These Twin Sisters Are Creating Electro-Folk With a Sitar and Tabla

Tāl’s music is as much about their identity as it is a dreamy soundtrack you’d imagine was created for their beautifully curated Instagram account.
October 24, 2018, 10:28am
Twin Sisters From New Zealand Are Creating Electro-Folk With a Sitar and Tabla
Shalina (left) and Shantini of Tāl are half Malaysian-Indian and half New Zealand-European twins who are creating electro-folk with an Indian Carnatic twist. 

Multi-ethnic backgrounds make for the best stories. No, really. Like when Shalina and Shantini Sandran were walked to school by their mother and asked if they were adopted, because mum was blonde and blue-eyed, and the twin sisters were not. Identity also extends itself into a muse of sorts when creating something. The 22-year-old sisters from Auckland, New Zealand, are multi-instrumentalist musicians called Tāl (‘beat’ in Hindi and a multitude of other Indian languages), who write and perform their own brand of electro-folk influenced by Carnatic music, amply buoyed by the sitar and tabla that they play. Half Malaysian-Indian and half New Zealand-European, the duo channels its heritage through the arrangement of instruments as well as the lyrics.


Being exposed to different cultures organically from a young age means assimilating bits and pieces from all over without making a big deal of any of the influences. The end result is a seamless product where it’s difficult to see where New Zealand begins, and where India or Malaysia take over. Their EP comprising five tracks was written, recorded and produced at home and further refined in Lisbon, London and Berlin. While the overall theme is described as the “changeable nature of the bonds that people share” with their debut single suitably titled “What You Are”, they’ve already racked up kudos from Rolling Stone India and Radio New Zealand Music, and have featured on the official Spotify playlist, No Borders. They have yet to do a live performance, but a gig in New Zealand is being planned. In the meantime, VICE caught up with them, talking twin sister clichés and compliments like “your house smells nice”.


VICE: A mixed heritage influences your music—can we detail that?
Shalina: Our parents are real music lovers so we grew up with a multitude of genres resonating within the walls of our home. Everything from Mukesh to Dire Straits, Enigma to Tracy Chapman. But it was definitely our dad who introduced us to Bollywood film records and Carnatic temple music. This has influenced our own sound in the sense that we don’t really notice the divides between genres, so integrating electro-folk with Indian classical music is something that’s made perfect sense to us.
Shantini: I think growing up with dual ethnicity, you’re exposed to many worlds from a very young age. Adapting becomes normality… being accustomed to different cultural practices and etiquette is second nature. As kids, you don’t see skin colour. You don’t really acknowledge the whole concept of race until someone points it out to you. After living in Malaysia for five years, we returned to New Zealand. Mum would walk us into school every morning, and one day, a kid in our class asked us if we were adopted. Mum has blue eyes and blonde hair, but I remember being so taken aback as to why he would think that. Aside from the odd racist comment and dumb questions from ignorant kids at school, growing up mixed-race was the best. There is so much good that outweighs the constant identity crisis you experience as you get older.


With their muthi (grandma) in Malaysia.

At what point did you realise your unique mix was informing your personality and perhaps even your career?
Shalina: We’re definitely more aware of ourselves when it comes to cultural/social norms as we get older. When you’re young, you learn how to adapt to varying situations that come with being of two completely different cultures, but now we’re both at a point where we’re figuring out what we prefer, and what’s actually important. Being mixed-race is the only thing we know, but we realise the differences when we’re hanging with purebred individuals; when our Indian friends/family mock our attempts at speaking the language and say that we’re so ‘white’, and when our Kiwi friends inform us that we’re ‘actually so Indian’ and shit themselves when they walk inside our house and see the sitar on the floor and the pot of chai boiling away on the stove. We often get the “your house smells sooo nice” because of the incense wafting from the prayer room.
In terms of career, showcasing our identity through our music is becoming more and more important as time passes. Not only have we been able to connect with other mixed-race individuals who live in this in-between state, but with the wider diaspora who have maybe grown up as second- or third-generation in countries away from their ancestors. I think a key point of realisation was when we received a DM from one of our Instagram followers who told us that he only really began appreciating his South Asian roots a few years ago, and that our music has given him a lot of hope and pride for our culture. When someone says something like that to you, you quickly begin to realise that you’re not doing this for yourself anymore.

How do you decide who sings which part?
Shantini: Shalina typically sings the main vocals; it makes sense as guitar is the base of what we write, and she plays and sings at the same time. I play the tabla and cover the beats/synthetic sounds, so I chime in with harmonies. We just do what feels right.


