Amit Deshpande brings Bollywood to Detroit

You might not know it, but Detroit has a big basement Bollywood scene.

Amit Deshpande brings Bollywood to Detroit
Courtesy photo.

Many people have many different ideas about what is meant by the term “the Detroit music scene.” To some, it’s the alt-pop and rock that you can hear at venues like the Lager House and the New Dodge every week. To others, it’s the hardcore punk and metal bands that have stuck around for more than two decades. To some, it’s strictly garage rock, to others, it’s the old-school Grande bands and musicians. Techno, or hip-hop. The words “Detroit scene” inspire different ideas in different people, and all tend to be passionate and adamant with regard to their own point of view. All of them are both right, and wrong.

The beauty of this city’s music is the vast array of talent that we have in so many different areas. Thanks to an incredible level of cultural diversity, and a population (both city and suburban) with a large percentage of artistically minded people, there are very few styles of music that can’t be found in metro Detroit. That’s the Detroit music scene — diverse, all-encompassing, and culturally enormous.

Amit Deshpande is an Indian singer who is well-known to metro Detroit’s Indian population. He lives in a beautiful home in Troy, and regularly performs to crowds of 350 people. A quiet night for him is a show in front of 150 spectators. His repertoire includes Bollywood favorites (both classic and contemporary), and ghazels (slower, chill ballads). This weekend, he’s warming up for Bollywood singer Poonam Bhatia, who is coming in from India. And yet, chances are, you’ve never heard of him before. Let’s change that.

Deshpande, an IT consultant by day, arrived in the United States from India in 2001, initially to study for his master’s degree in California. He later moved to Chicago with work, before settling in Michigan in 2004. He made himself at home right away. “Detroit has a lot of music buffs,” he says. “There’s a big Indian music industry here. You might have seen a lot of ads coming up for concerts. Every now and then, there’s a big singing star coming here to do concerts — they always want to come here and do performances because they get a great audience. It’s like a rock concert.”

The “rock” comparison is interesting, because it’s not immediately obvious but, as you dig a little deeper, there are quite a few parallels. For example, as is the norm for underground punk rock these days, many Indian music concerts in Detroit take place in basements. “If I do my own show in a basement, about 150 people show up,” Deshpande says. “If we want to get a new thing going on, we meet in a basement. There’s a lady who I perform a lot with called Chitra Sridhar. I go to her place and we do a lot of jamming. We get word out with Google Groups, and Facebook — really the same as any other type of show.”

Deshpande began singing at an early age, taking Indian classical lessons, before naturally gravitating toward Bollywood as he got a little older. “Bollywood is the Indian movie industry, and 95 percent are musicals, with at least six or seven songs in each movie,” he says. “I picked that up — different singers and different styles. Then I used to perform programs and concerts while in high school and college. I entered college competitions and played private concerts. That started the whole interest in singing — not just learning but actually performing.”

Because he plays weddings and birthday parties (culturally cooler than it would be for a Westerner), Deshpande has a massive arsenal of tunes at his disposal. “I learned classical, but when performing I prefer a semi-classical touch,” he says. “I do ghazels, and I also do fast beat songs, pop songs, private album kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll do concerts of the classics, from the ’40s to the ’60s. They had a different style of music. Now, it’s more fast-based and upbeat. I do a bit of both. There are wedding parties, and they have a fixed set of songs, then there are birthday parties — sweet 16s — and they like upbeat stuff.”

Deshpande is an immediately likable gent. He speaks softly, and he smiles throughout the interview. He has no airs and graces, and he seems genuinely excited to be speaking to a non-Indian publication, hopefully turning a few new people from different walks of life onto Indian music. If not, your loss. And there are plenty of Indian people here to enjoy it. “The way the Indian lifestyle is, the way we grew up, music is almost in everyone,” he says. “You grew up hearing music, the radio is always on in the house, so almost everyone has an ear for music. That’s how people who actually grew up in that lifestyle, when they come here, they’re the same way. Indian kids get it too. So there’s a demand, or liking, not just from people who have immigrated but from people who are born here.”

It’s fascinating to hear Deshpande talk about Indian music and the culture surrounding it, not least because this is going on all around us and, unless you’re connected to the right Google Group or whatever, you’d have no idea. Of course, the same is true of other styles of music from other cultures, and we’ll be digging deeper in the future. Detroit has a hell of a lot more to offer when we all step outside of our comfort zones.

“I would stress that Indian music has a lot of flavors,” Deshpande says. “Every flavor has its own sweetness. I would say it’s great that more and more people are taking an interest. There’s a lot of awareness about Indian music, which is great. I just hope that more and more people get to hear it, and Detroit is a great resource for it.” 

Amit Deshpande plays with Poonam Bhatia at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, at the William Costick Activity Center; 28600 11 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills;; $25.

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