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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Forging the New Desi Music: Transnational Identity and Musical Syncretism at a South Asian-American Festival


For three days in late April of 2002, Hollywood, California, was home to Artwallah, a multimedia arts festival of the South Asian Diaspora. "Artwallah" essentially means "one who does art," and over 65 artists and performers of South Asian heritage contributed their individual talents and distinctive voices to a collective expression that included dance, film, visual arts, theater, literature, stand-up comedy, and music. In addition to creating a temporary physical space conducive to the sharing of art and experience between participants and the audience, the festival also provided an ideological space that encouraged an inherently "hybrid" style of artistic expression. According to the festival program booklet, this body of work, "though rooted in South Asia, reflects the establishment of the home and the self in new lands." Indeed, the tension between the ancestral homeland and the cultural mainstream of North America was a thread that ran consistently through every medium of expression at Artwallah, leading to unexpected collaborations with thoroughly moving results.

In this paper, I specifically examine the music performed at Artwallah 2002, and the snapshot it provides of the emerging trends of music production and consumption among South Asian-Americans—particularly the younger second generation. Not surprisingly, the music of second generation South Asian-Americans reflects this tension between cultural and national identity through various styles of music that couple South Asian genres with the now global pop genres of hip hop and house, among others. It is my intention to query the relationship between these musical activities and the formation of a "hyphenated" cultural identity, such as "Indian-American," or the more colloquial "Desi-American." As this new Desi-American music searches for its voice, it both reflects and contributes to a maturing transnational identity among people of South Asian heritage in the complex sociopolitical context of North America.

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