Nistha Raj
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Nistha Raj

Alexandria, Virginia, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014 | SELF

Alexandria, Virginia, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2014
Band World Hip Hop




"Indian Classical Meets Beatbox in "Exit 1""

When you think of Indian classical music, you probably don't expect to hear beat box, or strains of jazz, and even rock. But that's exactly what Nistha Raj is all about. The violinist is mixing classical Hindustani music with modern sounds to bring it to a new generation of music lovers. Her debut album is titled Exit 1.

Raj joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin for a special conversation and performance, along with her musicians: Christylez Bacon on beat box and spoons, Sriram Gopal on drums, Geoffrey Rohrbach on piano, Rob Coltun on guitar, Ethan Foote on double bass, William Wytold on cello.

(Note: The performances were edited for air time. You can hear Raj's full songs at her website.)

Interview Highlights

How she got started in music

As a child, I was just drawn to music, and I started learning a lot of the instruments at my temple, where I would go all the time with my mom. ... I formally started learning the violin when I was in the fifth grade at school. And I had an interest in Indian classical music, but growing up in Texas, there really wasn't an opportunity especially to study Indian violin. So I started learning vocal, and I actually took a little bit of tabla classes, just to get introduced to the music. And I actually applied for a scholarship to go to India to study the music.

How people in India felt about Raj coming to study music

I would meet a lot of people, and they were just very confused why I would do that because to them, I left the American dream, basically. They all want to come to America, so they were shocked that I came all that way to study music. But I think people appreciated it too.

Mixing in different musical styles

It was sort of organic in that way that I just started working with some people, and I really liked the sound, and so that sort of inspired me to bring in different genres of music. And I also learned so much about music through the other musicians that I worked with, and their styles. My goal was really showcase Indian classical music in a way that is appealing to a wider audience, so they can get an interest in it and find the beauty that I see in it. - NPR

"Nistha Raj: Exit 1 (2014)"

Composer and violin player Nistha Raj has studied Hindustani (North Indian) and Western classical music for most of her life. She was raised in Texas and graduated with honors from music studies at the University of Houston, and then studied music for three years in India through a scholarship with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. "This album is the first stop on my musical journey," she says of her Exit 1 debut. "That's why I called it Exit 1. Music is and always has been a journey for me and sometimes I don't know where the music will lead me but that excites me. This is my first album and it documents all the different collaborations so far on my journey."

So why not bite off the ambitious journey "From China to India" on your recorded debut? Based on a Hindustani raga and traditional Tibetan folk song, and jointly composed and arranged by Raj with Chinese violinist Anqi Xue, "From China to India" unites these cultures with identical twin violins. It's simultaneously curious and refreshing how their violins, when tabla stops pummeling thunder beneath them, sound like they're dancing an old-time reel from the Appalachian mountains. Raj dives into "The River" no less ambitiously: To illustrate the similarities and differences between ragas in the Hindustani (North Indian) and Carnatic (South Indian) traditions, with highlights from an Indian clay-headed double drum and a Latin cajón that paints in a flamenco tint.

Raj stays much closer to home for "Ek Pyar Ka Nagna Hai (Melody of Love)," a famous Bollywood song from the 1972 film Shor she covers to honor her mother. It opens in dignified beauty, with acoustic piano adorning her elegiac violin like sunrise arching over a stately castle, before the fuller ensemble enters to bear the melody aloft. It sounds crazy, but this arrangement cries out to be performed by The Pat Metheny Group with Lyle Mays. "I wanted something that was a tribute to her," Raj reflects. "She didn't play an instrument but she was my first teacher: She introduced me to such good music."

In "Jayanthi," Raj's violin swaps then engages in passionate lines with co-composer Aakash Mittal's saxophone like a long, sticky kiss, suspended in time by its circular melody and rhythm. "Aakash is a jazz musician and there's a lot of similarity between that and Indian classical music, a lot of improvisation based on a melody within a rhythmic cycle, although there are rules in classical music, you have to stay within the notes of the raga. My solos are very traditional and his embody that jazz contrast. So we come together but stay apart."

