Born and raised in Amsterdam to a Catholic mother and Hindu father, Joelle Charan celebrates her Hindustani roots with her identity and sound by infusing her dreamy pop songs with classical Indian instruments. She strives to contribute to the healing of Indian-Surinamese collective trauma by fusing east and west within her musical style. Her beautiful new EP Ashira, with the new single Man In A Town Car, is grounded in a message of forgiveness and empowerment against hate and injustice.
My mother is Catholic, my father is Hindu, and I was born and raised in Amsterdam. My father is a descendant of indentured labourers from northwest India who worked under Suriname's harsh conditions following the abolition of slavery. They were called 'koelies' by the colonial oppressor: unschooled wage slaves who lived an inhuman existence.
Throughout my life, I have been called a 'koelie' by different people I have met. Perhaps they were ignorant of the word's origins and how it could affect me. Or maybe they were curious to see if they could provoke a response with such an insult. Even an ex-boyfriend once thought it was funny to call me a 'koelie' - I broke up with him, obviously.
I was raised in an open-minded home, and I will always admire my parents for that. Neither of them imposed their faith on me. Instead, they taught me to educate myself and form my own opinion through visits to museums, churches, and Hindu temples. As a child, we not only took trips to the Vatican and Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome but also to the Hindu temple Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London. My parents read Christian stories to me as well as tales about baby Krishna. In our house, the same candle was lit for both beliefs, and mutual respect and empathy existed for each other.
Yet outside of my home, I can remember being bullied by my classmates who thought my skin had been painted on and mocked me for not eating beef. I was the only child in my school with 'weird' skin colour, and the other children were even frightened of my dad once when he came to pick me up from school. One day I received an official letter in front of my mostly white peers, which informed me of my allochtoon status due to my father having been born in Suriname, outside of the Netherlands. Since then, the Dutch government has stopped using this term because it carries negative connotations of lower status, poor education, and crime involvement, but its legacy lives on. The other children stared at me for days. It was strange.
Back then, I didn't understand. I thought it was cruel and unfair to treat me differently, but now I know it was just the system.
At public high school, we all had to read the same book for Philosophy of Life. 90% of the pages were about Christianity with a little Judaism entwined into the stories. One page was devoted to Buddhism and one page to 'other beliefs': Islam and Hinduism. My mum thought that was so ridiculous and insisted on buying several books for me to read more about all the world's intriguing beliefs.
In our house, the same candle was lit for both beliefs, and mutual respect and empathy existed for each other.
After school, I went on to study music at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. Upon graduating, I moved to New York to deepen my knowledge of songwriting at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan. I was honoured to receive generous scholarships from the Conservatory as well as the prestigious Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. During my time in New York, I discovered my genuine love and appreciation for Indian music. I went to many concerts by Indian musicians. I remember immediately being fascinated by their spirituality from the first time I heard them: the hypnotic ragas and entrancing soundscapes they played. It's incredible how Indian music originated in South Asia thousands of years ago, yet still exists and can now be found in all corners of this world. Like my own music, India's sound is often inspired by nature: improvising moods inspired by seasons and notes guided by the times of day. The spontaneous sense of freedom in Indian music makes each concert I've ever been to stand out. Each experience is worthwhile and unique.
Living in New York was an incredible experience, both personally and musically. The Indian music I was introduced to there definitely influenced my songwriting style. I was mesmerized to learn how Indian musicians live a very long, spiritual, and disciplined lifestyle. Now, I look for a sound that emulates that healing and mystical quality.
It's incredible how Indian music originated in South Asia thousands of years ago, yet still exists and can now be found in all corners of this world.
In recent years, I was held in custody at a US airport because I had a 'different' surname. I try to respond to these types of discrimination with defiance. I feel empowered by my mixed heritage and religions, and I want to integrate both into my music.
My musical style represents my identity. With it, I strive to contribute to the healing of Indian-Surinamese collective injury. By bringing ancient Indian instruments into a modern context, I hope to introduce more people to my heritage's beautiful sounds, which may be unfamiliar to them. My parents set a incredible example blending eastern and western ideals in our home. By following them, I really hope my music can in some way help to break the cycle of prejudiced attitudes, which are still too prominent in today's society.
It feels very empowering to develop a sound that celebrates who I am, my mixed heritage, and religions.
To me, it feels like I'm no longer trapped by the injustices of my family's past. My Grandmother still feels hurt by a municipal officer who misspelled their surname, Charan -- meaning feet of the Lord, when they first arrived in Amsterdam from Paramaribo, Suriname. It's a name of honour that I have reclaimed and want to celebrate in my identity and music. By reclaiming my name and integrating Indian elements into my music, I pay tribute to my roots and feel a sense of freedom to look forward and dream of the future.
My new EP is called Ashira, which means "I will sing." I sing for my family, my people, and myself. It is grounded in a message of forgiveness and empowerment against hate and injustice. With this collection of songs, I want to explore the inner depths of my memories and emotions, fusing ancient east and modern west in my sound to honour my own truth. I hope to offer a cathartic experience to those who listen to my lyrics, encouraging love and acceptance for yourself and others.
Artist: Joelle Charan
Real name: Joëlle S.E. Goercharn
Represented by: Evangeline Atkinson and Lara Goodfellow of Sonnet Music UK
Links to Socials:
Facebook: @joellecharan IG:@joelle.charan Twitter: @JoelleCharan