Rafiq Bhatia on “Breaking English”

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Jul 11, 2018 Photography by Charles Steinberg Web Exclusive
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When visualizing a lone guitarist, our cultural normalization might bring to mind someone strumming or picking fancifully, searching for footing on a melody or chord and humming along. Now erase that imagery. Rafiq Bhatia did long ago and what he has begun to meticulously draft in its place has persuaded a reframing of our common concept of the instrument. Along with drummer Ian Chang, the guitar marvel for Son Lux has helped to ignite the progressivism of the trio led by Ryan Lott. Following their latest release Brighter Wounds came Bhatia's literally breathtaking sophomore solo endeavor Breaking English, where he forges ahead again with Chang and others in tow to spin a fantastical web in the space between the pillars of convention.

"Son Lux was an opportunity for me to rethink [how to relate to] my instrument," says Bhatia over a coffee and what might have been a day old pastry at one of his Brooklyn neighborhood spots. On the morning of his album release show at National Sawdust, Bhatia was impressively lucid, battling over the surrounding caffeine-fueled chatter with thought-provoking response. "When Ian and I started playing with Ryan, he had made a record that had almost no guitar and a lot of songs without drums. There were all these other elements like heavily manipulated samples and orchestra turning in on itself and bit crushed but there was no thought about how that would be done live. Ian and I had to help him figure out how to [incorporate] our instruments. That was a challenge that both of us were seeking.... My two favorite guitar players are Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell and both of them did that. In very different ways, both of them found a way to push far beyond the preconceived constraints of the instrument. I read that Bill imagined how a symphony might sound playing a certain part and then he would sit there with just his guitar and try to make it sound that way. So it's not always about electronics or pedals. People tend to think that's the only way you can [break free] but a lot of it actually has to do with the way you approach the instrument."

Bhatia's approach has been intensely methodical, taking him up to a threshold where he can peer across to uncommon spaces. Like his heroes Hendrix and Frissell, he has embraced the challenge of entering them using his guitar as the skeleton key. But Breaking English is so much more than guitar compositions. Produced by Bhatia himself, he "put the guitar aside until pretty late in the game to whatever degree possible" in search of admittance to grand planes of sound design. That passage came with the charge of taking what is culturally familiar musically and shifting the angle of view, like a photographer looking to capture a hidden truth. In this pursuit, Bhatia called on voices from his past to communicate with present company. The traditional music of his youth, like Muslim spirituals of his South Indian heritage that his grandfather used to sing to him and string instrumentation like that of the tanpura his aunt used to play, groomed his ear to the forward-thinking styles he would absorb on route to finding his artistic identity. Taking it all in, he has reshaped those impressions into a strikingly singular work that with repeated listens reveals new openingstrap doors to sublevels. While albums like Breaking English aren't necessarily on popular heavy rotation when they first drop, they cultivate an identity, occupying the slivers in the fabric of a time, leaving their mark through slow osmosis.

The territory of Bhatia's new record may warm and fertilize once you get oriented but is ominous upon entry. You may have the impulse to lift your collar or throw up your hood as you're introduced to the record which fills the room with a glorious, slow-building storm cell. Incidentally, the second track "Hoods Up" is a riveting part of that introduction. Inspired by the Trayvon Martin shooting that occurred during the initial concept stage of the album, it succeeds in its intention to unsettle and consume. Bhatia conveys the disturbance with the unique distress of heat-welded guitar lines as Chang's overpowering fractured style, which Bhatia describes as "free of the rhythmic grid," pounds with the heart of human presence. The stunning tangibility is capped by a small but critical decision made to leave something in the recording that might ordinarily be edited out.

"One of the most amazing things about music is the ability [it gives you] to express what feels like human experience without any words.... That incident was part of the air that we were all breathing when I was starting to work on this album [so] the drums have a very intense, larger than life presence to them. You can hear more of the person behind them in the way they sound, kind of exaggerating the physicality of the performance. I could hear Ian's breath in his mics when we were recording that part and it really puts you in his position. I looked at the engineer and said 'let's keep that'.... When I think about breathing I think about personhood. I'm trying to convey what it feels like to deny that sense for a minute. How unnatural it is to look at someone else and see them as anything less than a person. So it's an unsettling sound because it's an unsettling idea. Breathing to me conveys intimacy. When you have an element [like that] that's very familiar, it can help contextualize other elements that are occurring in the same space that are unfamiliar."

