I subscribe to a personal myth that says all great music comes from a single spring the middle of the universe, from a source older than civilization or the human soul. The way the elements of one great song after another bleed into each other through the generations is something that fascinates me. How did jazz become the blues? How did the blues become rock and roll and eventually everything we've ever heard in American popular music? I personally enjoy hearing music that is informed by the past, but still manages to fabricate something fresh from the reconstituted sonic remnants of all that came before it. In a day in age when the singular influences and limited ambitions of so many bands are readily obvious on first listen, one of the things I enjoy most is being genuinely surprised upon hearing an artist for the first time, that moment that you realize what you're hearing is an abrupt departure from the routine and expected.
When I first heard Bhi Bhiman a few months back, I was shocked and amazed to find that I couldn't name one person that he sounded like, the best I could attempt was to describe it as a blend of Hank Williams, Bill Withers, Richie Havens and B.B. King, which to me is some pretty heady company. As a card carrying devotee of folk, soul and country blues, I was infinitely pleased to find so many things that I loved about these types of music coming from one man's mouth and guitar. But the kicker, though, was that these sounds were coming from a guy you might mistake for a Saudi day trader who was looking for the restroom in the back of the bar and accidentally ended up standing in front of the microphone at center stage.
Bhiman grew up in St. Louis listening to grunge music, The son of parents who fled Sri Lanka before civil war broke out there in 1983. He calls his upbringing a combination of Sri Lankan Tamil and Norman Rockwell. He has been lauded as the Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie by several press outlets, presumably for his incisive observations of the human condition and ordinary everyday events, but this comparison ignores the strength of his singing voice as well as the colorful array of influences that can be heard lurking just below the surface of his songs.
Aside from the uniqueness of his voice, Bhiman writes with maturity that belies his years. His songs cover an impressive amount of ground, and his intelligent wordplay, wry humor, and social insight are on display throughout his two albums 2008's The Cookbook and his most recent Bhiman which was released in January of this year. While the majority of Bhiman's songs are based musically in folk traditions, the sum of his voice, sense of melody, and lyrics are decidedly non-traditional when viewed as a whole. He manages to approach each subject, however serious or satirical, with a certain levity and evenness that prevents him from ever sounding sanctimonious or awkward. He is one of the rare songwriters I've heard who is equally capable of inducing deep reflection or sudden outbursts of laughter.
There's songs about modern courtship like “Equal In My Tea” where he accuses the object of his affection of “looking for a man who's all of that and a bag of chips”, and then socio-political songs like “Kimchee Line”, about a North Korean slave laborer who sings “There ain't no use boy/In trying to jump that fence/They got guns on the green side/You ain't making no sense.” There doesn't seem to be too many topics he considers off limits, from struggling with family loss (“It's Cold In Here”), to corporate excess (“Cooking the Books”), to cheating girlfriends (“I've Got My Eye On You”), to a stirring narrative from the perspective of a homeless orphan in “Guttersnipe” (see below). For more info and music, check out bhibhiman.com.
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