There’s a strong cohort of emerging South Asian musical talent in Canada which is making waves in Bollywood. Many existing Bollywood composers and songwriters from India are joining SOCAN as well. To acknowledge their growing impact, we’re presenting a series of feature stories, under the heading Bollywood North. First up is Jonita Gandhi.

Jonita Gandhi admits that she came to singing “a little late” in life. The 34-year-old New Delhi-born, Toronto-raised singer – now widely known as just “Jonita” – started performing locally in her teens before relocating to India, where she’s built a successful career as playback singer, recording songs for such Bollywood blockbusters as Chennai Express and many Tamil-language films. Despite also writing since age 17, until this year few people had heard her own songs. “When it comes to songwriting, all [that] was in the closet,” says Gandhi. “Nobody knew I was doing it.”

Jonita, Love Like That, Video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Jonita song (with Ali Sethi) “Love Like That”

They know now. “Love Like That,” the first single from her debut EP of the same name, quickly reached 1.5 million views on her YouTube channel in January of 2024. It was co-written with Canadian Julia Gartha; Latin Grammy-nominated producer Juan Ariza; and Ali Sethi, the Pakistani-American singer-songwriter (“Pasoori,” now at 709 million YouTube views), who also features on the hyperpop track. The song mixes Hindi, Urdu, and English lyrics to tell its love story.

As a playback singer, Gandhi has recorded songs in many languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Kannada, and Gujarati. When it came to creating her own music, she says it was important to narrow focus on the languages she speaks, so that she could fully participate in collaborative writing, a process she calls “addictive.”

Like many artists, Jonita found herself changing up her creative process during the COVID-19 lockdowns, which is when songwriting really became a priority. “It was always daunting for me,” she says. “Like I used to feel, ‘OK, if I write my own music, what style would it be? What language?’ There [were] too many questions. [When] we ended up spending so much time with ourselves, that was a good time for me to force myself to just lock myself in a room and do it. I got really inspired, and it made me feel like I have things to say.”

Musically, lyrically, and thematically, the Love Like That EP is about what it’s like to live between two worlds. The opening ballad, “It Is What It Is (Madhaniya),” for example, re-imagines a traditional folk song, often played at Indian weddings into a modern Afrobeat jam. Listeners can appreciate it on different levels, depending on their knowledge of the language, melodies, and cultural references.

“I was like, ‘Wow, our music is being listened to by people who don’t even speak Punjabi’”

“A big part of what I want to express with my music is the experience of being someone born in India and then brought up in Canada,” says Jonita. “There are so many people who have that experience of… starting a new life and having to assimilate into a new culture. But then, also, they’re trying to hold on to their roots. It’s confusing to be from one culture and then brought up in another, you’re always kind of like playing this tug-of-war game of, ‘Where do I fit in?’ And I think it’s actually beautiful that we have that diverse experience, and instead of seeing it as a negative thing, which I often did growing up, I wanna celebrate it.”

Jonita is the first female artist signed to 91 North, a partnership between Warner Music Canada and Warner India. The new label recognizes the huge appetite for Indo-Canadian talent, not just in South Asia, but globally. It’s a scene of which she’s proud to be a part.

“I remember when Panjabi MC was remixed by Jay-Z, or seeing Slumdog Millionaire on the Oscars and the Grammys,” says Jonita. “I was like, ‘Wow, our music is being listened to by people who don’t even speak Punjabi.’ And it’s not just trendy. I’ve always thought that it’s gonna come and it’s gonna stay. I’m just so happy that I feel like we’re on the verge of it now, and I want to be part of that wave, part of that education of who we are.”