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Interview: Bishi - from The Chart Show to the 100 Club with Wolfie

Image: Bishi, photographed by Zuzanna Butkiewicz

To those who know her, Bishi is the doyenne of London’s avant-garde music and arts scene; a pin-up girl for cultural diversity; a subverter of social stereotypes; a champion collaborator; a creative wiz with a hungry, just-do-it, DIY attitude. If you’re new to Bishi - she’s now on your radar: Musician, Artist, Multimedia Performer, Producer and Curator. Add electronica, a Bengali heritage, and London’s LGBTQ+ club scene into the mix - and you’re beginning to scratch the surface of Bishi’s universe.

In the heady noughties a seventeen year old Bishi threw herself at the alternative nightlife scene with the worlds first classical music club night, The Siren Suite - propelling her onto tour with the likes of Pulp and Goldfrapp, and launching a prolific creative career.

Fast forward to 2018 - seizing a bunch of profile gigs, albums and collaborations on the way - she’s just returned from creating new work in New York, Bishi: The Good Immigrant. It’s a song cycle for voice looper, sitar, and electronics, co-produced with sound artist, Jeff Cook - inspired by The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays edited by Nikesh Shukla. On Friday 20 April she’ll be performing the European debut at The Old Church in Stoke Newington as part of the What is England? festival. The festival offers a chance for everyone to reimagine English identity in an inclusive, welcoming way, at a time when a toxic form of nationalism is on the rise. Timely, huh. Local elections, anyone?

In May 2018, Bishi releases her next EP Winds of Fate at the 100 Club, at a special event with Wolfgang Flür of the legendary electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk.

Amidst all this activity we caught up with Bishi to talk about women and technology, Imogen Heap's Mi.Mu Gloves, the future of London’s creative scenes, and - an entrepreneurial call out about a special project with composer Hannah Peel. And, of course a little reminisce over The Chart Show.

Jamie: Of the following, what’s the connecting thread? The noughties. Classical music. London’s alternative club scene. A seventeen year old Bishi.
So in the noughties I was a precocious teen hanging out with members of Leigh Bowery's notorious band Minty, and playing in gigs with my childhood friend Patrick Wolf. The Siren Suite - the world's first classical nightclub - began in 2001 when I was 17! I'd been collecting experimental classical music records and Matthew Glamorre (from Minty) spotted a Malcolm McLaren-esque opportunity in a cocky British Indian girl spinning classical vinyl. He said I needed to toughen up - but I think he needed young blood! LOL! We went on to tour with the likes of Goldfrapp and Pulp. It was an incredible entry into a creative career.

Photo: Promotional photo of Bishi for The Siren Suite, 2001.

Jamie: As an artist, how do you subvert or celebrate social stereotypes?
As a child, I would spend Saturdays studying Indian classical music. I was lucky! In break times I would watch The Chart Show on TV. A lot of the pop acts of that era, like Deee-Lite, The Shamen, and S'Express I met and hung out with socially. This juxtaposition of cultures really affected me and showed me what was possible.

Being caught in between two worlds is a complete head fuck. I hate to sound like a snowflake but I didn't feel welcome by either community - especially by the Indians.

Through meeting Patrick [Wolf] and Minty [Leigh Bowery, Richard Torry, Matthew Glamorre, and Nicola Bowery] I was swept into the LGBTQ counter-culture scenes. It was the first time I ever felt accepted and liked - I was able to express myself.

We all face rejection of sorts. Mine was cultural rejection and it's been the making of me. My celebration of culture has been one giant subversion. I still haven't been accepted by the mainstream. The changing tide for BAME women in the Arts and opportunities for leadership is changing, slowly. It could be better.
But I don't dwell on it because I have an enormous heritage to draw from, so I'll never be lonely.

Jamie: The launch party for your forthcoming EP The Winds of Fate (11 May 2018) at the 100 Club involves Wolfgang Flür of the legendary electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk. Can you tell us about the making of the EP? And - what’s going on with Wolfie?
The Winds of Fate EP was a musical response to a collaboration with an interactive wind harp made by AV duo, Output Arts. I set two poems by Christina Rossetti and Ella Wheeler Wilcox to music, written on a combination of a Boss RC505 looper, sitar and electronics. It was co-produced with the composer Neil Kaczor.

