Raj Tawney’s Colorful Palate is a captivating, multicultural coming-of-age story.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“In the introduction to this linear, food-based memoir, journalist Tawney writes, ‘So, what am I? A magnificent concoction conceived in a pivotal period in late-twentieth-century America.’ Born to a Puerto Rican and Italian mother and an Indian father, the author has been profoundly shaped by the racist assumptions built into a world unwilling to accept families ‘undefined by a single group or birthright.’ Even when he was young, he writes, ‘I knew somehow that I was entering a world that wouldn’t easily digest me . . .”
My memoir is a recounting of my multicultural upbringing in New York, complete with its complexities, confusion, and culinary richness. Born to an Indian immigrant father from Mumbai and a Puerto Rican and Italian mother from The Bronx, my life has been so vibrant and textured, but I also spent years rebelling against my unique identity as well as the conventionalism that surrounded me more. It seems the more I was told who or what I am, the more I set out to prove otherwise. I was raised with a variety of music in my life. Music was and is incredibly important. These songs are reflective of the sounds that reverberated in my household––while cooking with my mom and grandma in the kitchen, while hanging out with my brother and his friends in his bedroom, while walking with my discman headphones on, and while picking up my girlfriend/now-wife on our first dates. This is my soundtrack, a concoction like the meals that graced my family’s table.
- Tony Bennett: Because of You
Released in 1951, it became Bennett’s first hit single. It was also my grandma Elsie and grandpa Anthony’s favorite song. This was their song––so much so, I wrote about the impact it had on their lives for Newsweek upon Bennett’s passing. Coincidentally, this was also the last-ever song the crooner played, on his piano just one week before he left the world. My grandma couldn’t listen to this song after her husband Anthony passed as it was just too painful, for many reasons she couldn’t always talk about. Bennett’s songs became a fixture in my own life. The first ever Jazz record I ever purchased was 1959’s Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (later titled Strike Up The Band).
- Madonna: This Used to Be My Playground
Growing up, Madonna played in our home regularly. My mom loved her voice, swagger, and strength. Rosie O’Donnell, who’d grown up in Commack, NY where we were raised, starred in A League of Our Own and was friends with the singer. We felt a strong connection to both, especially when Rosie had her own daytime show in the ‘90s. More importantly to my mom, Madonna’s music was usually played when she was feeling blue about her life. I delve into it in Chapter 3.
- Rage Against The Machine: Bulls on Parade
My older brother Ravi blasted their music constantly in his bedroom while he hung out with friends and played video games. I looked up to him so I often followed his taste in my youth. I was also confused and frustrated being a mixed kid, being teased often, and made to feel like an outsider. Zack de la Rocha’s voice provided the perfect combination of anger and angst for us teenagers who felt like screaming at the world but couldn’t.
- DMX: Slippin’
I’d gone through several bouts of depression in my youth. DMX, who was also a rageful misfit in his own right, was also sensitive and vulnerable. I used to listen to this song over and over again when I was feeling blue. He never gets enough credit for his spiritual, tender side. Though I loved his loud aggressiveness, too.
- Gloria Estefan: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Not much Latin music was played in our household but Mom loved Gloria. She played her music constantly and would even dance to her records as she cooked dinner. Now, living in South Florida, I think of her music often, along with Miami Sound Machine, and how Cuban Americans got the nation moving and feeling alive.
- Nas: Nas is Like
For me, Nas was inspiring and uplifting as he was his own entity. He didn’t belong to any band or clique. For me, a loner, I felt like Nas spoke to me. He’s also from Queens and my family had moved out from the borough to raise us in a safer neighborhood. The only problem was, we weren’t wanted much in our new town. Nas’s music was comforting. His name is also only three letters like mine. But his full name, Nasir, is five letters (also like mine, Rajiv). I remember I wore a Nas t-shirt to middle school one day and one girl pointed at me in the hall and said, “Who’s N-ass?” I knew then I’d never fit in. My DMX t-shirt didn’t add any less ridicule.
- Frank Sinatra: (Theme From) New York, New York
Inside the book, I talk about the events of September 11 and the difficulty of being brown or having any tinge of color to your skin, or having a foreign name, or being of a different religion. It was tough being different during a time of massive fear and paranoia. Sinatra had been a constant in my life. My mom used to tell me my grandpa Anthony spun his records constantly while he drank an entire pot of coffee. Mom used to play the Sinatra/Jobim records when I was a kid. Ravi bought his CDs while in high school. My grandma loved him always. More importantly, Sinatra was the voice of New York and he also spoke up for immigrants and racial equality. He was my hero and remains so to this day. This song helped me and many New Yorkers get through a difficult period. For me, my memoir serves as an important contribution toward telling a new, classic “New York story.” I hope so, at least.
- Panjabi MC and Jay-Z: Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys) Remix
While on the topic of 9/11, Jay-Z’s remix of this international Bhangra hit was so crucial during a time of complete ignorance and fear mongering. I recently wrote about that time for The Hindu’s Frontline Magazine. This song represents two very distinct and notable sounds in my life––American hip-hop and Indian folk rhythms––fused together to open minds and get people dancing again. It played everywhere, from Indian weddings to classmates’ bar mitzvahs. This song has become an important piece of history
- Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Autumn in New York
I used to play this song over and over again, dreaming of one day being able to afford to live in New York City (though that still has yet to happen). It’s such a romantic song while also exuding sadness and melancholia. It’s a symbol of New York, complete with all of its beauty and tragedy. It’s a love letter sung by two of our country’s greatest bards.
- The B-52s: Love Shack
A song my mom used to sing and dance to in our home, whether she was at the stove or just feeling upbeat in the middle of the day after working an overnight shift. The B-52s were a fixture during my youth, and when I met my now-wife Michelle, she introduced me to their earlier albums. Soon, their music spun regularly on road trip playlists. Over the past decade, we always said we’d try to see them live but when we heard they were retiring this year, we knew we had to act fast. A few weeks ago, Michelle and I flew to Las Vegas to see one of the final shows during the limited ‘The Love Shack: The Vegas Residency’ at The Venetian hotel. It was beautiful to see them, now in their 60s and 70s, still rocking out and loving life. We sang and danced the night away.
Raj Tawney is a writer and journalist whose work largely reflects his New York–area upbringing and sensibility. Raised in an Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian-American household, Tawney has explored his own race and identity through stories published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, USA Today, Smithsonian magazine, and many other outlets throughout the country.