“Too Indian for Americans, too American for Indians” is how 22-year-old musician Rounak Maiti describes his diasporic experience, something that has vividly influenced his debut album, Bengali Cowboy. Comprised of ten guitar-based, folksy songs with quasi-confessional lyrics, the album was released earlier this month by Pagal Haina Records, a label which has gained reputation for backing talented indie singer-songwriters like Prateek Kuhad.
Maiti described Bengali Cowboy as a “concept country album about identity, space and relationships”. Having lived in both the US and India, he puts himself in the shoes of a mythical cowboy trying to understand the expansiveness of the places he has lived in and the people he has met so far in his “weirdly transient life.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Maiti’s family moved to the Greater Mumbai region when he was five. “My parents were tired of living abroad,” he said. He lived in Navi Mumbai while he went to a school 30 kilometres away in Bandra. It was during his time at a Pune boarding school (where he completed the last two years of school) that he met a diverse, international community of friends and began messing with original music.
Maiti moved to Los Angeles soon after to study cognitive science at Occidental College, which is where he bloomed as an artist. This experience of having moved from place to place over the years created a sense of confusion within about his identity – he calls it “un-belonging” – all of which makes its way into Bengali Cowboy.
While the album’s name makes sense in that context, the songs do not specifically deal with any kind of ethnic identity crisis, the way Punjabi-Canadian hip-hop or 1990s Asian Underground music does. Thematically, Maiti’s songs revolve around whimsies, thoughts and feelings any young man in his twenties might have, in any part of the world, minus any sophomoric angst.
The album begins with the one-minute long song called The Process. Musically and lyrically succinct, it builds up a mood for what is to follow. The languid Fable and It’s Been Said Before could be categorised under sadcore, if it weren’t for their buoyant lyrics, and the minimalist Patience and Do Not, My Dear could almost lull you to sleep. The album’s lead single, Diary, with a strong melody line, is perfect for a mass sing-along during live shows. Squeezed in the middle is a charming but short instrumental called (wait) which feels like a teaser for a longer post-rock track.
One wouldn’t be wrong to guess that the album was recorded in Maiti’s bedroom or garage. He recorded every instrument and vocal track, mixed, mastered and produced all the songs. “I basically use one condenser microphone and a bunch of SM57s to record everything,” he said. However, he is also a member of two other bands, Campus Security and Small Forward, comprising college friends from Los Angeles. Making music with a varied bunch of people has helped him ease into the NRI life after the initial culture shock and alienation he felt upon moving to LA.
“Social interactions, be it romantic, friendly or professional, are incredibly different in the US and in the western world in general,” Maiti said as he described his early days in LA. “For instance, the intense partying of college definitely took me by surprise. I was unwell in my first semester of college and down with a condition that didn’t allow me to drink alcohol, so I went to a lot of events and parties sober, which was an even weirder and scarier experience.”
While in LA, Maiti did not face any overt racism, but he did have to deal with what are called micro-aggressions. “Like ‘How’s your English so good?’ or ‘Oh my god! How did you get from India to here?’. Harmless on the surface, but hurtful nonetheless,” Maiti said. But music, he said, helped him solidify his identity.
While his music is not political, he minces no words when it comes to the results of the US presidential election. “Many people are understandably frustrated and disappointed,” Maiti said. “I am too. I can feel how affected people around me are by this election. But LA, inherently, has a good and progressive spirit, at least in my bubble, so I wouldn’t say that the city itself has changed all that much other than a desire to galvanise against current politics.”
Last month, Maiti performed in Delhi at an album release gig, which he said was one of his best shows in a while. Back in the US, the cowboy isn’t hanging up his boots – for the next few months, Maiti has a bunch of shows lined up with his two bands. “We are working hard and hopefully will be able to tour and release more music to the world,” Maiti said. “My solo music is more for myself rather than a project I’m working on promoting extensively.”