The prowess and passion of Exit 1's two closing tunes, the solo violin meditations "Gravity (Raga Charukeshi Alap)" and "Alibi (Raga Charukeshi Jor/Jhala)," seem to boil over directly from Raj's mind and heart. "It's so important to me that I play this music," she explains. "It's what resonates most deeply within me."
Track Listing: Shivranjani; Jayanthi; Ek Pyar Ka Nagna Hai; The River; Bhariravi Beatbox; From China to India; Adje Jano; Gravity (Raga Charukeshi Alap); Alibi (Raga Charukeshi Jor/Jhala).

Personnel: Nistha Raj: violin, harmonium; Xue Anqi: violin; Christylez Bacon: human beatbox, spoons, tambourine; Rob Coltun: guitar; Duff Davis: guitar; Ethan Foote: double bass; Sriram Gopal: drums, percussion; Behzad Habibzai: cajón; Aakash Mittal: alto saxophone; Devapriya "Debu" Nayak: tabla; Ajay Ravichandran: mrindangam; Geoff Rohrbach: piano; The Fourth Stream: jazz trio; Rangashree Varadarajan: violin; Wytold: cello.

Record Label: Self Produced - All About Jazz

"The Walls Have Fallen"

Gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time, music wasn't like it is today. You could go into a music store -- an actual building, not a website! -- and you'd find all the music neatly separated. I always liked exploring the "World Music" section, 'cause it would have interesting things like Maori chants and Tuvan throat singing and Bulgarian polyphonies and Guinean kora music. Sometimes each country would have its own section. Every visit was an international adventure.

Sounds quaint, I know. Because today, I'm sitting here by the campfire holding three of my favorite albums of this young year. And they would have flummoxed the album-categorizers of yore.

Where, for example, would you file an album by a classically trained Hindustani violin player. The India section, you say? But what if she's from Texas and her collaborators play, among other things, human beatbox, cello, spoons, tabla, cajon, and alto saxophone? See what's going on here? The walls, my young friends, have fallen. Those old bin dividers are useless in the face of what Nistha Raj has done on her album Exit 1. Which, by the way, is something you should listen to just to confound your parents. Raj and her friends aren't some kind of musical gimmick; they're really talented musicians who have made something gloriously fresh-sounding. - Soundroots World Music & Global Culture

"The Contrasts of Nistha Raj"

Indian music has been mixed with all types of musical genres and instruments. On this occasion, skilled Indian American violinist Nistha Raj collaborates with beatboxer Christylez Bacon. The musical selection includes a combination of original compositions by Raj, adaptions of Indian ragas, jazz influences, rearrangements of Bollywood music, Chinese connections, flamenco echoes, and even a Serbian folk song.

“People relate to beats and seeing us together crossing so many boundaries,” says Nistha Raj. “While everyone knows the violin, most don’t know it in Indian music. Presenting it this way makes it accessible to anybody, to all ages.”

Exit 1 has a fine balance between slow tempo pieces and upbeat material. Nistha Raj’s music stands out when she focuses on her Indian roots and uses tabla, mridangam and Peruvian cajón. One of Nistha Raj’s intentions is to showcase the similarities and distinctions between the Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani traditions

Exit 1 “is not a classical album. It’s rooted in Hindustani music, but it’s a crossover,” reveals Raj. “This album is the first stop on my musical journey. That why I called it Exit 1. Music is and has always been a journey for me and sometimes I don’t know where the music will lead me but that excites me. This is my first album and it documents all the different collaborations so far on my journey.”

The lineup on includes Nistha Raj on violin, beatboxer Christylez Bacon tabla maestro Debu Nayak, Carnatic violinist Rangashree Varadarjan, mrigandam (a double headed drum) player Ajay Ravichandran, Behzad Habibzai on cajon, cellist Wytold, Aakash Mital on saxophone, Geoff Rohrback on piano, Rob Coltun on guitar, Ethan Foote on doublebass, Sriram Gopal on drumset and percussion, Anqi Xue on violin, and Duff Davis on guitar.

