Sharmi Basu looked at the menu at Shooting Star in Oakland’s Chinatown and wondered whether or not the horoscope-themed drinks in the middle of the colorful dessert selection were alcoholic. She’d come straight from meditation and, a few days before, had returned from an artist residency for people of color in rural Wisconsin. “With live performance, I’m trying to create momentary spaces,” said Basu, outlining her vision of gigs as shelter for marginalized communities. “As in, okay, for the next twelve minutes your wounds are healed.”
Basu, 28, is an Oakland educator and electronic musician who primarily performs as Beast Nest. She also thinks about how the power imbalances in our society burrow into the experimental music scene, a process Basu views through the prism of decolonial theory. Basu, who’s of Indian descent, is known for facilitating workshops such as Decolonizing Sound — which might begin with mindfulness exercises and end with blistering noise — and fostering inclusivity in underground music spaces too often run by people who recreate the values and power dynamics they claim to reject.
Basu, who was born in Oakland and grew up in San Jose, studied political science at UC Davis, but gravitated towards the student radio station and the musical resources at the Technocultural Studies Department. It was around the time when dramatic cutbacks and tuition hikes rocked the UC system, eliciting widespread protest. “I remember taking our amps out in to the quad and reading demands through delay pedals,” Basu bemusedly recalled.
This led to her graduate work at Mills College, where she studied electronic music and wrote a thesis about how styles such as blues and jazz connect to struggle and resilience in communities of color. And this informed her workshops, which focus on “what it means to decolonize on a personal level and then a community level,” she said. “And how do we go from that to systemic change?”
Basu’s upcoming tape, A Taste of India, due July 29 on Ratskin Records, features two sidelong tracks: the restrained but vivid “Tired AF / Pluto,” a raft of chirps, murmurs, and arpreggiating keyboard melody; and the lively “Ganga,” a collision of scree and glimmering texture that surges and recedes in wavering stereo. The title, A Taste of India, reclaims a phrase that can seem orientalist in order to foreground her heritage while working in a style that’s often associated with pale males.
“There’s a myth that noise as a genre miraculously came from white dudes in the suburbs, but that’s not the case. History is misleading. Noise is based on improvisation. There are so many accounts of mothers in the South, who were enslaved, freestyling these lullabies and the lullabies serve as a moment of refuge, an actual source of safety.” Basu continued, “For myself, getting into experimental music was about how I can create a world outside of the world I’m materially bound to, how I can express what I’m feeling without this shitty colonial language I’m socialized to use.”
Basu is one of many artists — including the inimitable improv outfit Black Spirituals, the oblique noise-rock group SBSM, and the skewed reggaetón duo Las Sucias — who, in recent years, have shaped or emerged from a segment of the Oakland experimental music scene that prizes inclusivity. Homogenous lineups are lately held up to scorn, which has had the effect of making white, male bookers more mindful of their tendency to promote musicians who look like themselves. (It’s also alienated bookers who seem to consider inclusivity an unbearable burden.)
Take all-boy bills, for instance. They’re still common in, say, local garage and indie-rock circles. But they’re becoming exceptions at some of the underground spaces known for hosting left-field electronic music, where, only a few years ago, Basu recalled being one of the only women of color in attendance, let alone on stage. “Bookers are more aware of the fact that they have only men or only white people on their bills,” she said. “Now that they’re getting called out, they’re making way more of an effort.”
There’s even a little less tokenization, Basu said. “I don’t necessarily feel I’m only getting asked to play a show because I’m a woman of color.” Careful not to minimize the contributions of her maverick predecessors, Basu nevertheless reckoned that, now, “There’s an insurgence.”