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uring ArtWallah’s kickoff concert, a friendly voice in the audience shouts up to Tasneem Nanji on stage, prompting her to recount her recent Saturday Night Live appearance. Nanji, who fronts the band JUNGLI, recalls her experience performing on SNL this past Valentine’s Day. She played guitar and sang back-up for the musical artist Kelis. “She sings a song about a milkshake. You might have heard it,” Nanji deadpans, referring to the singer’s hit single named after the dairy drink.

Her droll onstage banter between songs amuses the audience, but it’s her unique sound, an amalgam of bluesy vocals, alternative rock, hip hop and rap, that captures their interest. Jungli, which in Hindi and Gujarati means “wild” or “raw,” certainly also defines Nanji’s distinctive style. With lyrics like “They say that times is hard / Brother can you spare 50,000 … They say that it’s a cold, cold world / They don’t know that I’m on fire …When the monsoon comes I’ll be gone / The heist is on,” JUNGLI’s song “Heist” is a self-described “ode to frustration.”

Nanji believes that “artists should speak out” because of their position in society. “Society values music—music is like God.”

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Nanji’s performance on Saturday Night Live wasn’t her first time rocking on the screen. Her remarkably diverse musical background includes a degree in jazz performance from NYU, backing up various soul and R&B groups, rapping and playing the saxophone in an off-Broadway hip hop theater dance project, opening for KRS-One, and appearing on MTV’s Total Request Live MC Battle and in a little indie film called Cubamor.

Nanji, who also performed at ArtWallah 2003, likes that the annual event is “an outlet for South Asian artists. Before I would kind of feel like a freak,” she says. But after playing at ArtWallah, she “didn’t feel so alone.” Born in Canada to Gujarati parents from East Africa, she’s never been to India. Does she identify with her South Asian heritage? “It’s growing … I’ve been getting in touch with it more, especially the last three years or so.” Though she’s reluctant to sound like she’s stereotyping, Nanji describes her family as “unlike most South Asian families.” They are supportive, she explains, especially now that she has begun to progress in her musical career. Nanji attributes her family’s positive attitude to their backgrounds as intellectuals and academics.

Though she also writes the requisite love songs, Nanji believes that “artists should speak out” because of their position in society. “Society values music—music is like God,” she says. She follows her conscience, penning “Nuclear Song,” an anthem inspired by Arundhati Roy’s The Cost of Living, a polemic that attacks the dam-induced destruction of Indian villages. She also wears her politics proudly, displaying an “I heart Iraq” sticker on her guitar, which she says the FCC required her to cover during her SNL appearance.

Nanji faces unique challenges as a South Asian woman in her field. “There are zero role models,” she says. Admittedly, no guitar-toting South Asian female legends of rock or hip hop spring to mind, and this is a serious void. But Nanji’s talent and dedication to her craft suggest that some day she might be one of those who fill it. n

Published on September 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Walter Giordani

More Information

Jungli Official Web Site

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