Exit 1 showcases a talented young violinist who is exploring her Indian roots and global music. - World Music Central

"Exit 1, Nistha Raj"

A distinguished performer of Hindustani Classical and Western Classical violin in the Washington, DC-area, by way of Texas, Nistha Raj connects with her Indian roots, but includes a twist: vocal beatboxing, upright bass, piano, and drums. The edgy, innovative, and clearly awe-inspiring tunes are Indian fusion at its best. There is a jazzy feel with the bass, piano, and violin, but the Indian connection is channeled through raga cycles, tabla, and somewhat rustic, earthy tone of the violin. The somber, "Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai," is an instrumental ballad with organic violin, pensive piano, and light drum accompaniment. In contrast, "The River," embodies the innovative Indian instrumental spirit with punctual violin melodies, rhythmic percussion, and luscious drones. There are upbeat and plaintive moments throughout. However, the South Asian instrumental arrangements are creative and fresh. Nistha knocks this one into another dimension and it definitely 'beats' the competition. ~ Matthew Forss - Inside World Music

"Nistha Raj Embarks on Debut via Exit 1"

By John Stevenson

On her debut CD, Exit 1, violinist Nistha Raj has created an attractive sonic mashup.

Mightily influenced by traditional Hindustani rhythmic cycles, the recording also features bewitching breakbeats, a Serbian folk song, Tibetan music, ragas and sagas and artful violin playing.

The music proceeds at a meditative and relaxed pace. Dominated by drones and the catchy backbeat of Grammy-nominated hip-hopper Christylez Bacon, Shivranjani is one of the CD’s jazzier pieces.

Jayanthi, co-composed by Raj and alto saxophonist Aakhash Mittal, smoothly negotiates the melody of a ten-beat rhythmic cycle. Though there are strong jazz improvisational aspects to this and other tracks, the young violinist never totally relinquishes her Hindustani classical music roots.

As she explains:

“Exit 1 is rooted in Hindustani music but its a crossover. It is the first stop on my musical journey. I don’t know where the music will lead me but that excites me. This is my first album and it documents all of the different collaborations so far on my journey.”

Nistha Raj was raised in Texas and began to study the violin at the age of nine, graduating with a B.A. (Honors) in music from the University of Houston. She plays in a jazz trio called The Fourth Stream and in a rock group known as NRI.

Other standout tracks on the CD include Bhairavi Beatbox (featuring Christylez Bacon) and Ajde Jano, highlighting tabla master Devapriya “Debu” Nayak and guitarist Duff Davis. - EJAZZNEWS

"Nistha Raj"

NISTHA RAJ/Exit 1: While you rebel against your parents by getting tattoos, this Texas born Eastern India rebelled by picking up and moving from Texas to India to study classical Hindustani music. Coming back with about as much classical dust as L. Subrimanian had on him 30 years ago when hanging out with Zappa, Raj goes way deeper than belly dance music with a new kind of international pop that really pops. Her first album, it's the kind of session that's bursting with a lifetime of music welling up waiting for release that finally explodes in all directions quite delightfully. A great addition to any world beat collection, you can enjoy this as an armchair traveler but don't expect your butt to be welded to that chair. - Midwest Record Entertainment, Reviews, News and Views

"One Track Mind: Nistha Raj's Exit 1"

One Track Mind: Nistha Raj’s Exit 1
Posted by Christopher Porter on Feb. 28, 2014 at 8:45 am

OTM_09Standout Track: No. 1, “Shivranjani,” from Exit 1, the debut album from Alexandria violinist Nistha Raj. The tune fuses a lulling classical North Indian melody with Wytold’s electric cello and the racing beatboxing and spoons of hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon, who fills the tabla role. “Christylez is very quick at picking up rhythms,” Raj writes in an email, “so I explained the basics of how the tabla accompanies a song like this, and he was able to imitate the sounds on his spoons and [with] human beatboxing.”

Musical Motivation: After earning a B.A. in music from the University of Houston and studying Hindustani classical music in India, Raj moved to D.C. because her sister was living here and she had no desire to return to Texas, where she was raised. Still, it was a childhood memory that inspired this song. “‘Shivranjani’ is based on a melody I learned during childhood visits to my temple,” Raj writes, “and it stuck with me all these years later sort of in a haunting way.”

Asian Overground: Combining South Asian sounds with hip-hop and drum ’n’ bass gained a lot of traction in 1990s Britain through Asian Dub Foundation, the State of Bengal, and Talvin Singh, but Raj is concerned about creating her own tradition rather than continuing someone else’s. “Although my music is not electronica-based, I appreciated how Talvin mixed various sounds successfully,” she writes. “While it did not directly influence the music I created on my album, it inspired me to follow my own voice.” - Washington City Paper


Still working on that hot first release.