Sitarist/vocalist Ami Dang moves from long-form head trips to hybrid pop and beyond
Published: January 5, 2011
Ami Dang plays a CD release show
The music of Ami Dang feels as though it’s in a place of near constant flux. That’s not to imply that it’s without a center, for her transporting vocal and sitar work definitely exudes a captivating soul. That’s also not to imply that she’s still finding her way, for her music bears her unique fingerprint, which engagingly blends the sounds and forms of the East with different aspects of the rhythmic West. And it’s not to imply that her music wanders with no direction: There’s an intelligence and purpose behind her various styles, but they sometimes produce very different feelings and moods.
Those differences are undeniable though. If you’ve seen Dang perform at any point since she returned to Baltimore in the summer of 2007, chances are you’ve seen various sets. At first, she explored traditional Hindustani classical music forms and Sikh hymns, playing seated on the floor with effects pedals and sequencer. Perhaps you’ve seen her add a haunting frisson when playing with Nathan Bell, where her delicate sitar puts a spectral resonance behind Bell’s contemplative twang.
But if you caught her at Whartscape 2009, you saw a young woman in a pink and blue dress bounce around the stage having an undeniable blast singing songs that radiated a pop sensibility. The melodies powering them were still Eastern-inspired, only the rhythmic pulse was a bit more dance-friendly, the results outwardly euphoric instead of inwardly meditative, and the appeal infectious.
“It was so much fun,” Dang says of Whartscape 2009, the first time she played what she calls her “all pop” set. The 26-year-old Dang sits in a booth at a Station North coffeeshop warming up from a chilly mid-December morning. And Dang—taking a moment from a frenetic end-of-year that has her leaving her job, prepping for the release of her debut album, and moving out of her apartment in preparation for a 2011 U.S. tour and trip to India—wistfully recalls that 2009 summer show where she got the chance to stand up and dance during her own set.
“At that point, I typically had to sit down for a good portion of my set, if not all of it, because of the way that I played sitar, and I just sort of put all my gear on the floor,” she says. “And so at that point I had never stood during a set. And it was the first time that was, like, cool—I’m just up here with a microphone and an iPod basically.”
All parts of Dang show up on Hukam, her debut release being put out by Ehse Records, Stewart Mostofsky’s indispensable local imprint. It’s seven tracks of seven different moods, all of which are indisputably Dang. “It starts off with this experimental track and moves into this pop song with a B-more club beat, and then it goes into a hymn that’s very heavily produced and then it goes into a pop track, and then into more some ambient areas,” Dang says of the album. “I’d love to do an album that’s all house and dance songs and one that’s more pop and one that’s just hymns that are electronically produced.”
For Dang, though, the album is but a teaser to what she’s capable of creating. It’s a map of where she’s come from, but barely an indication to where she may be heading next. “I am happy with the album but the earliest track on the record is two years old now,” Dang says. “And I am just so ready to move on creatively. I feel like with the record each song is so different that I feel like I’m just scratching at the surface of my ideas.”
For a listener, Hukam’s little-bit-of-everything is a refreshing jolt. A track such as the instantly catchy “Manali,” with its reverberating beat production and looped sitar lines, receives an extra boost of pop joy coming after the album opening “Interlace,” a dirge-like gossamer of vocal syllables and sitar notes that suggest the wide-open musical expanse this album is going to cover. “Interlace” is an ideal introductory sonic calibration, an indication that what’s to follow is going to take the traditional and tweak it, sometimes a little bit, sometimes a great deal. Brain excursions such as “Amorphous Matter” explore long-form, circular jams while hybrid pop standouts such as “Treasure” and “Where Nothing Grows” are polished enough to be hyped by music blogs.
In fact, Hukam’s idiosyncratic pop touch may be its blessing and its curse. Dang’s omnivorous taste in East and West and her seamless ability to make something personal and unique from their hybridization is inevitably going to earn Hukam comparisons to M.I.A., as if American pop ears can only compare one artist of subcontintental-Indian extraction to another. And while there are certainly worse artists to be compared to, Dang and her music are so much more interesting than that—and where she wants to take her art feels more eclectic.
