Shabnam Abedi says the melodies of Bengali composer Kazi Nazrul Islam, a poet-philosopher born in the late 19th century, have been hardwired into her soul – music she grew up with as the New Jersey-raised child of emigres from Bangladesh.
Now Abedi, a junior at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, is interpreting those spiritual and romantic themes for a 21st-century audience.
“Nazrul Sangeet – the collective songs of Nazrul – was strongly influenced by Indian classical music, which I’ve been training in since I was 5,” says Abedi, whose solo album featuring the genre has been released to wide acclaim in Bangladesh and India.
“He has written everything from love songs to songs about nature, Islam, about losing someone,” the Rutgers student says of her inspiration. “As a poet, he had no boundaries. He wrote thousands of songs about Hindu stories, gods and goddesses – most of the songs I pick are sweet, romantic.”
Abedi’s albums have been enthusiastically received in the music world, with one critic asserting that there won’t be another Bengali singer in this generation like her.
“In America, that means a lot,” the South Brunswick resident says. “It means a lot to me that critics and highly trained musicians are even listening to my music or giving it any sort of attention.”
Abedi, who studies voice under Mason Gross professor Eduardo Chama, is no stranger to live appearances, either. She has long starred in solo concerts staged by the large Bengali community in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and she’s toured extensively abroad.
Most recently she took center stage at Club Sanm, a banquet hall and event center in Astoria, Queens.
“It’s always been a part of me – I don’t know a life without singing,” Abedi says, recalling her first performance at the age of 3 at a Bengali cultural center.
When the longtime science buff began looking at colleges before her 2013 graduation from South Brunswick High School, it was with an eye toward ultimately winding up in medical school. But Rutgers drew her with its highly regarded music program, she says.
Having performed with various school choirs since third grade, Abedi knew there’d be an audition in her future wherever she landed.
When she was tapped for the exclusive Kirkpatrick Choir – a 50-member ensemble described as Mason Gross’s most advanced choir – the erstwhile future doctor decided her heart and her future lay in the world of music, both sacred and secular.
“Just the fact that I made it into that choir without even being a music major at the time, or knowing anyone – I took that as a sign,” says the 20-year-old, who immediately spoke with Rutgers’ choir director Patrick Gardner to begin making plans to switch her major from premed.Abedi’s recording career began in the summer of 2013, when she traveled to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, to record her two albums: Amar Bijon Ghore, which features Nazrul Sangeets; and Moromia, a compilation of original songs written by Bangladeshi poets and set to melodies by the legendary Bangladeshi composer Anup Bhattachary.
Both were originally released in Bangladesh by a company called Laser Vision, a major record label in that South Asian nation.
The following year, a producer with the Kolkata-based entertainment conglomerate Rag Ranjani approached Abedi in hopes of offering the Nazrul Sangeet album to audiences in India as well under his own label.
Renamed Jhulan Khela, the newer offering features 10 tracks she describes as “not your very heavy classical music, maybe a little lighter – songs that touch people.”
While she has one foot in the Indian classical world, the performer is also firmly entrenched in sacred church music of a strikingly different nature.
Abedi is the newly hired soprano section leader for the choir at All Souls Church in Manhattan, and also for its concert choir, called Musica Viva.
“I think I’m one the youngest ones there,” she says of her fellow choristers, a mix of some 25 professionals, semi-professionals and volunteers.
The 2015-2016 season of the performing group features associate music director and organist Renee Anne Louprette, a part-time lecturer at Mason Gross – and a big-time fan of Abedi.
“She passed our audition process at a level far above other competing sopranos who were graduates of the Cleveland Institute, Cincinnati Conservatory, Peabody and the Manhattan School,” Louprette recalls.
Chama,with whom Abedi studies at Mason Gross, sees a bright future ahead for his student. "Her love for classical music started late, but she is absorbing it very fast and with a very passionate mind and heart,” Charma says. "Her voice is a very versatile instrument. She naturally can move it effortlessly, and though she can sing quite high, her timbre is dark and full.”
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