Nagavalli's East-and-West Fusing LP Reaches Beyond

The divine feminine of Numinosum

Photos by Todd V. Wolfson

Hair! Spiked, highlighted, the fresh crown reaches toward the sky – growing up, up, up, while also spreading out and around. Nagavalli's trademark shaved head disappears under a warm cover-up on this cool, gray MLK Day.

"This is new," she laughs in the doorway to her far-North Austin home. "This is very new!"

Later, nearly three hours deep into an English tea-like tell-all, she redresses the subject upon inquiry of her iconic look.

"It's been easily five or six years since I began shaving it," she estimates. "I shed a few tears the first time I did it. I wore a wig, because I had to go into some work meetings in California. This is the kind of choice I would make: to shave my head on the day before I'm flying off to California. I wore an expensive wig for four days, then came back home.

"That Friday, I was supposed to go back to work here, and I was like, 'This is crazy,' and I just took it off. I've been walking around like that ever since. I didn't know why, but it happened. It was just visceral."

So too its musical oracle, whose hair hardly constitutes the only crop she's cultivated this winter. Numinosum, the Indian singer's third full-length, culminates an Austin music scene evolution hovering just past twin decades. Potent and immediate, the album vibrates, emanates, elucidates a world fusion for jet-setters and Travis Heights denizens alike. Indian twang for hippies and East Cesar Chavez dwellers, diva soul for soccer moms in ATX satellite burbs, its public radio clarity proves visceral indeed: spacious yet wired, distant but universal, unsubtitled and liberated.

Numinosum is Nagavalli's moment – here, there, everywhere. And amongst her collaborators especially.

"[The] music is based on her background in Indian folk, classical, bhajans, and regional music," explains LP guest and master sitarist Indrajit Banerjee. "Pay close attention to the very original compositions and beautiful lyrics. [Her] songs in English are influenced by East Indian spirituality and [she] creates a unique mixture of sounds with her sonorous voice. She blends Western and Indian instruments very nicely."

"The way she weaves Eastern scales into her vocals is stunning," agrees Austin folk pioneer-turned-New Mexico transplant Eliza Gilkyson, whose song "Midnight Oil" closes Numinosum. "So much more complex than Western music scales, and she masters it effortlessly."

"We would bring Nagavalli onstage at Vallejo shows and packed crowds would stand there with their jaws open as she wailed majestic sounds over Latin-Zeppelinesque soundscapes," chimes in key producer, studio space provider, and guitarist AJ Vallejo.

"Valli is adventurous but can also be settled in singing a beautiful traditional song from India," says the local musicmaker singularly responsible for the Mumbai-reared crier's entry into the homegrown scene, Oliver Rajamani. "Not all singers from the Indian tradition are open to trying new things like her. So these two qualities of adventure and tradition have created over the years a sound of her own with her own band that's great to see."

Profound Transformation

Born Nagavalli Medicharla in the southeastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh, the younger of two children to parents from the area looked to go into the family business: physics. Father professed at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, the seventh-largest city on the planet, where the teeming crush outside remained at bay. Despite teen crises, she received undergraduate and graduate degrees in said field before heading to Tallahassee, Florida, for the Ph.D.

After the culture shock wore off and she and her roommate began mitigating their bounteous Walmart raids, she considered her brother's dedication to labs and executed an about-face.

“Then you explore and there’s this moment when creativity happens and that is numinosum. It is a moment where, perhaps, one is capable of profound transformation.”   – Nagavalli

Jumping to the business school there, she found the quickest route to a master's degree and finished a management information systems program in a year. Six months behind her roomie who'd been lured by Dell, she moved to Austin at the millennium, knowing only its repute as a "music town." A good coder who excelled in software testing, she recalls promising offers from California, but by then – taking a steady corporate tech job here – her focus had already narrowed almost imperceptibly.

"My mom sang a bit," she elaborates. "Her sister sang really well. My mom's 78 and I bet she could still cry over this, because my grandmom didn't think her voice was good enough for her to learn classical music. But she put the younger sister into a classical music class, so my mom used to sit in the next room and listen to her sister sing, and learn.

"In some ways, if I have to believe in such things, I feel the fact that I sing is literally my mom manifesting that. I have not seen many people who say, 'We believe in some form of rebirth in the culture,' but my mom says, 'If I'm born again, I want just one thing: I want to have a good singing voice.' That's her dream – that she can sing really well.

"So a lot of the credit for this goes to my mom's side, but my dad, he had an amaaazing teaching voice. He had a very strong voice. I feel like I get some of my singing abilities from my father's side as well, even though they weren't professional singers. The tonal quality of their voices was something."

