“I’m just getting used to being misunderstood,” Keshav Batish says. “That’s brought me a lot of solace.”
Most of us regard those ideas—misunderstanding and solace—as contradictory, or at least in tension with each other. But for Batish, a 23-year-old drummer/percussionist who released his debut album Binaries in Cycle in July, misunderstanding underscores a fundamental truth. “I don’t think people will ever really understand each other,” he says. “Let’s say we become best friends, right? Maybe I could start getting a glimpse into your mind after 20, 30 years, what you think about, what you feel, on a daily basis. Accepting that has helped me to find peace. To be at peace with the confusion.”
Those opposing-yet-harmonized ideas make up one of the binaries Batish’s album title speaks of. A quartet recording (with alto saxophonist Shay Salhov, pianist Lucas Hahn, and bassist Aron Caceres), the album explores dualities on multiple levels. Gender is one: Batish identifies as queer and sees gender preconceptions as limiting and potentially harmful. The North Indian rhythmic concept of khali and bhari (empty and full) is another, as is the Ornette Coleman pairing of “natural technique and learned technique.” The primary one, though, is the dialogue between the Hindustani musical tradition Batish grew up with and the African-American tradition he came to love.
Although he was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California (where he still lives), Batish is the scion of a North Indian musical dynasty. His grandfather, S. D. Batish, who died in 2006, was a giant of the Bollywood music industry: a singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical director who worked on dozens of films in and out of India, including the Beatles’ Help! He passed on his knowledge to Keshav’s father Ashwin, a sitarist and tabla player renowned for his fusions of Hindustani classical music with Western pop styles. He, in turn, passed his classical training on to his son.
Batish says there was no doubt he’d follow the path of his father and grandfather; indeed, the possibility of doubt never occurred to him. “Questioning it wasn’t even a part of things,” he says. “It was taken as, ‘You’re gonna breathe air, and you’re gonna play music.’”
One thing he was always aware of, however, was his otherness. Batish grew up in a house bursting with the cultural flavors of Mumbai, Punjab, and other parts of the subcontinent. Outside the house, though, he was a rare person of color. In high school, as Batish grew increasingly serious about music, he began bringing Indian instruments to his classes. His otherness became more visible—although he was less an object of ridicule than of curiosity. “‘Oh, you play Hindustani music. What is that like?’ I took on this role as an ambassador,” he says. “On the one hand, I felt a tremendous responsibility; on the other hand, I didn’t want to have to explain myself all the time.”
Then his high-school band director introduced him to jazz: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Profoundly attracted to the music, he took up the trap drums and had hopes that this would be a way for people to understand him. Soon, though, he found that his training on sitar and tabla were clouding his own understanding: To his ears, jazz’s harmony and intonation seemed distorted, and the piano’s equal temperament sounded wrong.
“The musicians I was meeting kept saying, ‘You should get in touch with Hafez Modirzadeh. Everything you’re saying, he’s said.’” The Iranian-American alto saxophonist, who teaches at nearby San Francisco State University, became a new mentor for Batish. “He showed me that these systems can coexist, and that it’s up to us to take this piano hammer and detune it—but think of it as a retuning. It’s a movement toward recalibrating our minds and how we think of tones. Just that feeling of agency over the instrument feels like a way to decolonize my mind, and therefore hopefully the music.”
Batish feels that this approach to the piano is still a work in progress, so didn’t include it on Binaries in Cycle. The album does, however, marry jazz concepts (especially the blues, for which he feels great affinity) with Hindustani raga and rhythmic cycles. It also includes tunes by Ornette Coleman (“Police People”) and Thelonious Monk (“We See”), who embody the tonal deconstruction that interests him. In a small sense, then, music really has brought Batish toward understanding. Even so, he continues to see an appeal in staying a little off-kilter.
“The Sufi poet Rumi said that he lives in a state of lucid confusion,” he says. “I try to find that for myself. That confusion is beautiful. It’s mystic.”