Letting loose

Sitarist-vocalist Ami Dang moves from head trips to hybrid pop

Ami Dang

with SSLOT, G.I.R.L.S.
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 22
Urban ReThink,

Ami Dang's music 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 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 blends the sounds and forms of the East with aspects of the rhythmic West. And it's not to imply that her music wanders: There's an intelligence and purpose behind her various styles, but they sometimes produce very different moods.

Those differences are undeniable, though. She's explored traditional Hindustani classical music forms and Sikh hymns, playing seated on the floor with effects pedals and a sequencer. She's added a haunting frisson when playing with fellow Baltimore collaborator Nathan Bell, her delicate sitar injecting a spectral resonance behind Bell's contemplative twang. On special nights, she bounces around the stage having an undeniable blast singing songs that radiate a pop sensibility. The results are outwardly euphoric instead of inwardly meditative, and the appeal is infectious.

All parts of Dang show up on Hukam, her debut release. 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."

Hukam's little-bit-of-everything vibe is a refreshing jolt. A track such as the instantly catchy "Manali," with its reverberating beats and looped sitar lines, receives an extra boost of pop joy coming after the album opening "Interlace," a gossamer of vocal syllables and sitar notes that suggest the album's wide-open musical expanse. "Interlace" is an ideal introductory sonic calibration, an indication that what's to follow is going to take the traditional and tweak it. Brainy 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 pop touch may be its blessing and its curse. Dang's omnivorous taste for East and West, and her seamless ability to make something personal and unique from their hybridization, is inevitably going to earn her comparisons to M.I.A., as if American pop ears can only compare one artist of subcontintental-Indian extraction to another.

Dang 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. "When I was about 12, I think, my mom said, ‘I want you to learn sitar.'"

After 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."

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 just love to dance. And I 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 Dang 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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