Zeshan Bagewadi didn’t need a road map to find the intersection of blues, soul and R&B with the music of India.
He grew up immersed in all of those sounds, through his heritage and his father’s record collection.
Bagewadi, 30, is living in Baltimore while his wife does her medical residency. But he was born in Chicago to Indian Muslim parents who immigrated in search of the American dream, after seeing a relative find success here in the 1960s. Others soon followed.
“I grew up in a dual world,” he said by phone from his hometown, where he was preparing some new music for two free, outdoor concerts in Iowa City. He and his band, The Transistors, will play Friday (5/25) for the Summer of the Arts’ Friday Night Concert Series downtown, then on Saturday afternoon (5/26) they’ll move to Hancher’s northwest green space — not the sweeping front lawn.
“A dual existence is what happens when you’re first generation,” Bagewadi said. “You absorb through osmosis aspects of the home country and your own country.” That comes out in several songs on his 2017 debut album, “Vetted,” as he entwines the lyrics with English, Urdu and Punjabi.
“I wanted to just try something,” he said. “I grew up listening to soul music, Indian and Pakistani music. I wanted to see what would happen when you throw those things in a pot — and I made quite a stew with it.”
The songs “Meri Jaan” and “Ki Jana?” speak to the immigrant experience, while “Hard Road” speaks more to his career experience.
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“This music thing is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “On my way to where I am now, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of rejection, naysayers or people who’ve strung me along and given me false hope. More concretely, I’ve had to work all kinds of odd jobs — busboy, press operator in a wood shop, drive Uber. I didn’t know where my next gig would be, I had no clue what I was doing, I had no path to follow. The hardest part of that road is where the road is windy, curvy and you don’t know where it’s going to lead. You can’t see the trajectory — it doesn’t have a set way to it. ...
“In my case, there was no course. There’s not a set way to get in this game,” he said. “I worked my tail off and learned a lot things along the way. My dad said adversity builds character. I don’t think I could really deliver on these songs of loss and pain and difficulty and anguish if I hadn’t lived it myself. Coming out of college, boy did I live it.”
He’s looking forward to the road leading him to Iowa City, where he’s anxious to see how Eastern Iowa audiences will react to his new music. He’s also looking forward to visiting his wife’s great-aunt and spending time on her farm near Cedar Rapids. He has happy memories from his visits to his uncle’s farm in India as a child, his parent’s homeland. Sugar cane was the cash crop there. He remembers breaking open the tough stalk and sucking out the sweet juice.
He was also excited to learn his Iowa City concerts are part of Hancher’s two-year “Embracing Complexity” project, exploring and celebrating Islamic art and Muslim artists.
“It was heartening when they told me about that — that there are entities out there who want to show respect and love to other traditions,” he said. “It’s heartening that institutions like the University of Iowa are showing respect. It’s heartening when people outside of your culture show respect to your group’s art. I’m very grateful to people who reach across the aisle like that.
“I’m honored that they would consider me a mouthpiece for that — a worthy representative with which to enact that mission, that worthy goal.”
It’s a goal that transcends time, he said.
“No matter what moment we’re in, we should strive for the pursuit of sheer excellence. In the times we live in, nefarious forces are out there seeking to divide us and seeking to pit us against one another and to exploit people’s pain, suffering, misfortune, anxiety, fear and insecurities for their own gain. Our current government is doing exactly that — that’s the way I see it,” he said.
“With that being the case, it’s important to do exactly what the University of Iowa is doing with this program. It should be encouraged, written about, talked about (and) propagated. This should be the standard everywhere in America.”
WHAT: Zeshan B and the Transistors
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FRIDAY: Friday Night Concert Series, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., outdoor stage on Iowa Avenue, between Clinton and North Dubuque streets, downtown Iowa City; bring seating
SATURDAY: 2 p.m., Hancher’s Lynch Snyder Green, northwest lawn outside the Strauss Rehearsal Hall, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City; bring seating and picnics
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Zeshanbagewadi.com