Nagavalli emulated that familial trait as well. In first or second grade, a dance teacher heard her singing and suggested she be enrolled in music. From that point into college, she studied and played Indian classical: ragas (improvisational motifs), bhajans (devotionals), chants. Year one in the Lone Star seat, she and her Florida foil ran into Rajamani at one of Austin's (then) three or four Indian eateries.

"I was shy," recalls Nagavalli, "but when my friend left, I snuck back into the restaurant and told him, 'Hey, I really want to sing. Would you consider having me sing with you?' And Ollie – Ollie – he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come over!' He gave me his number, 'Come see me sometime.'"

One bhajan later, Austin's longtime Indian/Romani/Texan fusionist invited her to sit in at a Ruta Maya gig. Local jazz mage Suzi Stern forged the next link of fate, chance, destiny by introducing Nagavalli to her virtuoso community, who the latter turned around and hired for a grand coming out at the Cactus Cafe, home to myriad guest appearances with Rajamani. Paying musicians out of pocket didn't add up even back then for Nagavalli, now a longtime Visa project manager. So only several cycles into the brand-new century, she back-channeled music – for more years than polite.

When she returned in 2009, she stayed: a three-song EP in 2010, debut long-player Eastern Soul two years later, and 2019 spiritual suite Immersion. Whip-In, Momo's, and Kenny Dorham's Backyard followed, as did studio collaborations with producer musicians including AJ Vallejo and current sonic partner Katie Marie. Their Numinosum refers to the mysterious, the fascinating.

"I believe the term came from Rudolph Otto, who was a theologian, and was looking for what unites all spirituality regardless of religion," nods Nagavalli. "Inherent to that term, or word, is a lot of curiosity as to what might manifest from the conscious and subconscious mind, or being, that's beyond our linear perception. What holds the most for me about numinosum is this idea that you're pondering, you're [reflecting]. You're having a lull.

"Then you explore and there's this moment when creativity happens and that is numinosum. It is a moment where, perhaps, one is capable of profound transformation."

O She Says

"I've played lots of shows with Nagavalli as her bass player, drummer or acoustic guitarist," emails co-producer Marie. "About three years ago, I started working out of Blue Rock Studios in Wimberley. I thought it would be the perfect location for Valli's album. We had multiple meetings to plan the material we'd be using, but it was a very organic process, so we gave it the space it needed to go in whichever direction it needed.

"I learnt so much from Valli about traditional Indian music and it was incredibly fun mixing Western and Eastern influences. I wanted the album to reflect Valli's incredible talent and be a beautiful reflection of the amazing musician and human she is."

Numinosum raises goosebumps from Nagavalli's first quaver on opener "Algiri Nandini," set against percussive hand jingles and Banerjee's scorpion sitar, the chant bulging and flaring powerfully à la Dead Can Dance or even Robert Plant's Sensational Space Shifters: stinging, sternum-tingling drone and Indian mysticism. "Ocean Blue" plunges just as quickly into torch-pop, a Kate Bush blush with millennial lift. Backup "I See You" takes one step back from that, fairly begging for the progressive-contemporary FM airwaves of Nineties Austin radio.

"O She Says" throws in with the latter two, immediately calling for the return of all-women festivals like Lilith Fair.

"'Aigiri Nandani' is a very popular chant in India, a stotram," says its singer. "It's a chant for the divine feminine. Many understand it as a chant for [goddess] Devi Durga, the fiercest form of the divine feminine. Moving along the [piece], there are chants on Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, the different forms of the divine feminine. It's attributed to ancient guru Adi Shankaracharya, who wrote this, and it's very popular in India. I heard it a lot growing up.

"I have always liked to start my albums with an invocation. There are two more spiritual compositions on the album. One is 'Damadam Mast Qalander,' which is Sufi, and then 'Guru,' which is a bhajan written by Sant Eknath. Also, as a matter of respect and this idea of starting something with an invocation of the divine, I will always begin an album with a chant."

Let us thus close this periodical bhajan with an invocation:

"My name has different meanings," chuckles its owner. "It's the name of a goddess in India. My mom named me that, because 'Naga' stands for the snake god. In her mind, maybe because of something that happened, she had made a promise to name her daughter after 'Naga.' So that's where that came from.

"'Valli' means a twine. The twine is so fragrant that the snake god likes to live there.

"Nagavalli also refers to the betel leaf, which is used in many auspicious occasions, like ceremonies in India. That ceremony is called Nagavalli."

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Nagavalli, Indrajit Banergee, Eliza Gilkyson, AJ Vallejo, Oliver Rajamani

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