It's the first EP I've released since I've started to self-produce. A lot of my music is commissioned by art and multimedia projects rather than through a traditional record label. Independent musicians thrive on being more entrepreneurial these days.

Wolfie? I was invited to support Herr Flür after the promoters saw me support punk-opera chanteuse Kristeen Young at The Lexington. I love his music and what musicians like him stand for: a pioneering combination of music and multimedia influences. I’m very excited.

Photo: Performing Bishi: The Good Immigrant, New York, 2018.

Jamie: For the music geeks, can you tell us how you’ve groomed your voice as a leading instrument in much of your work?
As a child I was trained in both Eastern and Western classical voice work. In my teens I got involved with punk bands, as well as learning English and Scottish folk music. In my early twenties I trained with a Bulgarian Choir.

When I studied the sitar in India, I was taught that all ragas must be sung first - the voice is seen as the lead instrument. So my sitar playing is an extension of my voice.

On my recent trip to New York, I studied extended vocal techniques with Meredith Monk. She's been incredibly warm and supportive of me. I've been live-looping for the past few years and experimenting with interactive technology such as Imogen Heap's Mi.Mu Gloves as a way of extending my understanding of the voice. I'm very keen to explore more technology in this sector - I’m looking for tech practitioners to partner with in this exploration.

Jamie: From your viewpoint, is there a global, creative resistance against the rise of nationalism?
The What is England? festival (20-23 April, The Old Church) curated by Deborah Coughlin, has a really interesting point of view because it's discussing whether it's possible to be a good nationalist. Politically our world is more divided than ever - it certainly feels that way. One of my latest projects, Bishi: The Good Immigrant, was inspired by the Nikesh Shukla edited anthology of essays discussing race in contemporary Britain. It was commissioned by National Sawdust, an arts incubator space in New York as a song-cycle for voice, sitar, and electronics. The UK premiere will be at The Old Church on Friday 20 May.

These questions around nationalism have become amplified and heated in the western world as we struggle to understand our place within it all. It's bigger than all of us! Tolerance and empathy are the only roads to peace.

Jamie: What are your intentions for WITCiH: The Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub?
WITCiH is a platform to celebrate women in Tech: at the intersection of creative tech and science. Our curated guests have included the likes of Imogen Heap, Ana Matronic, and Mira Calix. We recently curated a floor at Tate Modern which focused on live coding as an art form.

I'm in the process of setting up WITCiH as an organisation that commissions multimedia, cross-disciplinary work and supports more educational activities. WITCiH has just recorded its first pilot podcast with the composer Hannah Peel. We’re looking for sponsorship to get a series made. I really hope this happens. If there is anyone interested or has any ideas of how to achieve this in the Run-Riot universe then please do get in touch!

Jamie: In your recent interview with Amy Lame on BBC Radio 6, you said ‘Your creativity should forge its own path’. Can you unpack that for us?
This is a nod to DIY, Punk, and counter-culture. However, with the explosion of technology, broadcasting, and social media I am excited by the incredible range of culture. There is an appetite for art and the avant-garde in ways that are more accessible and less exclusive to larger audiences, which I find so encouraging. I do worry about smartphone addiction, and the loss of our physical spaces due to how expensive London has become, but there is a broad range of cultural activity that wasn't around even 10-years ago. This is something to truly celebrate.

Jamie: What gives you hope for the future of London’s creative scenes?
I think there's an openness to international, creative relationships; a uniqueness to our creative flair; and a deep-rooted sense of humour that will always mark out London’s creative people. I do have a big concern: sky rocket rents are throwing people out in their droves. London creatives have a lot to offer.

Jamie: Can you treat us to a Bishi London anecdote?
Well, there's something about walking around the capitols tourist hot spots at 5am - when you're coming back from a night out/doing the walk of shame - that has a gothic magic. When no one is around and the tourists have yet to take over, you can really absorb the grandeur of this great city. When I need to clear my head, I'll often go and sit at Emmeline Pankhurst's grave, which I live close to. It's humbling. It gives me a sense of calm and clarity.


European Debut
Bishi: The Good Immigrant
as part of
WHAT IS ENGLAND? Festival Launch
7pm, Friday 20 April
at The Old Church, Stoke Newington Church Street

Winds of Fate EP Launch Party
with headline from Wolfgang Flür (Kraftwerk)
7.30pm, Friday 11 May
at the 100 Club, Oxford Street 

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