Joelle Charan strives to contribute to the healing of Indian-Surinamese collective injury by fusing east and west in her musical style. Following the example set by her parents, who blended eastern and western ideals in their home, she hopes her music will help to break the cycle of prejudiced attitudes which are still too prominent in today’s society.
Born and raised in Amsterdam to a Catholic mother and a Hindu father, Joelle is empowered by her mixed heritage and religions. Her father is a descendant of indentured labourers from northwest India who worked under harsh conditions in Suriname following the abolition of slavery. Joelle has reclaimed the surname ‘Charan’ after her family’s original surname, ‘Goercharan’, was misspelled by a municipal official as ‘Goercharn’ upon their arrival in Amsterdam from Paramaribo, Suriname. With its correct spelling, ‘Charan’ means feet of the Lord, a name of honour which she celebrates in her identity and music.
Despite being raised in an open-minded home, Joelle recalls being bullied by her classmates who thought her skin had been painted on and mocked her for not eating beef. As a child she received an official letter in front of her mostly white peers, which informed her of her allochtoon status due to her father having been born in Suriname, outside of the Netherlands.
The Dutch government has since stopped using the term which carries negative connotations of lower status, poor education and involvement in crime, but its legacy is yet to be overcome.
She responds by fusing her heritage into her sound, bringing ancient Indian instruments into a modern context.
Upon graduating from the Conservatory of Amsterdam, Joelle moved to New York to deepen her knowledge of songwriting. She studied at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan with generous scholarships from the prestigious Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and the conservatory itself. Finding inspiration in all corners of the city, Joelle returned from her year in New York with a suitcase full of beautiful new songs.
Joelle writes songs with a strong narrative. She captures her listener with descriptive lyrics that tell stories inspired by her Indian grandparents, her family’s hardships, and her adventures in New York. Drawing musical inspiration from the likes of Laura Mvula, Daniel Lanois and Lizz Wright, Joelle’s dreamy pop songs are infused with classical Indian elements for a sound which is both immersive and full of surprises.
Since releasing her debut EP Silhouette in 2018, Joelle has performed extensively, attracting attention from radio, television and press throughout the Netherlands. Highlights include performing in Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam for Uitmarkt Festival 2019 and airplay on NPO Radio 1. She returns with her brand new EP Ashira and new single Man In A Town Car, hot on the heels of I Believe In You, which was her debut release in the UK and received much acclaim this summer.
Inspired in part by her time in New York City and in part by her relationship with her father, Man In A Town Car follows the story of a man addicted to the adrenaline of work, always running away from the emptiness of his life. Through the tinted windows of his town car he sees nothing of the world other than his pursuit of money and success. Joelle urges him to look back in his rearview mirror, just once, to realise what he’s lost before his time is up.
“One night while living in New York, I was crossing Broadway in the rain at a pedestrian crossing. There was a black town car waiting for the green light next to me, and inside were a driver and a businessman in the backseat. There was a second when the wealthy man in the town car and I looked at each other directly. It was such a powerful moment; he looked so mysterious and worn-down in that car in the middle of the pouring rain. It made me wonder what his life must be like in the backseat of that car. If he was really better off than me being rich.”
Although Joelle had similar disagreements with her father while finding her way during her teenage years, their bond remains strong and she honours it now by releasing the track on her father’s birthday, 12th October.
The new EP, Ashira, is grounded in a message of forgiveness and empowerment against hate and injustice. It’s a beautifully put together collection of songs exploring the inner depths of this singer-songwriter. Just as Joelle fuses ancient east and modern west in her sound to honour her own truth, the narrative in her lyrics offers a cathartic experience to those who listen, encouraging love and acceptance for oneself and others.
Ashira means “I will sing” and Joelle sings for her family, her people and herself. She is no longer trapped by the injustices of her family’s past and feels blessed by her heritage. Reclaiming her name and integrating Indian elements into her music, she pays tribute to her roots and is free to dream of her future.