Making Beautiful Mistakes: How Donn Bhat's Music Is Transforming Indie Folk Fusion

Indie artist Donn Bhat startles with his fresh, experimental sounds.
Indie artist Donn Bhat startles with his fresh, experimental
I've always felt that music is a spiritual thing. It's supposed to comfort us and make us feel less alone in this universe.
Donn Bhat

Golden flecks of dust eddied in the air as cables were unwound. Microphone stands emerged like sentinels from the back of a weathered vehicle, while Sufi vocalist Ustaad Sakur Khan's eyes surveyed the undulating Thar Desert. Musician-producer Donn Bhat adjusted his input levels in profound silence, interrupted only by the soft clinks of gear being fine-tuned and occasional murmurs from Khejri trees. "There was a storm coming," Bhat recalls. "The first day was literally all about making sure the mics weren't buzzing and the stands didn't fall down."

While the sun began its descent, casting long shadows across the sand dunes, two worlds of Rajasthani baul and electronica collided in an otherworldly composition Swali Hu. Drenched in the indigenous acoustics of sarangi and dotara with an Afro-rock inspired tonality, this track pithily explores 18th century saint Bulleh Shah's windswept mysticism to "fill a void of something that doesn't exist" in our post-industrial era.

Too often, audio engineers fixate upon preset software grids in what Bhat describes as a 'sterile studio environment'. Ancient microtonal scales attained by homegrown balladeers like Ustaad Sakur don't conform to a 7-note diatonic popular in the West, occasionally running the risk of being snubbed by those who repose their trust more in the authority of computers and 'planned spaces' rather than the miracle of outdoor recording. "These artists are like Superman because they don't wear a mask to get on stage," Bhat explains. "Their music has been ingrained in them for generations so I have to respect where they come from."

"When you are recording or even just jamming with people, there's a lot of vulnerability and trust involved."
Donn Bhat

Acknowledging that with every new sonic milestone he crosses, his risk-taking bravado seems to dissipate, Bhat struggles to keep his wide-eyed wonder alive. This is the impetus behind embarking on eclectic pilgrimages like the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra or a village carnival somewhere in Chhattisgarh and recording samples on his phone. The granules of these multifarious inspirations percolate into his senses until they find a way to Bhat's digital workstation at home. In fact, this is how he got started really, by firing off an apprehensive salvo of soundscapes he dreamed up in the solitude of his bedroom on Reason (audio software).

Experimenting with different acoustic elements with childlike wonder.
Experimenting with different acoustic elements with childlike

His early discography camouflaged the germinal influences of the rock and progressive metal icons from his boyhood like Dream Theater with the poetic lucidity of Leonard Cohen. Growing up in a household of qawwali enthusiasts, playing hooky with psychedelic trance during college and letting his hair down with early bands like Friday The 13th and Orange Street, Bhat has evolved his folk-fusion sensibilities over time.

"I've never been in that race of putting out a single every month. I don't really believe that's how art functions, at least not for me."
Donn Bhat

Releasing his first album One Way Circle in 2012 and strumming the guitar with Passenger Revelator in 2014, the intoxication of live gigs never wore off completely. "I think you can really test a song out and get an immediate response from the audience," Bhat muses. "I feel like you just end up writing differently once you start performing." His 2016 album Connected dabbled in the frenzied poetry of Ali Farka Touré's swooning blues, with the languor of Tibetan singing bowls and Suhail Yusuf Khan's impassioned sarangi thrown in for good measure. But the whole time, Bhat remained uncannily sporadic in his output, choosing to travel and soak in the romance of making music for himself without the constraints of sponsors or studio labels adding too many cooks to the broth.

Guardedly solipsistic at first, Bhat slowly picked up on the weariness of always being inside his head and grew to cherish the synergy of co-creation. Kicking this year off with a cross pollination of Punjabi hip-hop by Prabh Deep and the versatility of Rashmeet Kaur and Ustaad Sakur Khan's earthy warbling on the Coke Studio banger Taqdeer, Bhat went on to release more singles than ever since his rendition of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit in 2021. The Hindustani classical-psychedelic banger Garaj with Isheeta Chakravarty, a deeply textured indie rock ‎Until You See with long time collaborators Toymob and Blackstratblues preceded his latest Dard where he has come full circle with Ustaad Sakur Khan. The more sensuous and contemplative sounding Ishq was the only solo act he delivered recently.

Collaboration didn't come easy but felt very rewarding.
Collaboration didn't come easy but felt very

While Bhat is a big fan of the DIY, no strings attached style of production, he also doesn't think that composing a background score for the entertainment industry is like selling your soul. He just thinks it is a more psychological process and that reigning in his ego and focusing on the client's vision unexpectedly may result in something great. "Say it's a song for a film or a commercial, then you are essentially serving a purpose," he elucidates. "A lot of times you may feel strongly about your work but it may not suit the director's vision." Counting conceptual clarity among his biggest strengths, Don Bhatt also concedes to the divinity of spontaneous inspiration. He endeavours to keep surprising himself, not giving in to didactic self-control but leaving a window open for the light to shine through. "It's more about the moment than getting the perfect take," he confesses. "Beautiful mistakes can happen when you're making music."

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