The synergy between jazz and Indian music is no accident. Subhi continues to merge the genres and leave a legacy larger than herself.
Subhi and I met on a cold winter afternoon at Chiya Chai, a quaint and hip Nepali café in Logan Square. She is a singer/songwriter who describes her debut album, Shaitaan Dil, as “Hindi Pop Jazz” and has performed widely in the city and across the US. In November 2017, she was a speaker and performer for the TEDx conference in Naperville, Illinois. This year, she will be performed at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas and will also be performing at the Google Headquarters in California.
As we set up for the interview, conversation flowed easily. We talked about how winter hibernation afforded us both opportunities to slow down and catch up on our work. I mentioned that I recognized one of the musicians in the video for her single “Release:” the violinist was my roommate during my first visit to Chicago in July 2016.
Subhi moved to the US with her family when she was in high school, and the confluence of her Indian and American identities come through in her music. Her influences include Bollywood composer and musician Amit Trivedi; Mumbai-based electronic music duo Madboy Mink; and 20th century Indian poet Gulzar—who she loves for his ability to personify everything.
She started her career in music after pursuing a promising career in finance in Wall Street, a trajectory she followed in her older sister’s footsteps. But after a few years and recognitions in the corporate world, Subhi decided to do something different. Her first musical gig in New York was an internship with Monsoon Wedding: The Musical. At the time, she hadn’t decided whether to keep her musical interests as hobbies, or immerse herself in them. While working on that project, she met Mira Nair, who told her “passions are supposed to be pursued full time.”
Full time, in this case, meant spending four years traveling back and forth between Chicago and Mumbai trying to make a name for herself in the cutthroat Bollywood music industry, cold-calling music directors and producers. Subhi spent her time in transit to write music, in flights back and forth between India and the US and in rickshaws to and from music studios in Mumbai.
“My songs reflect on the idea of ‘Where am I?’ The surroundings were simultaneously white noise and places to observe world,” she said.
She found moderate success in Mumbai. Her song “Ho Naa” is in the Nila Madhab Pandey film, Kaun Kitney Paani Mein. She additionally worked for Yash Raj Films, where her song “Ho Gaye Cool” debuted on a web series called Love Shots.
She made a lot of friends in the industry, but found that “the back and forth was insane.” Not only was it difficult to network, her husband was based in Chicago and it was also difficult to adjust her schedule to the unpredictable and demanding schedule of the industry from afar.
“It was very strenuous and creatively it wasn’t very satisfying,” she said.
Subhi was spending more time figuring out logistics than singing. It was too difficult to sustain.
While describing how exhausting it was to travel back-and-forth between Mumbai and Chicago, Subhi maintained a steady positivity about this time in her career. Fitting, because both the artist and her music are overwhelmingly optimistic.
“I think about [my music] as happy music,” Subhi said. “There is always a silver lining to everything we do. I want people to look at the brighter side of things, a very conscious thing I try to work towards.”
Eventually, Subhi decided to move back to Chicago, where she discovered the jazz scene and decided to take a few of her songs and see if they worked in the genre. She found that her lyrics, which she describes as “having a swing to them,” work well with the rhythm and character of jazz music. She began writing and singing songs in English and Hindi. In 2016, she was approached by the “Eye on India” festival in Chicago to play a thirty-minute set—setting into motion a series of events that led to the creation of her album, Shaitaan Dil.
Even if it was accidental on Subhi’s part, bringing together Indian and American musical traditions through jazz is not as accidental as we might think. Since the 1930’s, when American jazz musicians began to travel and perform their music abroad, brassy sounds of the saxophone, tuba and other jazz instruments have been central to Hindi film music. She pays tribute to this legacy by covering songs like “Eena Meena Deeka” at her lives shows.
Yet, to say that Subhi’s music simply brings together elements of popular Hindi music with American Jazz traditions would do an injustice to the international musical influences that infuse her songs. Her jazz band is made up of talented jazz musicians—none of whom speak Hindi, but contribute their respective Mexican-Lebanese, Indian-Belizean, Indigenous and Black American, and Latin American experiences to the overall sound.
This music will make you want to tap your toes, dance, and wish you could transport back in time to an old-timey Bollywood movie.