Even when fixing teeth, Advait “Avi” Shah can’t stop thinking about music. A dentist by trade, Shah nonetheless enjoys a lively side hustle performing on the tablas and the dhol, traditional Indian instruments that he incorporates into various ensembles that marry Eastern musical motifs with Western modes such as rap and beatboxing. It’s a unique way to bridge his ethnic heritage with the experimental firmament of the American soundscape.
“That’s why I kind of fit in with this whole fusion of Western culture. Every band I played with has that,” Shah said recently from his Maryland home. But, because he’s mostly self-taught, he freely admits that “if I ever had to [play] something traditional, I’d be completely lost.”
On May 13, Shah will leave his drills and scrapers behind to join violinist Nistha Raj and Grammy-nominated progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon at the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, timed to coincide with the Smithsonian’s centennial. Their set will be called “Hip Hop Meets the Music of India.”
“We have developed a group over the last couple years with a full ensemble of instruments—kind of mixing East and West genres,” Shah, the group’s percussionist, said. “Aside from the beatboxing, what I bring is basically more of an Indian flavor to it. And so, we’re [applying] that to a more traditional Punjabi song. And then we’re mixing that with rap and beatbox. That should be cool.”
Shah, whose father plays the sitar, started playing tablas in his youth. That was about the same time his parents took him on his first trip to visit India. Shah’s father hired a tutor to give him private music lessons during the two-month holiday, and Shah recalls the tutor drilling him day and night. Shah later attended some workshops but has essentially been self-taught ever since.
He grew up in New York before relocating to Maryland, where he started his own dental practice nearly a decade ago. Shah is rather fond of bringing up music with his patients, who as often as not inquire when and where they can see him perform.
“Anyone [and] everyone who comes in who’s interested in knowing more about it, we’ll discuss” music, Shah said. “I have patients who are jazz aficionados. I have one guy who is a producer, and his son is a drummer. So whenever there is an opportunity, I’ll talk about music.”
Shah says he greatly enjoys his profession but freely acknowledges its demands on his time and mental energy—and his hairline.
“I’ve lost pretty much all my hair the last five years,” he said with a chuckle.
He’s also had to deal with the effects of long covid. After dodging the virus for several years, Shah recently caught the bug after attending an EDM show in Chicago. In addition to missing work, his infection has led to fatigue and that infamous “brain fog.” Music has provided a rather welcome form of therapy.
“We did a rehearsal, and I was pumped up after. I felt like a hundred bucks,” he said. “So it does definitely make a huge difference in your mental and physical abilities when you’re doing music. It’s pretty cool.”
Heading to the basement to practice his instruments has given Shah something else to put his energies into during his ongoing recovery journey.
“I’m always experimenting down [in the basement]. It’s my little music area,” he said. “I got into producing, so I’m making beats and also mixing songs with traditional drums.”
Shah, Raj, and Bacon have performed their work at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage before for Asian American heritage performances. Because there aren’t very many tabla players in the D.C. area, Shah gets rather frequent calls for his services—though it’s difficult for him to play midweek due to his dentistry practice and his distance from D.C. If he lived closer to the capital, Shah says he would perform far more often.
“I think a lot has to do with connections to people like Nistha and Christylez and [other] people in the area,” he said of making trips to the capital as often as possible.
With Raj, Shah has also co-founded an organization called District of Raga, formed to preserve “the performing arts and culture of South Asia by connecting artists to audiences.” Raj and Shah often staged District of Raga shows together at Bossa Bistro in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. (Raj will also bring the group to the Barns at Wolf Trap May 4.)
“We had some really good artists, and from that, we got the grant with the Kennedy Center to do something cultural with them,” Shah explained. “So that became how we kind of got into a bigger audience.”
The weekend of May 13, Shah will also be performing at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dupont Circle with another ensemble.
“It’s like the first time I’m doing three shows in two days. I feel like I’m a musician,” he joked. “I gotta lug my stuff around like all the other musicians.”
To learn more about the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Announces Programming for Centennial Asian Pacific American Heritage *Month Festival, visit SI.edu. *
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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