You recorded this EP at home. What was that like?
Shalina: It was hilarious but also traumatic. It is no easy feat singing hunched-over under a mattress with a USB mic balancing on your knees. We crack up when people describe the EP as being dreamy and ethereal because in reality there was a lot of frustration and throwing things at each other. Listening to the same thing over and over again can drive you insane. The best part about home-recording was the space we had for experimentation, and being thrown in the deep-end, having to teach ourselves the software. Also working from home, we found that food was a major distraction but also a great reward initiative.

It was refined in three cities—how and why?
Shantini: We travelled through Europe for five months and took the EP with us to complete its final stages. We were in some places longer than others, and worked on a majority of the EP in Lisbon, Berlin and London. It just so happened that we found the time and headspace to work on it significantly, in these particular places. Sometimes you gotta pause the party and do the grind.


Shantini mastering the EP in Berlin.

What are your future plans?
Shalina: We’re really excited to start performing and spreading ourselves out of NZ. The dream would be to see ourselves making homes in different countries, and connecting with more fans around the world. We’ve had some India gig requests from many lovely people on the internet, so we’d really like to do a tour there soon.

What have been your individual influences and why?
Shalina: Musicians like Justin Vernon, Fink and Ray LaMontagne were frequents in my teenage years, and really influenced my songwriting. It was through artists like these that I realised the possibility of using vulnerability as a creative tool, and how showcasing the complexity of being human could aid in creating good music.
Shantini: Michael Jackson is the ultimate. Everything about him,—his work ethic, determination, vocal ability and stage presence. I can watch footage of his live performances repeatedly and I like to take pride in my MJ T-shirt collection. I listen to a lot of artists, but particular influences with regards to songwriting would definitely be James Blake, Bon Iver and Daughter.


At what point did you both start learning the tabla and sitar?
Shantini: We’ve both always had a real fascination and love for traditional Indian music. Our father is South Indian, so naturally, we were introduced to Carnatic music first. But he also listens to a lot of old Hindi songs, so we were exposed to instruments like the sitar and tabla this way. I always wanted to learn tabla, but didn’t really think it would happen as we live in New Zealand. When we were 17, we were visiting family in Malaysia and went to an Indian music shop with our parents, promising them we were just “having a look”. Mum was like, “Absolutely not. Our house is like a music store as it is.” Not quite sure how it happened, but we ended up walking out with a sitar and tabla.

How did you manage to find a teacher for the sitar and table in Auckland?
Shantini: Our dad and his Google skills, bless him. We both play a number of instruments, and aside from violin and a few guitar lessons, are self-taught. Indian classical music however, is something that you can’t just figure out on your own. It requires dedication, immense discipline and a guru to show you the ways. We have a very special bond with our gurus.

What’s the Indian music scene like in Auckland?
Shalina: It’s massive and wonderful, but the strictly classical performances are quite insular in my opinion. They’re attended by a lot of different people, but I feel like many non-Indians don’t attend because they’re either intimidated or don’t read the Indian newspaper to find out that they exist.

How does being identical twins affect your work?
Shantini: Being twins, we have this woke AF vibe where we’re on the same page about a lot of things. We like to call it a Venn diagram but the middle part is the biggest. I know whether Shalina likes something or not just by looking at her face, so this makes it very easy when we’re working on a project together.

What are the clichés about twins that apply to you?
Shalina: We get each other on a soul level. Oftentimes when I need to call Shantini, I’ll reach for my phone to find that she’s calling me. The weirdest thing that happens to us is when I’m walking around the house with a specific part of a song in my head, and I bump into her and she’s humming that same part. There were also a few occurrences of us having the same dreams when we were little.
The annoying thing about being a twin is that people always feel the need to compare. We’re identical, but people seem weirdly proud of themselves when they can spot the differences. The worst is when people unnecessarily refer to us as “the twins” instead of our names, because it seems like a lazy shortcut. Sometimes family says shit like “Did I get it right??” after hugging me hello, and it drives me over the edge. Open your eyes y'all. We may appear as a collective, but we’re also two different people.
Shantini: We’re very close, which is cool because we know twins that aren’t close at all. People always ask us “Do you guys fight?” and we’re like, “Hun. Do we fight.” When we argue it’s like WWIII but we’ll be laughing about something or binge eating together 20 mins later. Shalina is the funniest person I know because we have the same sense of humour— I can’t even look at her in a serious/social situation or I’ll lose it. I think the best part about it is always having an accomplice. A fine example would be when we went to a toga party as pre-pubescent boys, donning wispy mascara mustaches. I feel like that wouldn’t have gone down well at all if I was doing that alone.

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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.