Standing Up for a Message

Singer Bhi Bhiman finds humor in world issues through song

March 14, 2012
Bhi Bhiman wanted to be a stand-up comedian before he started making music.

As a child in the suburbs of St. Louis, Bhi Bhiman didn’t know he’d grow up to become a folk singer. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian.

“I loved Richard Pryor and George Carlin and Eddie Murphy, but I discovered that I didn’t have the chops to get up on stage and tell jokes,” he says. “Luckily I’m good at the guitar.”

After years as “a solo artist in my bedroom,” Bhiman developed a distinctive voice informed as much by early 20th-century country blues as by songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon.

With his second full-length, “Bhiman,” the San Francisco-based folkie has been described as a Sri Lankan-American Woody Guthrie. His songs gently take Dust Bowl imagery — out-of-work laborers riding the rails, scrounging for food, often running from the law — and apply it to the financial crisis.

“Pop music tends to be about love and who’s in love and who’s breaking up,” Bhiman says. “But there is so much going on in the world. There are a lot of wretched situations, and a lot of people just don’t pay attention.”

“Ballerina” tackles the financial crisis through an ironic ode to big-box culture: “We got married in a Walmart,” he deadpans, “down by the Wrangler jeans.” It’s a witty, winking parody of the country hit “Jackson,” although it’s unlikely Johnny Cash ever sang about Foreman Grills and kiddie pools.

For that reason Bhiman rejects the notion that he’s a protest singer — a label typically attached to anyone strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about people at loose ends. “I’ve heard a ton of political music that’s just garbage, and I don’t want to be like that,” he says. “So it’s not about politics or a cause. It has to be about the music.”

Inside Track: “Guttersnipe,” the first single from “Bhiman” follows a loner as he jumps trains and looks for work, with Bhiman’s booming voice instilling the tale with empathy and compassion.

Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna; Fri., 7 p.m., $12; 703-255-1566.
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