By Jan Mercker
“All of us are living life like never before. What’s your story?”
That’s what Ashburn-based singer and videocast host Sunila Bali Dutt wants to know as social distancing in the DMV rounds out its third month.
Last month, Bali Dutt and her band Masala Beats launched “The Quarantine Diaries,” a weekly livestream to inspire and connect the South Asian community in Loudoun and beyond with music and interviews.
“The Quarantine Diaries is something that’s constantly evolving,” Bali Dutt said. “My vision in the beginning was to do something that would engage people. … I wanted to bring people together.”
The result is a fun and eclectic show that features everything from the classic Bollywood tunes so many members of the South Asian community grew up with, to interviews with a local physician to poetry readings and a conversation with an area hip-hop artist.
The Bollywood-inspired pop band Masala Beats formed in 2015. All five members are immigrants from India, but the band is homegrown in Ashburn. Bali Dutt, who lives in Ashburn with her husband and sons, met bandmate Amit Khare at a local meet-up for South Asian musicians. She then discovered that her neighbor Deepa Sudarshan (who recently moved out of state) was also a singer and brought her on board. The band added another Ashburn-based musician Debasish Chowdhuri (known as DC), along with vocalists Sapna Sharma and Nidhi Pandya Sheth, both of Herndon.
Bali Dutt has a law degree, and her fellow band members are all professionals in other fields, but music is a uniting passion.
“None of us does this professionally. But we come to it with a good spirit and we make fun out of it,” Bali Dutt said.
The group started playing informally at first but made things official in 2015 when they played a local fundraiser following that year’s devastating earthquake in Nepal. After launching a yearly fundraising performance for afterschool programs at Rosa Lee Carter Elementary School in Ashburn, Masala Beats started getting requests to play private parties and weddings. Last year, they were featured at a global music show at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
When COVID and stay-at-home orders hit, band members decided to get together virtually, and the podcast took off from there.
“We all were missing music. … For us, it was like, ‘How do we keep doing something we love so much?’ Secondly, a lot of our friends who like what we do were also missing it,” Bali Dutt said. “We tried to make it bigger than just the music. One of the intentions was to connect people with other people. There are so many of us who are doing good work during this time.”
The weekly show is skillfully moderated by Bali Dutt, who earned a journalism degree in India and put aside a childhood dream of working as a broadcaster to pursue a legal career. The podcast includes music and funny banter from Masala Beats members who co-host the show, interviews with a range of local experts and influencers and listener contributions. And while hosts and guests move back and forth between English and Hindi during the show, it’s a fun and informative listen for Loudouners of all cultural backgrounds.
“It’s constantly evolving. It’s becoming less about us and our music and more about the community, and we love it that way,” Bali Dutt said.
One recent episode delved into the influences of western music on Indian pop while also looking at South Asian influences on western pop. The show featured an interview and performance clips from Virginia-based hip hop artist Dumi Right, with whom the band performed at a Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in January, 2019
But the “Diaries” go well beyond music. The pilot episode featured an interview with Dr. Sangeeta Sinha of Stone Springs hospital with her take on COVID in Loudoun from a medical perspective, along with Maninder Grang, Loudoun-based organizer of the online women’s empowerment group Sakhi, which boasts more than 14,000 members, with tips on self-care. Bali Dutt has also interviewed Loudoun-based mindfulness and meditation coach and holistic healer Puja Khanna, who hosts her own livestream and Dr. Uday Kamath, a local author and artificial intelligence analytics expert (who is also a poet, avid home cook and music enthusiast).
“The reason to include [interviews] was to uplift. We’ve heard so many stories about people going into depression and finding it hard to cope with these times,” Bali Dutt said. “I feel we are fortunate to have music. It really is such a healing thing and lifts you up instantly. For people whose lives are stuck and they’re not able to do much or feel stuck at home—how could we help?”
The show also includes contributions from listeners, many of whom have been inspired to record their thoughts and impressions during the pandemic.
“We’ve had so many people who are sending us their poems and short stories,” Bali Dutt said. “The response is amazing.”
As Virginia gradually reopens, they’ll likely keep going (although probably not weekly) as live gigs resume, Bali Dutt said.
“It’s just so much fun interacting with people. … This has a whole new dimension of communication to it and I’m absolutely loving it” Bali Dutt said. “That’s my unstated philosophy about the show. We want to keep it very organic. We want to keep it about regular, normal people. The message of the show is to encourage people to do something that they really like, to get connected with themselves.”
To tune into “The Quarantine Diaries” livestream, go to facebook.com/masalabeatsDCVAMD.
The first four episodes are now available, and a new show is scheduled to drop Saturday, June 6.
To learn more about Masala Beats, go to masalabeatsva.com.