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Bay Area Beats: Bhi Bhiman

Matthew Washburn

San Francisco’s Bhi Bhiman set out from his home in St. Louis in pursuit of the mecca of classic rock and roll – a city where Jefferson Airplane still haunts the streets. But once he arrived on the west coast, Bhiman found only a few remnants of this once golden age of American music.

Not to be discouraged, the first-generation Sri Lankan singer/songwriter steeped himself in the rich American musical traditions of blues and folk.

On his self-titled debut album, BHIMAN, he weaves stories of heartbreak and suffering, told with a disarming blend of humor and sincerity.

“‘Guttersnipe’ is a song about a boy who’s got no home, no money, no family, but he’s somehow upbeat about it,” Bhiman explains. “So there’s a desperation there and a hopelessness, a little bit. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he thinks this is the ticket. I see a train right there and I’m going to get on it and I’m going to be on my way to happiness."

The story of the happy-go-lucky hobo is not entirely fictional. In real life, Bhiman's own ticket to happiness was to head to San Francisco – or so he thought…

BHIMAN: When I was growing up, I just knew I wanted to be in California. St. Louis was not my cup of tea. Now I have a much better appreciation for it, but, at the time, I just wanted to get out of there and move West. I love classic rock music and San Francisco was a huge hub of rock and roll music in the 60s and 70s. I kind of expected that to be here, but it has changed a little bit. I thought I’d see Jefferson Airplane walking down the street or something. It was kind of a naive thing of mine. I was just thinking, “San Francisco is where the action is.” But at that point, I wasn’t even thinking of being a musician. Music was a love of mine, but I didn’t think I was good enough to be a musician, professionally. I started out on guitar, electric guitar, and I learned all kinds of classic rock. I really like all the Seattle rock music coming out in the early 90s. I really did. Soundgarden was probably my favorite band for a while. And they also have an Indian guitarist, which I thought was awesome because I didn’t see any brown people making music. I mean, black people were playing music, but I didn’t see any brown people. That was a big influence on me. Singing-wise, I was pretty hard on myself about it and I didn’t think I was good until pretty recently, to be honest. It was just a lot of trial and error, a lot of embarrassing sessions in my car, a lot of singing along to really powerful singers like Queen or Stevie Wonder, or something like that – something just totally over the top and making you sing ridiculous things at the top of your lungs, and failing a lot, and finally getting a little bit better. What I’m trying to do is take the best of American music, rock and roll, blues – I mean, what I think was like a golden age of music – and do my own thing, which is play acoustic guitar. Some people might be saying that I might be copying off of them, but I think, if I’m copying, I don’t necessarily care because I think it’s good music. And if someone hears it and they go and take a listen to any of these artists that I remind them of, that’s a good thing. I’m trying to make really good American music with a global twist on the lyrics and expand what people think about as popular music. I see movies and art, paintings, TV about any subject, but I don’t see a lot of pop music about much more than being in love with love. There’s a lot of garbage coming out right now. I try to be P.C. about that and not say that because I’ll bump into people if I’m on the circuit, playing shows. But I don’t think I’d like to be a national pop star necessarily. There’s a reason why I didn’t try out for American Idol. I can sing. I could probably compete on there, but there’s definitely a reason why I didn’t do that. I’d want to be a pop star on my terms. Frank Sinatra was a dope pop star because he had amazing talent and amazing material to work with. Michael Buble on the other hand? I don’t know about Michael Buble.