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Musical Group Naya Baaz Explores Bimusicality, Weaving Distinct Traditions of Jazz Guitar and Classical Sitar

Rez Abbasi and Josh Feinberg face warmly, with sitars in hand.
David Stoller

The New England Conservatory of Music Intercultural Institute, is celebrating its 30th anniversary next week with a symposium on bimusicality. Bimusicality is when artists can perform in two distinct musical traditions. The term was coined by ethnomusicologists more than 60 years ago, and bimusicality has risen in popularity since then. The symposium will culminate with a performance from a new bimusical group, Naya Baaz. The group is led by the brilliant Pakistani-American guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi and New England Conservatory alum and sitar player Josh Feinberg. Abbasi and Feinberg spoke with GBH's All Things Considered host, Arun Rath.

Listen to their conversation with the audio player above.

Rath: I need to get personal right here at the top and say, as a biracial East-West fusion myself, I love what you're doing. And I've wanted to interview you both for for a while. Rez, I'll start with you to dive in and because I think we can give listeners a great sense of what bimusicality is just by talking about you. You probably know this, but your music means a lot to South Asian-Americans of my generation. American Desis, as we call ourselves, because you're a Pakistani-American who made your name playing kick-ass jazz guitar. Tell us about how that reflects who you are. And was Western music a part of your musical diet growing up?

Abbasi: Oh, Western music is completely still my diet as I grow up. But, you know, I grew up in Los Angeles, and given that fact, there was so much influence of the West there. I grew up on Led Zeppelin. I grew up on well, on the radio, essentially, like just about everybody I knew. So, it was a little bit of a backwards path for me to get into South Asian music, as you will, Indian classical, Pakistani Kabbalah or Indian Kabbalah. All the music from those regions. It's a matter of finding my way through being a Westerner. It's a strange sort of dichotomy. You know, my parents did listen to South Asian music at home, but I was rarely home. I went out all the time.

Rath: Josh, tell us about about your musical path. You know, sitar is not an instrument you can dabble in. It takes such devotion. Clearly, the way that you play it. How did you come to Indian classical music?

Feinburg: You know, I think in the West, anybody who starts listening to Indian classical music probably starts with Pandit Ravi Shankar, and that was definitely my avenue of of insertion into the the art form. But I found my way to Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Ali Akbar Khan and their music really changed my life. And so, the last 25 years for me have been learning and mastering North Indian classical music, but also kind of reconnecting with my roots in Western music and exploring the commonalities of these two musics in a way that doesn't disrupt or clash with the traditional integrity of it, if that makes sense.

Rath: Absolutely. You both have this multi musical, bimusical sensibility to you. How did the two of you first come together and decide it was going to be an interesting thing to mix your styles together?

Abbasi: Well, it was Josh's idea in the first place, and that was a few years ago before the pandemic. And at first I was very hesitant. I said no right away.

Rath: Why were you resistant?

Abbasi: I was resistant because I've done projects with Indian classical music and there's amazing nuance and there's amazing developments you can have within that circumference, so to speak. But, there's also limitations. And those limitations,they can they can be frustrating. And mostly that's harmonic. Limitations are great, but at the same time, if you've already done that a few times, it's nicer to not be limited. And in Josh's case, because he knows jazz music really well and he understands chromaticism and modulation, I thought, "Wow, this could be different."

Feinburg: From my side, I've done a couple of crossover projects throughout the years, but not many. I've been very resistant because as a white Jewish sitar player, my authenticity in this art form is under constant scrutiny. And even though the connoisseurs of the music have really embraced me, I feel like I'm constantly having to prove myself and prove that my music is iauthentic in the tradition. So I didn't want to kind of align myself with these, if I can speak candidly, these hundreds of other, white sitar players who who don't play sitar at a very high level in the traditional art form, but who have done all this fusion. I didn't want to be associated with that at all, because that's that's something I've been trying to shake since I started. I've been really resistant to these projects up until a few years ago because I reached a point where I kind of realized like, "Hey, you know, I've done it. I've established myself. I'm like considered a legitimate classical sitar player, and I'm respected that way." And so that kind of shifted my thinking a little bit. I was like, "OK, well, now I have some freedom to look around and to see what else I can do." And when I was thinking about musicians to collaborate with, Rez was on the top of my list because not only is he a total badass guitar player, but he does have a little bit of connection to South Asian music. That little bit of connection just gives us a pathway to to dialog and establish and explore.

Rath: Super interesting. So it was in a way it was kind of a risky thing for both of you in different ways to take on. I have to imagine now that you've been doing it for a while and there's an album that's going to be coming out there, it was rewarding.

Feinburg: Oh yeah.

Abbasi: Yeah, especially after we did the album and actually, during the process of doing the the music together. One thing that separates this project from many others, not to compare, but Josh and I really wanted to do a collaboration. We didn't want one person to write all the music and the other person to write their sets of tunes. I would write a vibe, so to speak, that I really enjoyed on my guitar. And then I would say, "Well, you know, I'm not going to write anything purposely because I could, but I don't want to. Let me send it to Josh." And then so I sent it to Josh and then he wrote a beautiful melody on it. Then, I took it to a different section and then we finally got together a few times, did the same protocol, and we ended up with a whole album's worth of music.

Feinburg: Yeah. I mean, so often with these kinds of collaborations with Indian music, it becomes kind of like "your turn, my turn" or "you lay down a carpet and I'll just blow on top of it" kind of thing. And I didn't want to do that and Rez didn't either. We really wanted an inclusive, cohesive collaboration, a true collaboration. And I feel like we absolutely did that. I just think we have something utterly unique and really special here.

Abbasi and Feinburg will perform as Naya Baaz on March 7th at the New England Conservatory Intercultural Institute's Symposium on Bimusicality.

Arun Rath is the host of GBH News' All Things Considered.
Diego Lopez is the senior radio producer for GBH’s All Things Considered.