community shown support for your music and artistic pursuits?

I think those who have happened to come across the music have been excited to see and hear something fresh! I think right now, the music of the diaspora is usually songs in Hindi or Punjabi and there are definitely not a lot of Bangla/English records being circulated. But, it’s my hope that people continue to share these songs with each other and we can all learn more about the different languages and cultures from the subcontinent that have taken on different forms across the world.

One thing I definitely wanted to ask is about your family’s views on you pursuing this alongside your med school journey. I often hear about parents from our community reinforcing the idea of staying connected to the culture through the arts…but they are against their children following non-traditional career paths. How does your family view your decision to pursue music alongside your medical studies?

I’m really happy that you asked this question because I often find myself reflecting on it. From the jump, I feel very lucky that my family has been supportive of my artistic endeavors. I was trying different things from a very young age - music videos about economic concepts in high school, marching band arrangements, competitively singing and dancing in college, etc. Throughout it all, they’ve encouraged me and have been excited to see how I advanced in my craft.

Honestly, it’s tough to assess whether they would’ve been as supportive if I was balancing multiple “non-traditional” career paths. Societal expectations certainly play a role in the perception of different occupations, particularly in our communities. Who knows if things would’ve been the same if I was pursuing something like journalism alongside music (more power to those who may be!)

Regardless, I’ve grinded for this and my family has been there to help me along the way. My academic interests led me to study biomedical engineering, then medicine, and now I’m a surgeon-in-training and the first physician in my family. On the music side, I write, produce, and engineer all of my original songs. The overhead costs of running the ROYAL brand is taken care of by the audio production services I provide to clients in the community. By design of the brand that we built, a few of the difficulties and hardships that are a part of building a sustainable stand-alone music career are not ones that we have had to go through.

Can you talk about any particularly memorable collaborations you've had with other artists and what you have learned from the experience?

I feel very blessed to have been able to collaborate with some incredible musicians and create art that we are all very proud of. One of the most memorable collaborative experiences I had was with my good friend and fellow artist Jai Matt. After getting connected through our mutual friend Dr. Srimix a few years back, we started throwing some original song ideas around and found that we had natural musical chemistry. Towards the end of 2020, we were able to get together in person for a week-long studio session and it was such a fun experience. I would be in med school lectures during the day, Ruchi would be working remotely, and then in the evenings we would drive over to an Airbnb that we had converted into a temporary studio. Jimika and Ruchi would be coming up with business & marketing ideas while Jai and I would be endlessly creating music - I think we generated close to 20 songs by the end of the week!

Jai had been in the game a few years longer than I have and he was in the process of evaluating and adapting his career and life aspirations (ultimately moved to India). Hearing his stories and perspectives on the industry were instrumental in identifying how I wanted to move as an artist and a brand. In addition, we found many of our values outside of music to be aligned and still frequently find ourselves in deep convos about life, meaning, and purpose. It’s the best feeling to be able to create music with a talented artist that you can also call your friend.

Recently, a birdie told me that you got matched and you’re on your way towards becoming a General Surgeon—congratulations on that! I understand that balancing medical school and producing music can be a challenging endeavor as both are time-consuming. How do you manage to balance both of these pursuits and what tips have you learned over the years in overcoming any creative blocks?

Thank you so much! I’m really looking forward to this next chapter and starting a general surgery residency.

Man, at this point? I could probably talk about this all day because pursuing both has made this journey so much more rewarding. Whether it was in undergrad or medical school, I have felt the most content and fulfilled when I was simultaneously working on medicine and music. When I have felt drained from an avalanche of didactic lectures or clinical rotations, creating music is there to rejuvenate me. When I have sat at the piano for hours with no signs of a new melody materializing, medicine is there to motivate me to learn a new topic or skill that could be used to help take care of my next patient. In short, I have found a beautiful balance in pursuing both.

I’ve always disliked the notion that once somebody’s “real job” begins, they should let go of their other passions. I believe it is possible to balance multiple occupations and have those occupations make up your career, as long as your goals are realistic and you have a plan! There are only 24 hours in a day and it all depends on how we are comfortable using that time. After a long day of work at the hospital, my way of unwinding is working on an instrumental or writing lyrics. Some may view that as more work, but for me, it’s relaxation. I remember during my USMLE Step 1 dedicated study period, I thought I needed to completely stop making music and solely focus on studying - I couldn’t have been more wrong! Any time that I have let the balance swing too hard in a certain direction, my mental/emotional health has usually suffered along with my academic performance.

