Zeshan Bagewadi Sings the Soul Music of Two Worlds
Soul music is the music of change. It’s the music of the heart — when it’s done right — as it was and now still is in Muscle Shoals and Memphis (at Stax). It’s an overwhelmingly overpowering combination of gritty blues, sweet melodies, crunchy lead riffs, sexually bantering horns, aching organ peals, soaring gospel-inflected choruses, and raw vocals. Its musical energy expresses the jagged pieces that litter the ground following the collision of destructive forces of social injustice and the constructive energies of redemption and restoration. The very best soul music always moves between these two worlds, and Zeshan Bagewadi‘s new album, Vetted (Minty Fresh), counts as some of this year’s best soul music.
In his own case, Bagewadi brings the powerful memories of the social injustices of his parents’ and grandparents’ culture to his singular blend of soul music. Bagewadi, born in Chicago to Muslim Indian immigrants, told me the stories of his parents and grandparents as they faced oppression and the threat of violence for being Muslims. “On the eve of the bloody 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, my grandfather’s shop was burned down by a mob of Hindus seeking retaliation in a civil war of Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence that engulfed the country and left 1 million people dead,” he says. Bagewadi showed me photos of the living conditions that his father experienced in post-partition India: filthy narrow streets with very little clean water and several family members living in only a few rooms. “My father was openly denied access to a prestigious job — one that he was qualified for — on the basis of his religion. And when violent anti-Muslim riots shook their neighborhood in Mumbai, my recently wed parents decided to leave India and migrate to the U.S.,” Bagewadi told me.
The music of his father reached into Bagewadi’s soul, however, and he heard in Urdu and Punjabi folk and soul music the desire for a different world. He also heard the epic stories of saints searching for an identity all their own. From his father’s record collection he heard as well the blues and soul that emanated from the American South, especially during the Civil Rights Movement.
From the opening volley of horns on “Lonely Man,” Bagewadi’s album rockets off into the pantheon of sweet and sad soul music. His voice combines the tenderness of Jerry Butler, the hungry swagger of Wilson Pickett (“I’m at the Breaking Point”), the crying pleas of Otis Redding (“Cryin’ in the Streets”), and the aching gentleness of Sam Cooke (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”). Bagewadi is a master of phrasing and tone, and he controls our emotions with his voice, the most refined instrument of any soul singer, and certainly Bagewadi’s most powerful. Although nine out of the 11 songs are gems of American soul, he brings the same forceful interpretation to the two songs he wrote for the album — “Ki Jana?” and “Meri Jaan” — that grow out of his own, and his parents’, experiences as Muslims.
Zeshan Bagewadi and I met up recently at Hyderabad House in Chicago, “the best Indo-Pakistani joint this side of the Ganges,” as he told me, for a chat about his music and his new album.
Henry Carrigan: What’s the story behind Vetted?
Zeshan Bagewadi: I knew I wanted to make a soul album because I grew up around this music; my Dad played it all the time. I wanted to go to Memphis because there’s just something spiritual about that place. I got in touch with Lester Snell about producing it. He’s the legendary guy who produced music for Isaac Hayes, Mavis Staples, Al Green. We recorded the album at Ardent, Stax’s B studio. Lester became a mentor to me. The guys playing on my record were the musicians who had played on so many great records. I really had an all-star cast of Stax sidemen. I got to meet the Bar-Kays and guys who played with Otis Redding. I feel like they play with a kind of spontaneity. As Lester said to me once, “a lot of guys play with proficiency; these guys play with feel.” I think it’s steeped in something far greater than them. A lot of these guys play in church on Sunday. This album is a treasure trove of long-forgotten gems. The fun part was taking my spin on them. The highlight for me was being able to connect with Spencer Wiggins. I came across his stuff, and I felt like the words of his song, “Lonely Man,” describe so well the immigrant experience. I got to meet Spencer, and he even came into the studio and talked with me about ways to sing his song.
How did you come up with the title for the album?
I feel like the word has so many meanings. I feel like I’m vetted every day; everybody’s sizing you up. I vetted some of the contents of the album because of my proximity to the pain of my parents’ and grandparents’ experience. In our strange political climate, I’ve been thinking a lot about vetting. The stories and songs on this album are not pretty; they’re commensurate with the immigrant experience; I’ve always been into soul music because it spoke of despair and loss.
Tell me about the song selection on the album.
There is a wide spectrum of songs on the album. Some of the songs speak to the breadth of our experience: urban despair, unrequited love, uncertainty, and ambiguity. There are two original songs on the album. “Ki Jana?” is a Punjabi poem; poetry is a vital ingredient in the Indo-Pakistani landscape. The song is based on an epic poem by a Sufi saint who is asking “who am I?” I find myself often at a crossroads in my life where I have all these good things around me, and I sometimes ask myself, “what am I doing here?” “Mere Jaan” is a song I sing in Urdu. It’s simply about the enthusiastic experience of ecstasy. The more simple aspect of the song selection is that I just love some of these tunes: there’s a lyrical simplicity that’s contrasted with this contrapuntal music. I like musical complexity with lyrical simplicity.
When did you start singing and playing?
I started singing regularly when I was in the third grade. A teacher brought in a recording of someone reading the Qur’an. I borrowed the tape and took it home over the weekend and memorized parts of it. That’s when I realized I had a voice. When I brought the tape back on Monday and showed her what I’d done, she made me do it front of the whole class. I discovered then that I had something in me I didn’t know about. My parents would force me to sing in front of people at parties. I became a child cantor at my mosque. The Qur’an has mellismatic music. After school, I sang in a gospel choir. There I felt like I was unbridled and could express myself. “Lean On Me” was the first song I ever sang. I started playing piano and then harmonium when I was 13. The harmonium that I have now was a going-away-to-college gift. It’s been a musical companion to me. I designed the world’s only electric harmonium. There’s always a harmonium by my side; you can play it melodically.
What’s the process of songwriting like for you?
It’s a process that’s continuing to evolve. I’m newer to that game. I’m much more an interpreter. When I do write, often a lyrical motif will come to me, and then I’ll find the musical motif. Other times a musical hook will appear out of thin air. When that happens I have the musical structure, and that gives me a certain emotional space. The thematic palette contains urgency, instability, fear, pain, and ambiguity.
If you could you invite five musicians, living or dead, to have lunch, whom would you invite?
Curtis Mayfield: he’s the most interesting soul artist of all time. He was a master composer, a poet. He was able to talk about social issues without being contrived. Mayfield narrates prosaic stuff in a poetic way. I think he took a page from Beethoven, whether he knew it or not.
Bill Withers: perhaps one of the earliest memories I have of my life is hearing his music. I wish I could absorb his ability to write melodies. I like how unapologetic he is. He did music on his own terms.
Johnny Cash: That guy’s a storyteller. [On] “The Legend of John Henry” he tells it like he was there.
Louis Armstrong: this was a man who was baptized in Jim Crow fire, in poverty, and we see how that shaped his experience in his music. Americana begins and ends with Louis Armstrong; he paved the way for everybody. “West End Blues,” is a tune that makes the angels weep.
Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday: they both have heavenly voices. Mahalia’s voice stirs my soul and the greater aspects within me. Billie Holiday stirs the pain and the inner hurt inside me.
Mehdi Hassan: Perhaps the greatest singer to have come from the Indian subcontinent. He has this flawless voice that’s as smooth as aged cognac; it’s mellifluous and masculine at the same time. Nobody could interpret poetry like Hassan; his vocal production was just flawless.