In an era where “taking DC to the world and bringing the world to DC” could be easily seen as a code for gentrifiers to get in where they fit, Southeast D.C. native Christylez Bacon’s Washington Sound Museum presents a pleasant deviation from this now-expected norm. Occurring for the 22nd time this Saturday and Sunday (tickets are available) at D.C.’s Atlas Theater on H Street NE, the event pairs Grammy-nominated rapper/vocalist/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Bacon with 2013-2014 Strathmore Artist-in-Residence and Hindustani classical violinist Nistha Raj. Exploring the connective ties between Indian classical music, hip-hop culture and go-go music, there will also be chai tea reception that will feature seminars on Indian classical dance and native-to-D.C. go-go’s “Beat Ya Feet” dance, too. Interactive, entertaining and wholly beneficial, in speaking with Christylez Bacon regarding the event, his sheer joy radiated through the phone and permeates this interview. Enjoy!
So, this is the 22nd Washington Sound Museum. Thoughts about the evolution of the event over the past four or five years now?
Yeah, I started it in 2011. It’s an idea that I thought about, and it brings different people and cultures together through music. I started it at Bloombars in Columbia Heights. Bloombars was a nice, smaller spot where we could have a tea-time upstairs beforehand because I love tea, and (jokingly) I didn’t want people to get hammered [beforehand]! This is a learning experience and you want people to listen to and understand these songs.We had a different tea every month to go along with the collaborating culture. This is something that’s been held onto, even to this moment, so there’s a chai tea reception before this event.
At Bloombars we were doing it on a monthly basis, which was crazy! We were bridging our cultural divide on the monthly. We did that, and then we took the event on a couple of “field trips” to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where this new season is happening. Whenever I do the field trips, I always want to make it a “best of” thing. Instead of one culture, we’d put two of these guest collaborating cultures together. When we did the Kennedy Center, it was (DC area female duo) the Sweater Set doing their indie folk stuff and Nistha doing the Hindustani classical stuff.
When we did the field trip here at the Atlas, it was Piedmont blues, which is a style of blues from this area, and Irish traditional music, so we mixed stuff together.
Insofar as pulling these interests together, how do you discover these various musical styles, and how do you reach out to these artists that you want to work with?
I actually have a wish list of all of these styles of music that I’ve been interested in and wanted to work with. It’s crazy being in D.C., because it’s very diverse and the communities are very separated. I think that [in me] being an artist that rolls with a lot of folk musicians, you come across folk music from all over the place and you meet people. I met Nistha at the Lincoln Theater when I was doing “Poetry Out Loud” and collaborating with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra. She happened to be interning at the National Endowment of the Arts and gave me her card. [Her card read] Hindustani classical violinist, and I was like “oh, I’ve been hearing about this for the longest!” That just happened, and the rest comes from being around musicians in the folk and world music scenes. Usually the cats that I meet are great and open people, so that’s a blessing. They’re also great teachers, too. Those are the kind of people I work and collaborate with, [in that] they’re [creatively] open and present their music, but they’re also willing to explore and help other people understand it and bring other influences into it.
Looking at this season of the Washington Sound Museum, what are some of the themes that you want to explore this season and plans for the event itself?
This season, I’m expanding on the programming that I started at Bloombars and with the field trips. The events will be very intentional about making this an experience where a lot of people are welcome. We’re adding several things to this one besides the performances. We’re doing pre-concert activities, too. For the one this weekend, aside from the tea reception, we’re going to have many dance workshops including Bollywood dance and Beat Ya Feet, the contemporary go-go style of dance. It’s going to be so dope because, when you talk about Beat Ya Feet, you’re talking about the roots of D.C., like D.C. youth culture.
For the rest of the season we might have talks with historians, ethnomusicologists and stuff. We want to make this interactive. There’s also community engagement pieces [as well]. In addition to the concert, we’re taking a smaller-scale version of out collaboration to the community where I grew up in Southeast D.C. where we’ll do stuff in schools. As well, we do stuff at [Northwest D.C.’s] Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. We also will take this to the guest collaborator’s culture, too and do something with the Indian community as well. I want to expose people to these cultural connections outside of paying for a ticket.
In addition to that we have a documentary component, too. This collaboration process actually happens over a three-month time period, with the third month being the month of the concert. Over this three month period we work with a documentary filmmaker – Jamal Woods of Park Triangle Productions – and he films the whole process from month one to month three and everything that’s involved with it. Basically we’re going to have a documentary for each Washington Sound Museum, as well as the concerts and other audio projects.
I wanted to ask about the comparison between Indian classical music and go-go. I’m certain that there’s some kind of percussive element there, but is there anything else between these two styles that make them complementary?
Oh man! Yeah, that’s the thing! We’re talking about Hindustani music – classical music of northern India from the 12th century – connecting with go-go, some D.C. root music. The thing is that [similar to go-go, Indian music has a natural swing to it. The same informal swing is present in go-go music and that’s what makes it great, that’s what makes people dance to it. If you listen to any hip-hop song that samples go-go, those are the joints that make people want to dance! When people play [Kid N’ Play’s] “Rollin’ WIth Kid N’ Play,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “My Mic Sounds Nice” or “Shake Your Thang,” it makes people dance because of the swing. Indian classical music has that, too. Also, Hindustani music has an improvisational nature to it, so it’s just like jazz, and like go-go, where they open it up and different elements come in.
At the concert you will see that we have a go-go piece where the Indian classical musicians come in and do whatever’s natural to them. We take the two styles and put them on top of each other. Both of them do what they normally do, but it just fits and works. That’s the model for all of the collaborations. I don’t want collaborators to break and bend to fit in American culture. I want them to being their fullest selves and exist in the space. Same goes for my D.C. cats, they don’t need to bend to do the other thing either. I want to find that place where we co-exist, and go from there.
Are there any unintended benefits from the experience of pulling together the Washington Sound Museum experience?
Well, sometimes you play with a musician and you become friends, but that’s not always how it has to be. But I’ve definitely developed some great multi-cultural friendships that have been really dope and have learned so much from them. These friendships have educated me.
So, I had to ask. Are there any go-go songs that could directly fit into Hindustani music in particular?
Well, there’s two go-go joints. Since we’re talking about classical music of India, I’ll do one for north Indian and one for south Indian music. If you take Chuck Brown’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Go-Go Swing)” and mix that with north Indian classical music, it just works – especially if you’re talking about a more folky style, it just works. If you’re talking about southern Indian classical music, [bounce beat go-go band] T.O.B. has a song called “NoMee.” The thing is that go-go is going to be really raw, so the lyrical references may not be so PG-13, but it’s a part of our [D.C. urban] culture, right? Not everything is all “rosy red cheeks.”
Nistha has songs that mix together north and south Indian styles, and those remind me of slow bounce (a modern, much more heavily percussive go-go style), the contemporary go-go form. I then thought about “NoMee,” and I was like, “oh snap! I’m going to mix south Indian classical music with slow bounce and have people beat their feet over it. That’s going to happen at the show! We’re going to explore how they can come over here and we can go over there and how we can mix it up as well.