Neil Nayyar

Neil Nayyar of Elk Grove plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an electric sitar at the Sacramento Rivercats home game on May 28.

 
 

Neil Nayyar defied convention when he performed, “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Sacramento Rivercats home game on May 28.

Instead of singing the national anthem, which has been the tradition at professional sports games for more than 90 years, the 16-year-old Elk Grove musician chose to play the song on an electric sitar at Sutter Health Park.

Nayyar strapped on the Indian stringed instrument that’s emblazoned with thin, white stripes, much like the late Eddie Van Halen’s famed electric guitar, “The Shark.” He then strummed a rich, harmonious rendition of the anthem that sounded like two musicians playing at once.

The audience stood at quiet attention, save for a child in the stands who asked his mother about what Nayyar was doing. Rivercats fans caught on with his performance and cheered when he played the melody for the lyric, “The land of the free,” and rapidly strummed the note for “free.”

Nayyar, who is the son of Indian immigrants, previously played the anthem at Kings and Rivercats games on other instruments such as the saxophone, but the May 28 performance was his first on a sitar. His father, Rajan believes it’s the first time that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played on a sitar at a professional baseball game.

“Music is a universal language,” Nayyar told the Citizen. “It doesn’t matter what instrument I play to perform the national anthem; people will still know it’s the national anthem that’s just played on a different instrument - that impresses people a lot.”

He compared playing that song on a guitar.

“The difference is that you play all of the notes on one (sitar) string,” the musician added.

Nayyar can play up to 107 instruments from around the world. Last month, he performed on a guzheng, which is a Chinese stringed instrument, in a duet with singer Duyen Huynh at the Asian Pacific CultureFest in Elk Grove. He also showed his support of war-torn Ukraine by singing that country’s national anthem in Ukrainian.

Nayyar caught media attention three years ago when he learned more than 40 instruments by age 12. His passion for learning music started at a young age when he took a free drumming class that was hosted by the Cosumnes Community Services District.

Like any musician, Nayyar auditioned to perform the anthem at the May 28 Rivercats game.

“He obviously stood out,” Rivercats spokesperson Maverick Pollack said.

He mentioned that the “big anthem days” for the team’s home games are typically Saturdays and holidays.

“I would venture to guess that people have never even seen a sitar played at a baseball game,” Pollack said. “To have a song they’ve heard a thousand times in their lives but played in a different way is really cool. It just shows the impact that baseball has on a community.”

Nayyar is staying busy this year by attending audio engineering classes at the Grammy Camp program in Los Angeles, scoring music for the feature film, “Lottery,” and playing a solo show at the California State Fair. He and his mother, Sukhbinder appeared in a recent Honda commercial that showed them lugging several of his instruments around Elk Grove and Sacramento in a Honda.

Asked if he plans to learn a new instrument this year, Nayyar laughed.

“Probably yes,” he said. “I haven’t thought of it yet.”