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How a Koli tune got the Obamas to groove

As 56-year-old Koli singer, gears up to sync folk notes with guitar and trumpet this weekend, here’s tracing the musical origins of Mumbai’s indigenous fishing community, and its survival over centuries

  Dressed in a hip, multi-hued printed shirt, sporting white thick-rimmed frames and a matching fedora, 56-year old Chintamani (he goes by his first name) steps onto the stage at Worli fort, with the picturesque Mumbai skyline serving as a backdrop. Presented by Zubaan — a music project connecting independent artistes with public — he starts his performance with a Koli song, Daru Tari.

US President Barack Obama (left) watches First Lady Michelle Obama dance to the popular track, Me Hai Koli, at a cultural event hosted at a city school, during their visit to India in 2010
US President Barack Obama (left) watches First Lady Michelle Obama dance to the popular track, Me Hai Koli, at a cultural event hosted at a city school, during their visit to India in 2010

The lyrics go something like this, Daru Tari Agar Keli Sarkar Ni Bandh, Kaise Javache Amche Koli Van. Nearly 100-odd Kolis from the neighbourhood groove to his tunes as the tempo builds up. “I had written this song a long time ago, when they were planning to ban alcohol in Maharashtra. Yes, alcohol leads to addiction but it is an important part of our culture. One line goes: if there’s no alcohol, how will our functions take place?” shares Chintamani, as he gears up to replay this track, as part of the line-up for Zubaan’s next performance at The Hive, this Sunday.

Also read: Obamas swing to folk music at Mumbai school

Presented  by Zubaan, (centre) Koli singer Chintamani performing with (from left) Jignesh on drums, Dinu on percussions and Sylvester, from Worli Koliwada’s Astik Brass Band, at Worli Fort earlier this month
Presented by Zubaan, (centre) Koli singer Chintamani performing with (from left) Jignesh on drums, Dinu on percussions and Sylvester, from Worli Koliwada’s Astik Brass Band, at Worli Fort earlier this month

Born and brought up in Worli’s Koliwada, Chintamani took to performing (and even dancing) Koli songs since he was seven. “My grandfather, Budhaji Shimagya, wrote Koli songs and I would sing them. These songs are integral to our festivals. For instance, during Ganpati festival, my grandfather and his friends would stay on guard near the idol. So, to stay awake, they would compose songs on the spot. Even wedding invitations were announced via Koli singers who would walk with dholkis and ask people to join in the revelries,” informs the singer, who has to his credit an audio-cassette on Golfadevi, Worli’s native goddess (1991), an audio CD (2010) as well as its video version (2013). “I have penned most of the tracks and sung them too. Koli music is my hobby but unfortunately, since I have full day’s duty at the Naval Dockyard, I can’t dedicate enough time to it,” he admits.

Culture and the Koli
Koli music, has always been an integral part of the Koli community fabric, who are often regarded as the original inhabitants of the city, residing along its coastal pockets, including Worli, Versova and Mahim. While earlier, it was relegated to locals singing at festivals and weddings, with time, the community witnessed interest from many music companies, who signed up singers to record albums based on their folk tunes. “They have songs for every festival, including Holi, Nariyal Purnima and Navratri, which are traditional and catchy. We tape their programmes, arrange the tunes, call singers for a recording and then, produce music albums. The production cost is around '1.5 to '2 lakh while the album is sold at '50,” says Jayesh Veera, MD, Krunal Entertainment Pvt Ltd that owns close to 100 titles of Koli songs since the last 20 years.

“Koligeet has been prevalent since 1950s and 60s. Even Lataji (Mangeshkar) sang Vallav re Nakva that is an ode to fisherfolk. Koli music is sweet and rhythmic. The instruments used in traditional songs are dholkis, trumpets, clarinets and shehnai; there are no Western instruments,” shares music producer Yogesh Kelvekar-Vesavkar, who has been hosting live shows on Koli music in Mumbai since the last two decades. “I do at least 100 shows annually. The singers perform with an orchestra to an audience of roughly 3,000,” he adds.

Me hai Koli...
When we think of Kolis, the first track to come to mind is Me Hai Koli Sorilya Hori. Written by Vesavkar Mandali — a popular group within the Koli Vesavkar community responsible for penning most traditional Koli numbers — this song was recorded by Shrikant Narayan way back in 1986 with Venus Music.

A Keralite who was born and bred in Mumbai, he is the only non-Maharashtrian who finds a pride of place in the list of popular contemporary Koli singers. “I know Marathi, so learning the song was not difficult but I had to learn certain pronunciations. For instance, in Marathi, we say, ‘padtai’ but Kolis pronounce it as ‘partai’. I had recorded another song, Dol Doltay Varyavar that became a superhit,” informs the singer who has 500 Koli songs under his belt. While he went on to sing Hindi songs, jingles and even perform solo tributes to Mohd Rafi abroad, he admits, “Even today, when I am called to perform at a Marathi concert, I sing these two songs. My identity was created because of Koli music and it gave me recognition with all the audio companies.”

A slow shift
While previously, five to six audio companies — like HMV, Venus, Tips, Wings as well as Krunal Entertainment — were dedicated to producing Koli music albums, the numbers have dwindled now. “Earlier, I would work on five to six albums every month. But these days, I get work for one album in three months,” shares 59-year old city-based music arranger, Ashok Vaingankar, who has worked on close to 3,000 titles (including Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi) in his career spanning 30 years. The digital age, and singers turning to other languages as singing avenues, has led to the decline of Koli music, believes Vaingankar.

However, unlike its Hindi counterpart that has witnessed a slew of item numbers with risqué lyrics and techno sounds, Koli music still remains sanctimonious to its tribe, thankfully. “Nothing much has changed. You will still hear traditional lyrics that bring out the essence of festivities, even in today’s albums. They may add a few songs that depict couples teasing each other or a romantic number but the lyrics are pure. That way, Kolis don’t let go of their culture easily,” sums up Narayan.

On: October 25, 7.30 pm
At: The Hive, 50 A, Huma Mansion, opposite Ahmed Bakery, Chuim Village Road, Khar (W).
Cost: Rs 200

Marathitla Bappida

Over the last two decades, singer Santosh Chaudhari a.k.a Dadus has built a reputation with his agri and Koli folk numbers
as well as a dress sense similar to the popular music director, Bappi Lahiri.

Pic/Rane Ashish

Koli playlist
Popular singers: Balakram Worlikar, Shahir Vithal Umap, Jagdish Patil, Santosh Naik, Anant Panchal, Shrikant Narayan, Vaishali Samant, Shakuntala Jadhav among others.
Popular songs: Me Dolkar Dolkar Daryacha Raja, Dariya Varchi Aamchi Dole Hori, Me Hai Koli, Ya Go Dandyavarun, Dol Doltay Varyavar, Tim Tim Timbali among others.

Music producer Yogesh Kelvekar-Vesavkar (centre) on the album cover of Koli Yo Koli Ya Daryacha Koli featuring festive songs
Music producer Yogesh Kelvekar-Vesavkar (centre) on the album cover of Koli Yo Koli Ya Daryacha Koli featuring festive songs

Kolis and their festive folk tunes
Released in September 2015, this album, with nine tracks, features vocals by biggies like Vaishali Samant (of Aika Dajiba fame) and Shrikant Narayan, who came into the limelight with his marathon 12-hour show on Mohammed Rafi, in 2012, that earned him a name in the Limca Book of Records.


From mid-day archives...

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama dance to Koli music

Michelle Obama's moves a big hit online (Click here to read more)

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