Everyone’s time management methods are different in attempting this balance but here’s what’s worked for me thus far! 1) I use Google Calendar to visualize tasks/events down to the minute, color-coordinated and all. This is how I hold myself accountable and most importantly, it provides me with real-time feedback on whether I am accurately gauging how long things take me to complete. 2) I try to intentionally limit the amount of content that I consume as it’s precious time that could be used to create! I never watched TV growing up and still really don’t but NBA highlights on YouTube can be very tempting haha 3) I am fortunate to have a partner who is also my manager. In addition to working as an analyst for Deloitte, Ruchi handles most of the administrative tasks associated with maintaining the ROYAL brand. This allows me to primarily focus on music creation.

Also, I recently heard that your new project “Dosh” has been placed on a Spotify Bangladesh editorial playlist. What music project or album are you currently working on, and what can we expect from it?

Yes, the elusive Spotify editorial playlist placement haha! That was such a great moment because as an independent artist, it’s one of those milestones that you really never know if you’ll get.

“dosh” was the first single off my upcoming debut album, eponymously titled “Shaunak.” This seven-track endeavor has been an intense labor of love, passion, and creativity that took place over the course of my fourth-year of medical school. As the realities of the resident schedule loomed closer, I felt like this was going to be one of my only times in the near future that I would be able to devote myself to a long-form project. The music business may have strayed away from albums but I still think that there’s something incredible about listening to a project from top to bottom and really inviting a listener into an artist’s world. With “Shaunak” I wanted the listener to hear all of the different influences that make my artistic identity today and it was so much fun creating these vastly different soundscapes for each track. Lyrically, I dug in deep and wrote freely in Bangla and English picking and choosing my pockets based on what sounded the best to me. It was a tremendously rewarding experience creating the album and can’t wait for you all to hear it when it drops on পহেলা বৈশাখ (Bengali New Year) on April 14th, 2023.

As you know, 2022 [and even 2023!] has been the best year for South Asian representation for we have witnessed many members from our diaspora being recognized for their achievements all across the board. What does this phenomenon mean for your musical journey, and what do you envision for the future of the South Asian diaspora music industry?

It’s certainly been incredible to witness - kudos to all the incredible artists, visionaries, and behind-the-scenes maestros who have been a part of this current wave. We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us and have slowly pushed the envelope. The increasing recognition gives me hope that one day, we’ll hear music created by diaspora musicians very much in the mainstream: music without borders that flows between languages, styles, and genres.

With that said, I think it’s an interesting time in the industry. Perhaps, our collective embracement of the term “South-Asian” has unintended consequences. I think that while the unity we all feel when we use that term can be empowering, we lose the inherent complexity that defines the subcontinent and subcultures that so many of us draw inspiration from. It’s a topic that I humbly provide my thoughts on in “f.t.c,” the final track of the album. I think it’s critically important that we do a greater job within the community at recognizing different regional languages, cultures, and arart formso that the mainstream ultimately does not gloss over it all as just being “brown.” The future is bright, but we should be intentional and genuine with our marketing so as to maximize the impact that our community can have!

Looking Into The Future

As the music industry continues to evolve, the future of Bengali fusion music looks promising with artists like ROYAL leading the way. Through his debut album, ROYAL has showcased the richness of Bengali heritage fused with modern sounds, breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope of what is possible in music. His unique blend of Bangla and English, combined with his creative vision, has resulted in a harmonious fusion that I believe will continue to captivate listeners and leaves them wanting more.

If you're a music lover who appreciates diverse genres and cultural influences [or someone who is curious enough to], ROYAL's debut album is a must-listen. It's now available to stream on all major music platforms, and you can find the link in this article. Let's show ROYAL some love and support by checking out his music, celebrating his talent, and embracing the growing wave of Bengali representation in the music industry. Get ready to be mesmerized by the fusion of Bengali heritage and modern sounds as ROYAL takes you on a musical journey unlike any other. Also, talk about the perfect timing for this album to be released because today is Pohela Boishakh [Bengali New Year]. Shubho Noboborsho JORE fam!

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