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23/Dec
Aditi Dharmadhikari
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#Powerofpower: How ‘Zoya: Plugged In’ Is Fuelling Electricity in Rural Udaipur Schools

[You can contribute to the #powerofpower initiative by chipping in on Zoya’s website, her Bandcamp page or on OKlisten. Get a sneak peek of ‘Zoya: Plugged In’ here.]

“Music is a search for what is my own,” singer-songwriter Zoya Mohan confesses. “But to be able to give back and contribute through music is highly gratifying.”

While Zoya’s vocals have been described as many things ranging from folk fusion to jazz to pop, her latest cheekily-named album ‘Zoya: Plugged In’ puts a new spin on things; nine of her electronic music producer friends and colleagues from Berklee College of Music have stepped in to rework old favourites from her previous acoustic releases Letters To Toska EP and The Girl Who Used To Live In My Room. All proceeds from the collaborative album, priced at USD$15, will go towards bringing electricity to various schools and child development facilities in remote areas in Udaipur.

Releasing electronic remixes of her songs to fuel electricity for those who need it has an unmistakeably serendipitous ring to it, and when we asked her about how the idea originated, she shares, “My father would take me to schools in villages in the middle of Udaipur back when I was small whenever we visited India. We’d sing with them and give them biscuits, and he would install facilities to bring electricity to the villages.

“That’s definitely where the idea originated from, and since it was electronic music, it made it that much more special. It’s insane — you know these realities exist, but when you see them yourself, it shifts your world. When I came down to visit, we’d taken a jeep out about 70 km off Udaipur and after we were done speaking with the families from the villages, it had gotten pretty late and it was pitch black. As we returned to the jeep, all the families walked away in the darkness towards the other direction, being so accustomed to living a life without electricity. It is so important for them to have light, especially the children.”  

Zoya explains that she chose songs that were audience favourites for the unique album, and being surrounded by so many electronic music producers and musicians at Berklee, she was rather spoilt for choice when it came to collaborators. Her friend who produces under ‘Asteroids & Earthquakes had been keen on working with her for a while, and when she heard what he had done with the remix of ‘Fire’ from her Letters to Toska EP, she knew she had to turn this into a full-blown album. The other producers featured on the album include TwistyknobsNuMindThe Crateful HeadIcaroJade CicadaSmigonautHe Will Add and CliffLight.

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“The producers had complete creative control once I’d handed my tracks over to them,” she shares. “It’s been exciting to see their individual takes on the tracks, ranging from dub to trance to drum and bass.”

As independent musicians, Zoya confesses, they don’t make much money to begin with, and once the nine tracks had been produced, they took the decision to contribute all proceeds from it to Khushiya Toy Library, an initiative of the larger Maitri Manthan non-profit organisation, and two government schools, Tulsidas Ki Saray and Suran Panchayat Jaswantgarh, in Udaipur. Over 300 students aged 6—16 years walk painfully long distances to attend classes each day at these schools, and reading and studying is only possible in sunlight, something she hopes to alter through her initiative that aims to install tube lights and fans in the premises.

Calling the album ‘recycled art’, Zoya explains that all they did was come together and collaborate with whatever they were each good at. Zoya’s equation with creative forms goes back much further, though.

Born in India and raised in California, she started off as a serious Kathak and Bharatnatyam dancer as a child, and turned to the visual arts when she began high school. She also began working on her vocals around then, and after encouragement from a professor of hers, decided to pursue music full-time at Berklee.

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“Berklee was crazy, it’s literally a city of musicians from around the world,” she says. “I feel so lucky to have been a part of it, there’d be musicians from South America, France, Africa, India, and it became totally normal to be living next to a vibraphone player or a harp player. It was an incredible experience.”

Although Zoya initially signed up for a songwriting program, she was put off by their cookie cutter approach to the medium, and decided to switch to studying music business, a decision which eventually turned out to be ‘a blessing in disguise’. “I wouldn’t be here without that training,” she reflects, her experimental take on DIY songwriting a defining trait for her as an artist today. “I book all my own tours, shoots, music videos, recordings, and also do the mixing myself. It’s been an amazing two-three years doing this, and I think all independent artists should do it. I feel like I’m very protective of my work, having built it from scratch by myself. I’ve also toured the US three times, and recently did an India tour of four cities as well, thanks to the ‘The Girl Who‘ Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.”

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Zoya with children from a government school in Udaipur.

Citing Fiona Apple, Annie DiFranco and Laura Marling as major influences, when probed about what we can look forward to from her next, she talks about a solo acoustic EP that’s in the works. Expected to release in August 2016, she intends to tour with a full band for its release and mentions that various tracks of it feature eclectic instrumentation including the sitar, the Argentinian drum, and the cello. “While I don’t necessarily classify my music as ‘fusion’ music, I do love experimenting with and incorporating sounds and instruments from different cultures. I’m still looking for a sarod player, which is much harder that you’d think, even in a city like Mumbai,” she laughs.

Wanderlust has undoubtedly been one of her biggest inspirations for her music, and co-relating it with her songwriting, she says, “I feel like when you’re travelling, you’re living life at a hyper level and opening up to experiences that you would never be aware of otherwise.”

[You can contribute to the #powerofpower initiative by chipping in on Zoya’s website, her Bandcamp page or on OKlisten. Get a sneak peek of ‘Zoya: Plugged In’ here.]

Aditi Dharmadhikari

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