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Visas and Visions

Kavita Shah makes music in many idioms.

May-June 2015

Shah recently toured with the ensemble for her debut album, <i>Visions</i>, which included piano, bass, guitar, and <i>mridangam,</i> a two-headed drum from southern India.

Shah recently toured with the ensemble for her debut album, Visions, which included piano, bass, guitar, and mridangam, a two-headed drum from southern India.

Photograph by Jason Gardner/Courtesy of Kavita Shah

Kavita Shah

Kavita Shah

Photograph by Julien Charpentier/Courtesy of Kavita Shah

“I get stoppeD A LOT at borders,” says Kavita Shah ’07, laughing, “I think they think I’m smuggling drugs because they see my passport and they’re like, ‘You travel a lot. Why? Where do you go, and what do you do?’”

A jazz singer, composer, and arranger, Shah plays gigs around her hometown, New York City, and has performed throughout North America and Europe. She spent childhood summers in India, her parents’ native country; as a Latin American studies concentrator, she studied Incan architecture in Peru and worked in Brazilian favelas. Reflecting her varied experiences, her sound challenges the boundaries of geographic territories and musical genres.

She first experienced different musical structures and traditions as a member of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which performed folk songs, gospel, Western classical music, and children’s opera. Today, Shah sings in a number of languages, including English, Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, and sargam (Hindustani solfège); the Indian tabla (a hand drum similar to the bongo) and West African kora (a type of lute) appear in the instrumentation of her debut album, Visions. On it, the suite “Rag Desh” begins with a rhythm from the tabla and spoken vocals called tabla bols, used in Hindustani classical music to vocalize the different sounds of the instrument, then concludes with “Meltdown”: a bluesy, moody tune that deconstructs the traditional raga, or melody, introduced earlier.

Shah was on a college study-abroad program in Brazil, working in a rural town that was previously a quilombo, a runaway slave community, when she was asked the question that has shaped her career ever since. A resident whom Shah had befriended turned to her one day and said, “You, now that you’ve seen all these things, what are you going to do about it?” Although she’d thought they had a lot in common, she realized she would return home to a reality starkly different from his, and that her ability to travel—around the globe, and back to the United States—brought responsibility to tell stories that conveyed what she’d seen. After graduation, she held a series of jobs in journalism and the nonprofit sector while she considered graduate or law school, but music was always on her mind. “I think I always knew in my heart that this is what I wanted to do,” she says, “but it took some time to muster up the courage, and also the know-how, to take that plunge.”

A chance encounter on the subway with legendary jazz singer Sheila Jordan provided the push she needed. “The train doors opened and she was literally right in front of me. I started talking to her. It was so serendipitous,” Shah says. Along with words of encouragement, Jordan gave her music lessons and introduced her to other young musicians. Soon after, Shah enrolled in a master’s program in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music, where she refined her technique and explored her voice, asking herself what experiences and ideas she could bring to jazz that others couldn’t. For her pre-graduation recital in 2012, she gathered an ensemble that included a string quartet, a jazz rhythm section, a tabla, and a kora to perform her arrangements. Later, she reached out to Lionel Loueke, an African jazz guitarist who’s performed on two of Herbie Hancock’s albums; he became a mentor and collaborator, as well as a co-producer of Visions, released last year. The album’s sprawling, multilayered sonic landscape was praised as a “sparkling debut” by The Boston Globe and said by Connecticut’s WNPR to reflect “the insatiably curious mind of an ethnographer, the soul of a poet, and the eye of a painter.

To Shah, her album answers the question posed to her in Brazil: by creating complex but accessible arrangements, she wants to expand her audience’s conception of what jazz can be, while connecting them to music from around the world. Her interpretations of jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge,” and pop songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green,” can reach audiences otherwise uninterested in jazz, or unfamiliar with the instruments she uses. Her version of the rapper and pop singer M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” reimagines the 2007 hit, pulling in saxophone and having a tabla beat replace the final word of the first few lines. Shah sings, “Fly like paper, get high like—/catch me on the border I’ve got visas in my—”: the music speaking for her. Where the original is sung with unapologetic confrontation, Shah’s tone is playful and welcoming, as if she’s inviting listeners to traverse the boundaries with her.

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