“I Felt Foreign Again In A Different Way”: Shubh Saran Reconciles The Nuances Of Identity On ‘inglish’
12 November 2021
There’s been a rise of attention given to diaspora artists channelling their roots through their more contemporary artistic practices. Acts based in UK and US with their family roots in South Asia have been more boldly performing about their experience as immigrants or as children of immigrants, sampling the media they grew up around, or simply borrowing from their traditions, as a statement of ‘fuck you’ to the xenophobia in political discourses or as an unabashed retaliation to the societal pressure of moulding identities to be more comfortable and familiar to the people around them. For Shubh Saran, that combination of two (or more) cultures happened not as a statement of representation or a socio-political outcry, but through an experience of self-discovery.
“When I began exploring themes for the album and the things I was reading, I realized that it really was about being comfortable in my own skin,” says the New York-based guitarist and composer who attempts to branch beyond his usual idioms of jazz while exploring the nuances of his identity on his latest album ‘inglish’.
Being raised in six different countries as the son of Indian diplomats, Saran recalls noticing the stark contrast in the culture inside his own home and the culture of the people he met outside it. “Things that I was so familiar with seemed so foreign to people around me that I started to hide those parts of my identity,” he tells me. “When my family moved back to India, however, I found that I felt foreign again in a different way. I didn’t in fact have an Indian upbringing, and that hybrid identity seemed to conflict when I moved back to India as well.”
Saran attempted to reconcile these dissonances in the moments of introspection allowed by the pandemic and the very idea of identity in an increasingly globalized world – reflecting the notions that formed during the process in musical form with the 10-track release. He adds: “All the songwriting for this album was done in a room alone during the pandemic, devoid of any input from other musicians, so the subject matter is deeply personal.”
Consequently, ‘inglish’ is laden with personal emotions and moments of reflection, rather than outward statements. While a representation of Saran’s Indian roots forms an integral part of the album’s definition, they do not form the central subject of the compositions – serving only as part of the conduit to express intimate sentiments.
The glides and ornamentations of ‘Enculture’ and ‘the Other’ may easily remind one of classical Indian music, but at their core, the compositions are brimming with the passion of reconnecting with a long-lost, and of the nostalgia that was probably born out of reflecting on one’s upbringing. “I wanted to embrace some of the music I’d always heard around me at home and with family but never paid attention to till a lot later in life, including Indian film music, folk music and Hindustani classical music,” he adds. The only instances where non-western influences take centre-stage come with the Indian folk percussions on the energetic ‘intra’, Rasika Shekhar’s flute lines on ‘postradition’ and the Gnawa-inspired rhythms of closer ‘Mother Tongue Influence’.
The foundational sentimentality is put even more in the forefront on the album’s latter languid numbers ‘There Across The Ocean’ and ‘remember to come home soon’, where the energy of the drums are forgone for most parts to focus on the textures of intimate arrangements. They, along with ‘MOS’, serve to distinguish the latter half of the album from its former half and even Saran’s wider discography, by shifting from different detailed instrumental melodic parts playing off of each other to presenting abstract spectral soundscapes where the various instruments are combined to explore the potency of their timbral amalgamations.
Image by Elizabeth Maney
Disconnected from the setting of a live band during the pandemic, Saran notes that the album saw him writing “from a production-centric lens”. In the peripheries, he adds textures of modular and semi-modular synths that are often indistinguishable from the layers of guitars but unarguably add to the album’s engulfing energy.
However, in spite of the varied sonic palette and a creation process that rested more on meticulous finessing of individual parts than spontaneous improvisation, the shifting focus between individual instrumental parts that intensify till the edge of chaos in their time in the spotlight still associates ‘inglish’ with the genre-bending resurgence of jazz, especially its US east coast scene which Saran is a product and part of. The big draw is that instead of being driven from the excitement of intellectual musical ideas, Saran lets emotional aims guide his creation – and that separates ‘inglish’ from the majority of the work in the genre.
Words by Amaan Khan
Image by Lauren Desberg