Singing of the Immigrant Experience -- And Life in the Tech Sector
The computer programmers arrived in the United States unknown to each other but united in their quest to rock.
On the surface, they were not unlike many others who have left India over the past decade on the H-1B visa, a guest worker program for highly skilled professionals. They wore glasses and mustaches and collared shirts. They could exterminate Y2K bugs and code Java and link Unix.
But as they toiled in cubicles, they dreamed of banging on keyboards of a different sort, of a world where C-sharp is just a musical note, not computer code.
And then their worlds became one.
"H1Bees," an album recorded in a Gaithersburg basement-turned-studio, will be released today, its music a mix of Indian and Western beats with lyrics exploring the high-tech immigrant's experience in the United States. The troupe remains unnamed, giving composer Srikanth Devarajan top billing and referring to the remaining artists as "playback singers," which is customary on many Indian albums.
Yet the computer programmers say their self-produced album would have been impossible in India, where the music industry there is exclusive.
"I was nothing in India," Devarajan said. "Thanks to the H-1, even a small man like me can say I have a studio."
"That's a big deal," nodded Kartik Venkataramanan, a database manager at Verizon who studied Indian classical music as a child and developed an affinity for Jethro Tull somewhere along the way.
Until last year, Devarajan could be described as a most persistent one-man band, using his computing and composing skills to synthesize original scores, dubbing the sound "curry rock."
The overlapping social circles of Indians in the Washington region came to his rescue last year. Out of the blue, he received a random call from friend-of-a-friend Venkataramanan. Venkataramanan's early days on U.S. shores, first Atlanta, then Washington, were spent browsing longingly at Guitar Center until he had saved enough to buy a blue Fender with a Made in the U.S.A. label he fingered as much as its strings.
At last, another computer programmer who wanted to be a rock star. Could there be more out there?
In their first conversation, Venkataramanan invited Devarajan to his housewarming party in Manassas where he promised a gathering of musically inclined folks. There, Devarajan also met Devesh Satyavolu, a multilingual poet, and Srivatsa Srinivasan, who claimed little musical talent of his own but said he always wanted to produce an album and possibly form a production company.
Days later, the new acquaintances gathered in Devarajan's studio to see if they had synergy. As they brainstormed a theme for an album, Devarajan took in the group assembled before him.
The languages differed: Tamil, Hindi, COBAL, BASIC. The journeys seemed parallel: Young man leaves India to earn U.S. dollars, works hard, buys car, returns home to marry, gets green card, buys townhouse, has kid, decides to stay.
"H1Bees," Devarajan said. The album, which will be sold via South Asian Web sites and stores for $6, boasts songs in English, Hindi and Tamil. By setting their sagas to music, they hope to duplicate the success of other immigrant artists catering to diasporas, much of it via the Internet.
Most of the artists hold green cards now, but that's no matter. They vividly describe the job offers that led to migration and the nervousness with which they gave interviews at the U.S. Embassy. Hence the title track, which sounds like a cross between the rock band Weezer and a number off the "Grease" soundtrack, with these lyrics:
"Standing in line, papers in my hand,
All my answers, practiced and planned,
He asked, would ya ever come back home?
Yes sir, I will, but first give me that H-1B!"
Another soulful, more serious ballad likens the United States to a beautiful but hard-to-navigate forest.
"You step in here," Devarajan says of the United States. "You're lost. . . . During our initial days here, we were lost in this beautiful country and had a cultural change."
When it became apparent Devarajan needed female vocalists on the album, he relied on the same network that helped him find the other musicians. "This guy that Srikanth knew had a friend who had a friend who knew us," explained Alisha Thomas, a 17-year-old senior at Riverdale Baptist High School who sings on the H1Bees album.
"Srikanth's cousin is married to one of my mother's friend's cousins," explained 16-year-old Swathi Raman, a senior at Thomas Wootton High School who also performs.
The American-born teenagers are separated by more than age from the H-1B immigrants. They cannot read or write in Tamil, so Devarajan writes the phonetic spellings for words and helps with pronunciation. In a song titled "Dollar Income," Thomas and Raman sing as though they are children talking to their H-1B parents. The song debunks the myth of expatriate Indians living the good life.
"As soon as Dad got his H-1, he is forced into a wedding.
As soon as she lands, they give birth to a U.S. citizen.
Sixty percent of Dad's paycheck goes to tax.
Thirty percent goes to the body shop.
Leaving just 10 percent for them."
The "body shop" refers to the middle party who offers the services of computer programmers to companies at a profit. At times, the artists fretted over whether they were getting too preachy or political, Srinivasan said.
"The idea we're putting out there is that we're worker bees. Is this going to be a controversy?" he asked. "We're saying things have happened and we're putting this conflict out there in a humorous way. The sad thing is that H-1Bs are being exploited."
During the dot-com boom, U.S. companies couldn't get enough of the H-1B program, successfully lobbying Congress for an increase on the numbers they could hire on the temporary visas. When the boom went bust, the cap returned to 65,000. Last month, the U.S. government announced it had already exhausted that number of H-1B visas for next year-- two months before the fiscal year even begins. Lobbyists are expected to ask for more visas.
Despite the band members' now permanent status, they say they plan to watch the debate closely because of the effect on the information-technology sector -- and because the H-1B has already made their very particular American Dream come true.
None plans to give up his day job yet.
"We'll stay in IT," Venkataramanan says. "What else do we know?"