A Chicago Soul Musician, With Roots In India And The Quran | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

A Chicago Soul Musician, With Roots In India And The Quran

Zeshan Bagewadi’s road to becoming a soul singer is somewhat similar to Sam Cooke’s, Aretha Franklin’s and many other greats of the genre: He listened to his parents’ records and sang their sacred music over the weekend. 

But Bagewadi’s parents are not African-American. They are immigrants from India. And while Sam Cooke first sang in a church, Bagewadi first sang in a mosque. 

Born in Chicago to Indian Muslim parents, Bagewadi hopes to follow in the footsteps of his heroes Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. 

Bagewadi spoke with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about his debut solo album, Vetted, making music in a mosque and how the death of Sandra Bland influenced him.

On recording a cover of George Perkins’ ‘Cryin’ in the Streets’

Zeshan Bagewadi: When I was selecting the songs to go on the album, Sandra Bland — who was someone that I knew in high school — she died. Black Lives Matter was coming to a swell and I just felt so galvanized by that that I felt like I’ve got to do something about this. 

YouTube, Marco Werman once described as a wormhole of great music. And I’m kind of like a soul junkie — I listen to soul records, just have them on playlists and whatnot, have a lot of old 45s and I kind of collect and things — but I came across this one in a YouTube playlist and I just felt like an electric current up my spine because this song is just so simple and yet so poignant, and speaks of something from 1970 that’s still relevant today. 

On how his father fell in love with soul music

Bagewadi: Well my dad is the original Desi Indo-Pakistani soul brother. While he was in school, he was a freelance journalist in India. He wrote every now and then for the Times of India and did columns on concerts, some editorials on literary movements of expression. 

And one movement that he was particularly drawn to was the Harlem Renaissance, and it was termed at the time as the second Harlem Renaissance in the ’70s. So he covered these things and he just loved African-American culture. He was an avid reader of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and contemporaries like Amiri Baraka. That kind of influenced his style and his taste in music, so he would get down to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes. 

He brought those tastes with him here to America and I think coming to America was satisfying for him in that way, especially coming here in Chicago, because this is a cradle of so much of that. And I guess I’m the spawn of that. 

On making music in a mosque

Tony Sarabia: Some of your earliest singing was in the mosque. I didn’t realize that there was singing in the mosque besides the call to prayer. What is the role there?

Bagewadi: Well, it’s interesting. The reason you don’t know of it is because for better or for worse, a lot of Muslim people don’t want to recognize the recitation of Quran or the call to prayer as music, which I’m just going to say it is, unapologetically. That stuff’s music. So that’s why it’s not termed as singing. I mean, it’s kind of like a cantor in a synagogue. So there’s a guy, a cat that does the call to prayer — which is like the sound bite of every single CNN story on Islam — and then the recitation of the Quran is and can be done, and has been done, in very beautiful ways. 

I mean, the Quran is a really groovy book. The verses in Arabic, they rhyme. They’ve got rhythm. That’s why it’s easy to memorize the Quran. That’s why you’ve got a lot of cats that memorize it. So for me, marinating in that atmosphere — I still remember one of my teachers bringing in a tape of this guy — he’s called a qari — reciting the Quran. And it was so beautiful, and I was so drawn to it that I started imitating it. 

When you’re young, you’re like a sponge. You can pick up so many things and I could pick up those sounds that he was making. … The recitation of Quran was my first foray into actually doing this kind of stuff in front of people and people digging it. And that’s really close to my heart. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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