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Living in America 

Prabir Mehta explores his immigrant roots on all-star band’s debut album, “Haanji.”

click to enlarge Kenneka Cook, Prabir Mehta, Kelli Strawbridge and Russell Lacy make up the four-piece called Prabir Trio.

Scott Elmquist

Kenneka Cook, Prabir Mehta, Kelli Strawbridge and Russell Lacy make up the four-piece called Prabir Trio.

He’s a model of the modern all-American immigrant.

A high-energy polymath, Prabir Mehta has done marketing for a host of local nonprofits, is the board chair and prime champion for the Galley5 community art space, and most famously, fronted a series of bands culminating with Prabir Trio, his eponymous four-member group ("The band name is Prabir Trio, it happens to have four members. I’m not trying to live by the shackles of literalism any longer. You can quote me on that," he says).

Their brand-new album “Haanji” – literally “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” – embraces Mehta’s identity as in-outsider with a song cycle of bright melodies, sharp-edged lyrics and sonic echoes of his subcontinental origin. Online he describes it as “about my immigrant life, leaving India, landing here, discovering Mohawks, rock n roll, learning about this nation’s history and trying to belong.”

Mehta's roots are in Gujarat, a state on the west coast of India just north of Mumbai with a population of 60 million. His parents moved to the United States in 1988 when he was only 8 years old. They worked multiple jobs struggling to make ends meet. Young Prabir’s job was to learn how to navigate this new land's complexities. “My brother and I had to be the cultural beacons for the family, putting together the contextual clues of living in America,” Mehta recalls. “Who the hell expects Dad to know who Paula Abdul is?”

Those first years were the hardest because of the acclimatization process.

“You had to learn a whole new country’s history,” he explains. “People in India may know about World War II and may have heard of George Washington, but it’s just not that important. There is a cotillion here, but there are no Indian people doing cotillion. At that time, there weren’t any Black people either. I was wondering if it was because I wasn't good enough, or I was just not invited.” Mehta was young enough to adapt and old enough to remember.

Five years ago, when his previous up-and-coming band Goldrush went into hiatus so core members Matt and Treesa Gold could start a family, Mehta started visiting Gujarat more frequently. “When you got the hustle-bustle going, there is no time to take off,” Mehta says. “You don't want to miss a chance to play Friday Cheers or go tour with Dr. Dog.” Reconnecting with his family and homeland started the journey that would produce "Haanji."

“The record doesn't have like a lot of like traditional sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll songs," he says. “Each song is like a different chapter.” Cultural dissonance is a recurring theme.

“There is a song about local politics, ‘Millions of Dollars,’ about all the sheer drama about the Pulse line on Broad Street. As an immigrant from a smaller, much less affluent city that had always had a central bus, it looked insane.”

The song "Bamboo" is about his favorite hangout bar in the Fan. There is subtext about the contrast between the alcohol-centric nightlife of Richmond and the teetotal but still “bumping” life in Mumbai. Still, it isn't necessary to understand to appreciate the song’s rocking intensity and shifting moods. The track “Light Up In The Name Of Love” is a multisection workout with spiritual roots in the Beatles’ more psychedelic era. The song that best captures the between-cultures perspective – “Slowly” – starts within sitar mists and ends with jangly guitar that somehow comes full circle. Released to celebrate the Hindu holiday Holi and based on parting words from his Gujarat grandmother, it’s the emotional center of the record.

His band is a local all-star ensemble featuring three familiar faces. Drummer and vocalist Kelli Strawbridge, known for his work in the Big Payback, Mekong Express and Kings, has been with Mehta since Goldrush and was a prime force in the band’s creation. Russell Lacy not only plays bass but produced the album in his Mechanicsville studio, Virginia Moonwalker. And whether solo looping, leading her band or singing in others, Kenneka Cook is one of the area’s top vocalists. “With three players and three singers, we’ve got six paints that we can use on a canvas,” Mehta points out. “We want to make the most use of our space and our sound.”

There are biting lyrics about America’s failings, but from his semi-holistic Eastern cultural perspective. “Things aren't necessarily all good or bad,” Mehta says. “They're usually a combination of both. You have your creator Brahmas, your preserving Vishnus and your destroying Shivas.” All are necessary. The critical choice is how you respond.

“I love America. It’s my favorite country in the world and I would not want to be living anywhere else,” Mehta says.

“Acknowledging the bad is just a matter of saying we've got work to do.”

The debut album from Prabir Trio, “Haanji,” is available on Bandcamp and Apple Music now. It will be releasing the single for “America” on June 28 with a music video to follow.

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