It all started when Renèe Uzzardi decided to ditch a flight home from Thailand.
The New Jersey-raised, Portland producer and beatsmith visited Thailand after she graduated college. Near the end of her trip, she met a group of Japanese musicians who played the tabla, a traditional Indian percussion instrument comprising two small barrel drums that can produce intricate rhythms.
"I was really into jazz and I knew about some of the most famous tabla players who were doing jazz fusion," says Uzzardi. "I didn't have any idea I would study or learn it, but I saw [tabla] at a guest house and got to bang on them and went, 'Whoa, these are amazing!'"
After linking briefly with the musicians, Uzzardi went to India to find their tabla teacher. Little did Uzzardi realize that for the next 10 years she was going to study under Pandit Ishwar Lal Mishra, one of Indian classical music's most influential tabla players and a former tourmate of Ravi Shankar.
"I didn't know anything about [Lal Mishra]," she admits. "I just showed up at his doorstep with a little bag of fruit and was like, 'Hey can you teach me?' and found out later he was a world-famous artist."
Now, under the moniker Neybuu, Uzzardi fuses Western electronic music with traditional Indian tabla music. It's not only a bold stylistic choice, but one only possible through Uzzardi's own technological invention. The tabla is a quieter, acoustic instrument, so Uzzardi built one that can interface with her programming gear and be heard above computer-generated noise.
It's tempting to make a comparison of Neybuu's sound to M.I.A's. But Neybuu's first EPs, 2016's Juice Pizza and 2017's Tablawalli, are almost lyric-free, instead showcasing heart-pounding beats that evoke a sense of adventure and conjure images of somewhere warm, humid and busy.
Uzzardi says she didn't have many musicians to look up to as she first started experimenting with form and technology. "For me, it was scary at first," she adds. "I'm doing something that no one else is doing, which I know is ultimately my strong point, but when you're first doing it, it's like, 'Are people going to dig this?'"
Even during her decade of classical training in India, Uzzardi knew she wanted to try something new, inspired by the identity crisis brewing inside her. "I had lived in a very traditional city and it was very much like, dress in a sari, be like Indian but not,'" she says. "I was like, 'Man, I'm a Jersey girl, I'm a Western girl living this life and studying this crazy-ancient tradition, and I need to do something uniquely me."
When she returned to the States, Uzzardi spent time as a freelance musician, working with jazz artists who ultimately introduced her to Ableton software. She was intially drawn to the polyrhythmic beats of footwork and drum and bass music. Now, she's sponsored by Swedish manufacturer Elektron.
Neybuu's concert this week at No Fun will be her last domestic show before she goes on a mini-tour of Japan this fall. It's a tour for both business and pleasure—while she has toured Europe before, she didn't get to take in many sights. So she effectively booked shows in Tokyo while on vacation. When she gets back, Uzzardi plans to work on new music that'll feature more vocals and more mainstream dance sensibilities.
Touring has been the highlight of Uzzardi's career, since it allows her to travel and share her art with others on a professional scale. It's proof there is an audience for her singular sound, and that the gambles she took at the beginning of her career have paid off.
"A lot of tabla players in India will see my pictures and ask how I did that," she says. "The innovation is really exciting. I love sharing that knowledge with people and being like, 'You can do this, this is great!'"
SEE IT: Neybuu plays No Fun, 1709 SE Hawthorne Blvd., facebook.com/neybuumusic, with Elrond, Production Unit Xero and Midwest Nice, on Friday, Sept. 27. 9 pm. $8. 21+.