This dichotomy of what's familiar and unfamiliar musically is the central discourse framed in Bhatia's wordless expressions. As the listener, you are compelled to step out and meet him halfway with the whispered promise that your invitation to stay the course will be worth it. The great achievement of the record comes from the risks taken by Bhatia to create initially alien spaces that become accommodating. "The Overview Effect" is an elaborate and reaching example, with feedback of sound that feels more like beautiful happenstance of the instrument than conscious playing. It drifts like a Flying Lotus daydream. A reverse play patterningthat beautifully alien result of laying down instrumental and vocal recordings backward and always sounds right somehowleads you in and is one of a couple of nods to Radiohead on the album. While not a piece you catch on with immediately, it connects with what's innate and through the metallurgic haze lies a warm core. In the 10-minute span of this and the title track that follows, it wouldn't be going too far to say that my recently burdened soul had been offered a rocking chair.

On said title track, no such adaptation is needed. Bhatia coasts back into what's familiar to the ear, like a vessel making its slow approach to shore. Making an allusion to the late '90s-early aughts hip-hop that had such a bearing on Bhatia's philosophy, there's a deep south soul to "Breaking English," with voices in gospel recalling the Dungeon Family spirit that permeated such Outkast songs as "Jazzy Bell," "Liberation," and Goodie Mob's "Still Standing." Stirring that brew more deeply, the imperfect clapping and snapping along with Chang's reflexive outpouring of drum hits signify an anima-non-machina. Communion emanates from it, familiarity through the very grounded human elements that bond it together.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the aesthetics of an album and handle them on face value, but amidst all of the exposition that morning, a lasting takeaway emerged from our mining of Breaking English for its crystals of genesis: Bhatia's music making is informed by the awareness that bloodlines are inextricable when it comes to how he thinks about his craft and how it is thought of. His new music is notably different from his 2012 efforts in its sprawling sound design direction. When I brought up references to mostly white artists that came to mind while listening, experimental predecessors like Klaus Schulze and contemporaries like Tim Hecker, Daniel Lopatin, and Canadian instrumentalists Do Make Say Think, they were met with agreement but also a couple of eyebrow raises.

"It does say something to me about the aesthetics that govern these boundaries because that electro-acoustic experimental scene that you're referencing, people tend to think of that as music that's stripped of Afrological ideas, by that I mean ideas that come from Africa and African American traditions. There's an aesthetic boundary [in ambient sculptural music] a lot of times and not just to Afrological but all non-Eurological ideas.... They're not represented and that's also reflected in the makeup of that scene, which is all white and male. So when we talk about what a genre is, often times behind that is an assumption. Someone recently wrote somewhere that many young black artists that are making music in different areas are automatically classified as R&B. [What I'm mentioning] is not the same as that but there's something more insidious at play in these classifications than we may first think. I think we need to think more deeply about where our aesthetic values come from.... There are a lot of self-professed liberals and progressives who would love to see music become more diverse on its surface but when really pressed, have aesthetic value that overwhelmingly privileges Eurological ideas. A few people in the ambient sculptural music scene were involved in the making of this record. Paul Corley, who has worked a lot with Tim Hecker and Ben Frost and Oneohtrix Point Never, I loved going back and forth with him. Alex Sommers mixed the record. Both of them were really beautiful to work with and encouraging and generous with knowledge. So, I'm not trying to talk down on that scene, quite the contrary. But I am noticing the aesthetics that lead to that being categorized as a scene."

It's clear that Bhatia takes nothing for granted, ever aware that the acceptance he has gained into progressive music communities through his transcendent play and daring vision don't sever the roots from which he "grew" or eclipse the perception of him as a foreign element. But instead of seeing this as a cross to bear, he has chosen to embrace it as a seed for evolution.

"The act of crossing those barriers is a part of being who I am because that's been my experience, trying to navigate being a first generation American without much precedent for people who look like me in the arts, coming up with a personal way of addressing that. It's been somewhat therapeutic for me even.... The result is entering a space where these ideas aren't usually represented and putting them out there and seeing what happens. It's interesting to me to see how people look at it afterward"

Instead of the vague flippancy of "People will see it however they want to," a common retort from artists when the subject of interpretation comes up, Bhatia is genuinely interested in the feedback to the new compositions. He has well-defined notions of the spiritual and sociological backbones of his offerings but is open to the sprouting first impressions of those listening without that context.

So while Breaking English is a solo work, at its heart and in its execution it is very much communal. It's a challenge to explore, issued from Bhatia to himself at the outset and to the listener now that it has been released, rewarded with the lasting impressions and imagery of a beautiful book that took concentration to read.

Walking back with Bhatia to the edge of Prospect Park before parting ways, and free from the distractions of the bustling cafe, the lasting impression I was left with was of an artist with an authentic devotion to discovery through his craft, discovery of self with an unsettled view to what lies beyond immediate grasp. From that point of departure, genuine works of art usually follow.

"The more you think critically about every decision in a piece of music, the more personal it becomes," Bhatia says. "The thing is, it's not just having the willpower to say I'm going to keep pushing even though you want this thing from me. It's having the courage to reinvent yourself and let go of the familiar the more that's riding on it."


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