Anita Aysola remembers the hopeless feeling earlier this year. It was May 7, the day when Georgia’s Republican governor signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive pieces of anti-abortion legislation to date.
The law banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when doctors can detect the fetal heartbeat — a stage of embryonic development that often occurs before many women even realize they are pregnant.
The bill — HB 481 or the “heartbeat bill,” — is what prompted the Atlanta-based singer, songwriter, teacher, and political activist to work on her latest single. Appropriately titled “Heartbeat,” Aysola told India Abroad that it was the language of the bill that triggered her to write song. “It’s about the fetal heartbeats, the heartbeats of all those women being affected and the heartbeats of women collectively coming together against the society and the government trying to control our actions and our bodies,” she said.
The song, which Aysola described as a “powerfully defiant, jazz-infused anthem,” was co-written with her husband Dhanu Meleth, a vitreoretinal surgeon at Marietta Eye Clinic in Atlanta.
Aysola said “Heartbeat” was written and composed quickly, in the three-week span in which the Georgia bill was introduced and signed, finishing just after a similar bill was imposed on the women of Alabama.
It is produced by actor and composer Samrat Chakrabarti and Aysola herself, and engineered by John Clark.
A month later, Aysola was in New York recording with four members from Resistance Revival Chorus as well as her sister-in-law, Yamuna Meleth, an opera and musical theater singer — “all of them women of color, who believe strongly in this cause.”
As Aysola taught the singers the harmonies she’d come up with and they began to crank through the song, the raw magic of the moment was caught on film by cinematographer Cameron S. Mitchell. He recorded all of the footage on the fly in just two days of following the musicians around to the studio, working around the various constraints of a working studio to capture video wherever he could without interfering with the process. The end result, Aysola said, looks like a music video.
Empowering Women Through Music
A part-time high school math and song writing teacher, Aysola calls music her catharsis. “Sometimes the only thing that will make me feel better is sitting down at the piano to write,” she said, adding that it was a similar feeling of “helplessness” that gave birth to “Heartbeat.” She remembers thinking about the cold irony of the right-wing pundits, dubbing such an oppressive law “the heartbeat bill” while ignoring the living, beating hearts of the women it disempowered. “What about us? What about women?” she remembers asking. Can you hear our heartbeat?”
But it wasn’t the first time that Aysola has felt helpless by the system. That feeling began in 2016, she said, when Trump got elected. It was then that her activism began. She got more involved as a citizen, made calls to her senators and representatives, wrote letters to the governor, voted consistently, protested, and marched against the awful things happening in the American political landscape the last few years. “But now the state was actually restricting women’s autonomy over their own bodies,” she said of the abortion bill, adding that she felt stifled, angry, paralyzed.
A mother of two children “with a loving marriage and a wonderful career,” Aysola said she is aware that if motherhood can at times be tough for someone as lucky as her, then legislation such as the “heartbeat bill” can only further oppress less fortunate women. “I want women to feel empowered when they hear the song,” she said. She wants them “to remember their own strength and remember that we aren’t helpless, we aren’t powerless,” she said. “We can make change. And, you know, we are kind of nipping at their heels. We’re making strides even when it feels like we’re not.”
Bridging Indian and American Sounds
Although she is known for her unique style of bridging Indian and American jazz, Aysola, who recently performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., highlighted the fact that “Heartbeat” is a more politically charged track that doesn’t contain any overtly Indian instrumental elements. However, she does return to the inclusion of more of her signature Indian fusion elements in her other two upcoming singles to be released this fall — “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Legend in My Mind.”
While the former is co-written with her husband, about the heartbreaking child separation crisis at the southern U.S. border, the latter is co-written with her jazz piano mentor Gary Norian, and is an upbeat track in which Aysola takes what is often used as a disparaging comment and spins it into something positive to show that we live in a world ruled by the power of our own perspective. “If we choose to be really optimistic and look at the best in everyone and look at the best in every situation in life, then we’ll notice good things are already all around us,” she said.
In “Rumpelstiltskin,” Aysola has incorporated a “certain surreal intensity” by an elaborate, high-energy improvisation using Raag Jog over Indian classical vocals. “The result achieves the feel of a nightmarish childhood dreamscape, and one can imagine what these children’s experience must feel like,” she said.
According to her website, all three singles — “Heartbeat,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Legend in My Mind,” — “fold radiant flights of Indian-style improvisation and rhythm into solid storytelling and Jazz piano chops in a manner that has come to define Aysola’s work.” Her exploration and discovery “are intimately American, a theme she unpacks musically, lyrically, and emotionally on the three new singles as well as on her latest album, ‘Beyond Our Dreams,’” her website says.
Dwelling in Two Realities
Aysola never set out to be a professional musician, though she took both Indian and Western classical music seriously from an early age, studying piano and Hindustani classical vocals, singing in the school chorus and at Hindu religious gatherings, and playing in orchestra and band. She even took sitar lessons for a while. In college she was part of an A cappella group.
And now her “hybrid speaks poignantly to our time of either/or, to divisive political and cultural rhetoric, with a tender but unforgiving tension, a heartfelt and incisive ambiguity,” he website says.
As music became increasingly important to the young artist, she found herself longing to write songs, not simply perform other’s creations. She said she always wanted to write songs, but she actually started penning them down quite late. “I thought I didn’t have anything to say,” she says. “For a long time, I felt I had to be one or the other, Indian or American, in both my music and my life,” she noted. “Once I broke through that assumption, I realized the power of being both, of creating my own personal hybrid.”
She began to study more Western styles involving improvisation, especially jazz and blues. While living in Chicago, she connected with master boogie-woogie blues pianist Erwin Helfer.
There and while in graduate school in Boston, she played everything from trip-hop to jam-based rock to Indian fusion, before focusing more intensively on her own material.
When she eventually began writing songs, she was overwhelmed by the response, as well as by her ability to give words to her thoughts and feelings.
The duality continues in her song writing as well. Her lyrics dwell in two realities at once, be it as a person of two cultures, or of several callings, as a musician and a mother and wife.
Now she says she’s inspired to write even more.
But she’s careful that every song doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the same place.
And that’s where the fusing of the sounds come in, where she blends various tunes and sounds, and tries to give each song a distinct flavor of its own, and at the same time a signature Aysola ring to it.
That’s where her song writing emerges from — “from all these seemingly disparate experiences” — connected by her love of piano and Indian vocal approaches. “I felt this real need to bring all my passions into my music. To make it a home for both cultures,” Aysola said. “I’m one person in all these things, and my music could speak to all these things.”