here’s no community I feel totally at ease in—not a bunch of Indians, or a bunch of middle-class white folks, or a bunch of musicians,” laments Sonya Balchandani, bassist, keyboardist and sometime vocalist of Brooklyn-based rock trifecta The Big Sleep. Balchandani might just be the only South Asian female bassist in the business, and her resistance to being pigeonholed into a group (ironically enough) doesn’t end there.

In Balchandani’s world, the road less traveled is not just a quaint notion in a poem, but a metaphor for her life choices. Road less traveled? Balchandani’s journey seems less like a walk and more like a jungle trek with no path laid out at all.

Having grown up in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, in a typical Sindhi home with professional parents, Balchandani was relatively isolated from other South Asians. Oftentimes she was mistaken for being Israeli or Italian. “There were like maybe five Indian kids in my whole school, and one of them was my brother,” she says laughingly. “It’s not as if I was inundated with Indian culture,” though her parents did watch the odd Bollywood film. And though she doesn’t speak Hindi, she can mouth the words to the songs if put on the spot.

Sonya at sound check.

As a teen, though, it was alternative rock, not beat-laden bhangra, that grabbed her soul. “For me I turned to music, instead of desi culture, to find something to be a part of.” During those teenage years, she would hunt down obscure music magazines and attend rock concerts. “I loved listening to The Cure, R.E.M. and The Jam,” she says.

She didn’t just listen to music either—Balchandani also played clarinet in the school band and “toyed around with my brother’s piano.” Despite being drawn to bass lines because of their role in keeping “the song moving” and holding “the composition together,” being a girl “I just didn’t make the leap that I could just go and get it and play it.”

But after arriving at the University of Pennsylvania, Balchandani explored all her interests, majoring in neuroscience because “it was fun. I enjoyed it as a subject and I was good at it.” She also played around in a band with friends, took tabla lessons and once attempted to attend an Indian Student Association meeting.

The Big Sleep plays NYC’s Webster Hall.

Ultimately, she chose not to attend medical school. “When I thought about what I wanted to do with all the hours of the day for the rest of my life, this just wasn’t it,” she admits.

So Balchandani became graphic artist by day, bassist by night. Examples of her work can be seen on both the band’s site and the Web site for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. Every summer, along with other (scarce) female rockers Ms. Balchandani donates her time to young inner-city girls interested in becoming musicians.

Balchandani is a sort of Renaissance woman; her other artistic endeavors include designing bags and jewelry for her accessories company, 2browngirls.com, and acting in the 2004 film Bedford.

On a balmy October night, Balchandani is on tour with The Big Sleep, at Baltimore’s Ottobar and it is on stage that the unassuming bassist comes to life, brandishing a cherry-red bass, her face obscured by a jet-black Patti Smith mane. The Big Sleep is waking up the critics. Having released their first album, “Son of the Tiger,” the band has been chosen as the Artist of the Day by Spin magazine and praised by The Village Voice as “easily New York’s best unknown: psych-rock explorations that are long and mind-blowing.”

And mind-blowing might be the best way to describe Balchandani herself.n

Mili V. Narayen adores music but is tone deaf.
Published on December 20, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of The Big Sleep.
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  1. March 7, 2007, 1:15 pm Shalin

    Murder is a great song.