© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Rhythm,' Bhi Bhiman's Music Isn't Limited By National Borders


Bhi Bhiman grew up in St. Louis. He played baseball. He listened to Michael Jackson. He watched "Back To The Future." He grew interested in music, and today, Bhi Bhiman writes and sings songs that have an international character.


BHI BHIMAN: (Singing) I'm moving to Brussels. I'm moving to Spain. I'm moving to Harlem. It's all the same.

SIMON: Bhi Bhiman's new album is called "Rhythm & Reason." It's out on Monday. He joins us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

BHIMAN: My pleasure, my pleasure.

SIMON: You grew up the son of immigrants. Do you think that gives you a different sense of place?

BHIMAN: I think it does. One thing that maybe does more for that is my family's so spread out over five continents and...

SIMON: Your Sri Lankan ancestry.

BHIMAN: Yeah. So my mom's - mom and dad's brothers and sisters landed in Australia, New Zealand, England, Africa, still in Sri Lanka, Canada. So my sense of place was - is not limited to my county or my state or my country. Really, it's, like, a international feeling of community.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to one of your songs now, "Up In Arms."


BHIMAN: (Singing) Two hundred years ain't but two things have changed. It's safe to say I've had a price upon my head. Bobby Seale and I have made important progress. It's safe to say that my glory has fled. Up in arms, up in arms, up in arms...

SIMON: Who's the narrative voice of this song?

BHIMAN: It's written in the first-person of Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party founder in Oakland. And he's a person that fascinated me since I was a teenager. And his story is really a fable of a rise to power and glory and squandering it. But the reason why this song is important to me right now is what's going on in this country regarding race relations and police brutality, all things that were problems when the Panthers were founded. And the race relations issue in America, it smolders and then it ignites again and again. And we sort of turn our heads (laughter) and then we maybe turn away, and then it smolders again. And it's a fable in that way in that - in that very little has changed in certain ways.

SIMON: At the same time, it's a very clear-eyed song.

BHIMAN: Definitely. He was a clear-eyed person. He had a very distinct vision of what he wanted, and he squandered it. He became a drug addict, ultimately.

SIMON: Let's listen then to another song with a kind of mundane title - the song won't play out that way - "Bread And Butter."


BHIMAN: (Singing) 'Cause every day I get up early in the mornin', mind my watch and get to work at the crack of dawnin'. Everybody wants to be a star, but no one seem to want to love the cause. When I win the world, when I win the party (ph)...

BHIMAN: I wrote that song - basically, there's a thread throughout the album about immigration and immigrants. And to me, some of the hardest-working people in America are immigrants, and they have a sense of family time that's very strong and work ethic. And they seem to balance those out. And on a parallel note, writing that song, it's about the seven deadly sins and how prevalent they are in our society and how accepted they are and maybe celebrated even. I'm not overly religious, but that's a departure from the religion that founded America, you know?

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that so many of the people you're singing about are hard-working people and you're a hard-working musician?

BHIMAN: Is that not oxymoron?

SIMON: Well, I...

BHIMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: As a non-musician, I can't say that.

BHIMAN: No, I'm just kidding. Yeah, no, it's a different sort of work ethic, but I remember distinctly growing up that my parents are very education driven and they come from Sri Lanka, which is an island south of India. And education is a blood sport almost there. And there's, like, a saying - you're number one on the island. You tested so high that you were the top-rated student on the island. And that sort of mentality kind of comes along with me when I'm writing songs. I want to write the best song I can write and push people's boundaries and expectations of what a song can be.

SIMON: We want to hear another song of yours. This one is called "The Fool."


SIMON: Do you want to set this up for us?

BHIMAN: It has political connotations to me in terms of getting the wool pulled over your eyes in a political situation and, you know, people taking advantage of you. But it's also disguised as a love song, a relationship song.


BHIMAN: (Singing) Now that the worst part is over I can get on with the rest of my life. If I only knew you broke the rule and your talk was filled with lie after lie. You made me the fool.

SIMON: You have such an extraordinary voice.

BHIMAN: Thank you - my speaking voice, right?

SIMON: Well, that's a fine voice, too, but I meant your singing voice.

BHIMAN: Yeah. I'm just kidding.

SIMON: It's amazing to me that you didn't begin to use it until you were 20.

BHIMAN: Yeah, I was never trained. I just sat in my car and sag my heart out to my favorite records - Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and many others.

SIMON: Yeah, but friends would say you really ought to take this outside the car.

BHIMAN: Yeah, but it's such a battle to become a musician making a living that it was never really a reality, but it's a compulsion, honestly.

SIMON: Yeah.

BHIMAN: And I'm very glad I've stuck with it. I'm starting to bear the fruit of the labor.


BHIMAN: (Singing) Every triumph, every heartbreak brings me closer to thee.

SIMON: Bhi Bhiman - his new album, "Rhythm & Reason," out on Monday. Thanks so much for being with us.

BHIMAN: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.


BHIMAN: (Singing) Brings me closer to thee. When it seems the distance gets farther and farther, I don't know...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.