Dang was raised in Glen Arm, and she grew up playing sitar and singing. Like many young musicians, she got into music through the church—or in her case, the temple. “My family wasn’t particularly musical, but my religion—my family’s Sikh, and in the Sikh religion the services are just entirely mostly music,” Dang says. “And so hymns are sung continuously. So a lot of kids in the kids’ programs at the temple, you kind of learn all that stuff. I started to get interested in singing through temple, and also growing up I went to religious retreats and summer camps, basically, and learned more hymns there. But then when I was about 12, I think, my mom said, ‘I want you to learn sitar.’ And she had found a teacher in the area, and so I started taking lessons. And he also taught Hindustani classical vocal music as well as tabla, but I just started vocals and sitar with this teacher.”
She liked music, but at that age, the work that went with music didn’t entirely suit her. “I still am one of those people where I hate practicing,” she laughs. “I have very much a love/hate relationship with practicing and working. So I hated it when I started. And after three years my mom said, ‘OK, if you’re really aren’t going to practice I’m not going to keep paying for lessons.’”
The lessons stopped around 15 (though about two years later she picked them up again intermittently), but not her interest in music and the arts. Dang continued to perform at the McDonogh School—“I was one of those kids that had a rehearsal almost every night of the week,” she says—and entered Oberlin College Conservatory of Music where she majored in technology in music and the related arts. It was a program that focused on electroacoustic composition, in which Dang was interested, but she also wanted to bring her culture and instruments into that situation.
It took some time to work those ideas out. “We were always encouraged to explore our primary instruments,” Dang says of the sitar and voice in her college work. “It was definitely always present, but I don’t think it was until very further along that I really better understood how I wanted to—I don’t know—that I liked the work that I was making, in the way that the East and West came together and kind of understood how I was approaching things.”
Dang says she feels like she didn’t have the creative confidence in college that she has now. “I went to Oberlin for electronic music, and it was 10 percent of the school’s majors,” she says. “It was a huge conservatory, nationally renowned, and even within my program, there were people that had been working with synthesizers since they were 8 years old, and I was not one of those people. I had not been introduced to electronics until I was 18. And then you had all the voice majors listening down the hall and with singing too, I felt that I was a little shy about it in college. I sang, but I didn’t emphasize it as much in my work as I do now.
“So definitely confidence I think is huge,” she continues. “And I have kind of a love/hate relationship with my music too. It’s very avant-garde—you know, the program’s very avant-garde, and it encouraged us to experiment. And so sometimes you’d do music to turn it in and sometimes those weren’t the best pieces. So I think when I was out of that structure, when I graduated, I felt like I could more slowly approach what I liked. And I just kind of jammed. So you learn to do work that is important to you.”
She graduated in 2006, and after a brief stint in New York, she moved back home, geared up (picking up a sequencer and two effects pedals), began checking out Baltimore’s music community, and started playing. Thanks to a semester spent in New Delhi during college and a subsequent trip to India, she had a new sitar and a vocal instructor who had refined her techniques. Dang wanted to explore what would become her sound. “At that time it really was just, let me play with things and see what happens,” she says. “And at the time I was mostly singing more classically, hymns and other Hindustani classical forms, or just syllables inspired by Hindustani classical music. And so sometimes I would write a line out and decide on the hymn I wanted to experiment with. Also, with sitar I might experiment within a raga.”
This Dang is who you might have seen during her first performances in Baltimore, from her first local gig in October 2007 opening for Jason Willett at the Bank to a December 2008 Bank fundraiser opening for Matmos and Cex (erstwhile CP contributor Rjyan Kidwell). This Dang created trance-like layers of gorgeous noise and rhythms.
In the spring of 2009, though, she started writing actual songs, which turned a corner for her musically. “Now I approach things differently,” she says. “The music I was making was more ambient, more noise—it was more jams and not songs. I’m still interested in doing the long-form stuff. I’m especially interested in the dynamics between the various forms and presenting people with music that is all those forms because people don’t expect that at all.
“But with the songs, it was just so different,” she continues. “It was really liberating for me. And I’m just someone who—I just love to dance. And I just want to share that energy with the crowd.”
She wants to continue sharing that energy, and expand it, in fact. She says she’s been working on a project with Teeth Mountain’s Kate Levitt, and the idea of a tribal krautrock stomp behind Dang’s sitar and vocals tickles the ears. And she wouldn’t mind getting to the point where her solo project expands to an ensemble of some sort.
“What I am really looking forward to doing sometime in the next year is getting dancers into my set,” Dang says. “But that’s another thing I want to work toward so that when I can tour with other people—well first of all be confident that I can pay them. It’ll take a little time to get there, but one step at a time.”
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