Rafiq Bhatia, “Breaking English”

. February 26, 2019.
Photo Credit: Zenith Richard
Photo Credit: Zenith Richard

Shattering preconceptions of style, genre and avant garde

When you think of electric guitar-driven music, what comes to mind? Now, think about avant garde classical music?

Chances are, those two styles conjured radically different images; yet, both co-exist in New York-based guitarist/composer, Rafiq Bhatia. Duality and the resulting tension lies at the heart of Bhatia’s ANTI- Records debut album, Breaking English. Bhatia tears through influences, at points mashing up blues guitar with industrial avant garde music, or post rock with Arabic-inflected strings. The most striking aspect of this omnivorous musical collection is that Bhatia feels as if he’s consuming, synthesizing, and reinventing those markers, rather than settling for a simple pastiche of music he finds cool or interesting.

“I’m an outsider everywhere” Bhatia says. The infrastructures at play in music – both popular and classical – constantly remind him that he is ‘an other.’ So, “In a certain way [he has] nothing to lose” in bridging the artificial divide between styles and very little to gain by maintaining the status quo. That, and “a certain kind of hybridizing that has been a part of everyday life since [he] was first socializing” led Bhatia to a musical voice that doesn’t seek to break barriers between styles but, more accurately, to affirm that those walls never really existed in the first place.

Rebuilding sound

Breaking English is, as all good album titles are, a perfect, if not overly literal, descriptor of the album’s essence. Bhatia takes sounds we understand separately and breaks them, often stretching them beyond recognition. Destroying associations with certain kinds of music, Bhatia rebuilds them in a language all his own.

One moment that illustrates Rafiq’s compositional philosophy comes on early-album standout track “Hoods Up.”

Birthed from Bhatia’s “horror with the news of these last several American years and his empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement” the song begins with a blues portamento – a soulful dip before returning to the intended note. It’s a fairly common, but effective technique. Here, that note continues to rise, ascending steadily into the stratosphere, in a thrilling rug-pull of a moment.

Hearing that for the first time in “Hoods Up”, as a skillful guide through the musical landscape, make for a challenging, but incredibly rewarding listen. Bhatia’s great ear for sound and melody pairs with an insatiable sense of adventure and a singular, driving sense of purpose. While there are no words sung or spoken on Breaking English, it’s nonetheless a work that has a great deal to say.


Breaking English at the Peristyle

A unique Toledo opportunity has Rafiq Bhatia — joined by drummer and fellow Son Lux bandmate, Ian Chang, and bassist Jackson Hill — performing Breaking English in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Peristyle Theater on Saturday, March 9 as a part of the Great Performances series. The album’s music will be “transformed into an immersive multimedia experience by visual artist Michael Cina and video artist Hal Lovemelt,” adding further depth and meaning to an already rich work. Bhatia and his trio will be supported by opening act WILLS, rounding out an evening-length performance.

Whether you can make it to the TMA on March 9 or just sit down and listen to Breaking English in your own home, the experience of listening to this music can’t be overly recommended. It’s a chance to experience exciting young music, straddling the line between rock and classical, pushing the boundaries of the art form while leaving enough breadcrumbs to ensure Bhatia doesn’t leave his audience behind.

8pm | Saturday, March 9
$25, nonmembers | $20, members | $16, students and military
Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Theater, 2445 Monroe St.
419-255-8000 | toledomuseum.org