At Subcontinental Drift Open Mic, You ‘Don’t Have to Explain the Punchline’

Shilpa Shah on stage at a 2014 Subcontinental Drift - NYC open mic hosted at Pete's Candy Store

For many of the artists who rush to sign up for a performance spot each month, Subcontinental Drift is more than an ordinary open mic night.

It’s a chance for them to perform before an audience that really gets it.

“There aren’t enough spaces in New York City that harbor and foster talent,” co-organizer Tara Sarath told NBC News. “I think there’s something good about having a space where you can try new things and have the audience understand inside jokes. You don’t have to explain the punchline here.”

Subcontinental Drift first began as a South Asian open mic series in Washington, D.C., in 2007, finding quick success. Known by regulars as "SubDrift," a New York chapter opened in 2009, with Sarath, Harsh Mall, Yusuf Siddiquee, and Aaliya Zaveri taking over as organizers a few years later. The movement spread with chapters in Boston and San Francisco, and the first Seattle open mic night is scheduled for Sept. 27. SubDrift chapters in Atlanta and Houston are also currently being planned.

“We don’t do a crazy amount of marketing, they just come,” Siddiquee, who works at a nonprofit by day and is a musician and producer by night, told NBC News. “We have had people come up on stage and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve never done this before,’ but then they perform really well.”

That low-key vibe is considered a key part of SubDrift’s continued appeal. Organizers try to keep the event “extremely casual” and friendly for performers of all levels, they said.

“You stumble and the crowd encourages you,” co-organizer Harsh Mall told NBC News. “Musicians come on to try out new stuff, comedians come on to try new sets, we’ve had more established performers come in and in their writing phase, it’s great.”

Past SubDrift performers have included comic Hari Kondabolu and the trans spoken word poetry duo DarkMatter. September’s special guest was Iranian-American comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh of the podcast "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim."

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Aparna Nancherla at a 2013 Subcontinental Drift open mic. Courtesy of Subcontinental Drift

The crowd on stage for the group’s September open mic, attended by NBC News, included stand-up comedians, singers that fused rock music with classic Bollywood songs, and spoken word poets.

“It’s a great thing in terms of solidarity,” said singer and actor Shubra Prakash. “It’s a great thing to have South Asians come together and present anything creative. I feel really good about being here.”

In addition to the pride and connection many feel while performing at an event designed just for them, other performers made it a point to note the more practical aspects of performing before an Asian-American audience.

“If you use the word ‘FOB’ in front of a touristy Times Square audience, you might not get that laugh because that’s more culturally-specific,” comic You Jean Chang told NBC News. “But in front an Asian-American audience, there are specific things about culture that you can talk about.”

Over the years, SubDrift has also become a place performers can make meaningful connections.

“I feel like we’ve become this incubator for ideas. I think as an immigrant moving to this country you’re encouraged to produce, money, power, and prestige and here you are in a space where people get to be creative,” co-organizer Aaliya Zaveri, who was born in India and grew up in Hong Kong before moving to New York, told NBC News. “People celebrate that. This is the first time a lot of people have danced or sung in front of people instead of in just their bedroom.”

One of the best aspects of the SubDrift community, according to Zaveri, is that many performers end up meeting future collaborators during events.

“People, will come back and say ‘oh, we met at SubDrift a couple of months ago. And then they come back and perform a song,” Zaveri said.

“It’s happened to me,” added Mall, who is a singer and guitarist. “I remember there was this girl and she was like, ‘I want to sing this song.’ And I just said, ‘OK, I’ll just play it with you.’ I pulled up the music online and we played it and it was great.”

A Subcontinental Drift open mic in 2013. Courtesy of Subcontinental Drift

It’s that spontaneity that embodies SubDrift, Zaveri said.

While most SubDrift performers sign up for a spot to perform online or just before each open mic begins, the organizers say the most memorable moments often come when an audience member suddenly decided to stand up and display their talents.

“There was this one guy once who was watching all of the performers one night, and he suddenly decided to get up and come up on stage and do an amazing cover of ‘Thriller,’” Zaveri said. “It just blew everyone away.”

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