Reena Esmail is a builder of bridges—figuratively. The Los Angeles-based Indian-American composer works at the unique intersection of Indian and Western classical music to bring the two worlds together in a melodious collision. A former Fulbright-Nehru fellow and alumna of Juilliard and Yale’s music programs, her work has been performed by ensembles including the Seattle Symphony and Baltimore Symphony. As the Artistic Director of Shastra, a nonprofit which brings musicians in concert for cross-cultural collaboration and dialogue, Esmail is ensuring that everyone is able to access this world, no matter where they’re at in their musical journey.
Reena: I grew up in America but I grew up in an Indian family. There's a culture within your family and there's a different culture outside. I didn't grow up with many Indian kids. I was always aware that there was going to be two versions of me that had to be navigated. I went to Juilliard. I went to Yale. Those are both insider schools for classical music. But on the other hand, I also got a Fulbright, which in a way, made me an outsider to Western classical music. Wherever I am in my life right now, there are points where different elements of me feel like I'm an insider and different elements make me feel like an outsider based on where I am. The thing about that is, it gives you this dual perspective. You have a sense that there's always multiple ways of looking at things.Elle: I read that when you're thinking about making a new piece of music, you think about who's going to be listening to it, who's going to be playing and who's in the audience.
Reena: A hundred years ago, when Western classical musicians were doing what they were doing, immigration hadn't been what it was yet and it's not like you would go out into an audience and see someone who had Indian classical training. A lot of times, that music could represent a different culture in whatever way it wanted because there was no accountability. These days, you don't know who's going to be in the audience. It could be someone who's actually from that culture. It's not that you want to appropriate or bastardize their culture in some way, it's that you want to create music that's actually going to engage them and bring them in. If you could speak one language, and people who spoke a certain language could understand you, people who spoke a different language could understand you, but you're saying the same word. That's what I want to try to do with my music. Where that one piece could be understood through a variety of culture lenses and it makes sense in those contexts.Elle: How did you come to this point of bridging the gap between Indian music and Western music?
Reena: I think the first gap was actually in myself and in my own heart. When you grow up where no one knows your culture, you really live a double life. I felt that most of the time growing up, I did things with my Indian community and I did things with my friends at school, in my American community. When I started composing, people would look at me. There's not very many women or women of colour, and there's certainly not many Desi women in my generation who are becoming composers. So the first thing people would always ask me is, "Oh, you're Indian. Do you do something with Indian classical music?"
Truth be told, I would be a little bit embarrassed because I didn't know anything about Indian classical music because my mother is Goan. She was trained in Western classical music. Her family knows Beethoven and that's how she put me in Western classical music. I felt like just because I'm from the culture, I'm suddenly expected to know these things. I didn't want to assume that I knew more than I did before I did.
I was always trying to think, "How can I get to Indian music?" I wasn't one of those kids who grew up going to India with my parents every summer. I went once when I was out of my undergrad. I was almost 25-years-old and it was the first time I set foot in India. Two things happened. One was that I got to actually live in India for the first time. I just landed in India and it occurred to me that this could definitely be my home. My parents were really surprised because it's a very different culture from American culture. My grandmother's sister said, "Please come back to India." And I said, "I will find some way through music to come back to India."
At that point, as a 25-year-old, with no understanding of Indian classical music, I thought I don't know how I'm going to do this. I'm making her a promise I definitely cannot keep. It took me almost 10 years but I did actually come back to India for music. It was a feeling of deep connection to the culture that made me want to learn the music and made me want to have that. I found that connection within myself and I wanted to get to know my own cultural counterparts in Indian classical music, and build something really beautiful with them. That's where it started for me. I feel like I want to take that into the world because I feel like I've experienced this really deep connections between cultures. I want other people to be able to cross that bridge too.
Reena: Some of the biggest challenges have been reconciling people's different views on things. When you operate in many different places, each of those places come with a different set of values. I go to small towns. I go to huge cities. I feel like there's so many different competing ideas of what's right and what's good and what people value. Being a musician and taking all of that in can sometimes be really tough and to reconcile it can be even tougher. I've worked across demographics. I've worked with people who are experiencing homelessness, incarceration and people who have been sidelined by society in many ways. More specifically, the hardest moment for me was getting my doctorate. That was a really, really tough time for me because I had just come back from India and I was aware that there was a whole other world out there. For one year in my life, I was not a minority. For one year, on my Fulbright in India, I was just a woman in India. I think you don't realize the weight of what you deal with until that weight is removed for one second. When I got back to the U.S., the reverse culture shock was so intense and I felt it so much. It's never gone away. I've never been the same person since I left for India and came back.Elle: Tell me about your non-profit, Shastra.
Reena: Shastra is an organization that I formed with a former Fulbrighter who's also a musician named Payton MacDonald. We both came back from India and we were looking for ways to bridge this gap between Indian and Western classical music. We have a number of things that we do. On the highest level, we do concerts where we'll bring Indian and Western classical musicians together to play their own traditional music and dialogue with one another. I work with Indian classical musicians and Western classical musicians together to write this music. I feel like there shouldn't just be a few people who can do this. It should be open to as many people that want to participate. My goal is at all levels to support artists—who are the highest-level artists who work in both Indian and Western classical music and want to bridge that gap and that on the very beginning level to help students who grew up like me.Elle: You said that you're feeling the joy of possibility but also the crushing weight of expectation. How do you juggle between these two feelings?
Reena: In a strange way, they're one and the same. They're two sides of the same coin. Fear is the thing that makes you not want to engage. Excitement is the feeling of wanting to engage. It's really hard because the line is so fine between them. When I get a little bit overwhelmed or one more thing gets on my plate, I can go from excitement into fear. But then if I can clear my mind a little bit, I can go from fear back into excitement. Sometimes I feel like composing can be a really lonely profession. You sit at your piano for hours a day, plonking away, hoping that some note is going to come and is going to make some sense to a person in two years from now. You really are in the creative world alone. I love finding individuals to collaborate with because my feeling is, when you invite another person into your creative space, you're able to build something together that feels really wholesome and generative. You don't get into these really dark patterns because there's always someone else in there who provides this counterpoint and this interesting perspective. I choose my collaborators really carefully and I choose people who inspire me really deeply because that's the thing where you're going through this dark process of not really knowing what something is and you're staring into the void everyday hoping that some music is going to come up. You want to experience that void with someone who you really trust and who really inspires you.Elle: What does Walk How You Want mean to you?
Reena: As a child, I always really hated hiking. I always really hated hiking because I was not a kid who was in really good physical shape. I didn't do sports or anything because I would be sitting at the piano for hours every day. I always felt that when I would go into these places, I would be behind and I would have the feeling of, "I'm the last person and everyone's waiting for me," and I felt really embarrassed. As I got older and very recently, I've been taking these hikes in nature by myself and thinking to myself the differences. The nature was always the same and always really beautiful but for me, it's being able to have the people on the journey with you that make you comfortable and make you feel like you're able to explore, and that you're able to take things at your own pace. You don't have to walk at someone else's pace. You can be the protagonist of your own story. Literally, just this idea of being able to walk around in nature, by myself, and take in what I want to take in, I think in a way, it's a metaphor for everything I do. I can play by conventional rules if I need to but I find that the most creative things don't come from trying to figure out someone else's game. They come from going into this path and trying to feel your way forward in a way that feels right to you. That's what it means to me.
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