'I am sorry if I come across as a fakir'
....says singer, songwriter Rabbi Shergill in a chat with MiD DAY prior to his performance in town. He talks about his journey, the music and how he prefers being called the 'urban ballad singer' over being labeled a Sufi artiste and being revered
Amidst a mish mash of alternative rock and jazz bands in the country and the need to look the part, there came, not so long ago, an unassuming sardar clad in a plain white kurta pajama strumming a guitar to his poetry.
Rabbi Shergill, singer, songwriter and musician, best known for his tracks Bulla Ki Jaana from his debut album Rabbi and the track Dilli from the film Delhi Heights fuses poetry with elements of rock to bring out hummable tracks.
The key is simplicity, the themes varying from social to personal and the language nearly colloquial Hindi and Punjabi.
Ahead of a performance in town, Shergill spoke to MiD DAY about his first steps, his love for classic rock, being a niche artist and more.
What's your sound really like?
It is Indian poetry meets pop rock and funk. My music is pretty much Western, the language is inspired by his roots and the melody essentially Indian. In our country, these two realities (Indian and Western) collide every day. This furnace is what builds my music.
How did music happen for you? Were you formally trained in music?
My first attempts with singing were as part of a school choir that sang Gurbaani at a Sardar school in Delhi. I entered competitions in school and lo and behold, I knew I would make a life in music. My formal training has been rather inconsequential except the time when I learnt from a vocal teacher during the production of my first album Rabbi.
You stand out in the music world with your works and choice of attire. Has it been a conscious effort?
Everybody claims to be different. I have no role to play in being perceived this way. I am easily a mish mash of many things. The easiest view and the most flawed epithet is a Sufi artist. Frankly, I don't really know what can be termed Sufi. I was once called an urban ballad singer. That is definitely more precise than Sufi alone. About the attire, I am just a lazy dresser. I really don't like spending time in front of the mirror. A white kurta pajama is the safest bet.
Why did you take up music as a career?
Music is the only thing that I have consciously worked at through my life.
What inspires your music and lyrics?
Musically it is Bob Dylan, Sting, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and many more. As a songwriter, I have just started out. I still have a long way to go to match up to any of my heroes. I am a mere shadow and my gaze has not travelled too far. Punjabi poets like Shiv Batalvi and Harbhajan Singh inspire me.
Are you concerned about your songs being interpreted in a particular way or comfortable with people's own interpretations of them?
I like the fact that people interpret my songs in different ways. That is the best thing for a songwriter. That is when a song becomes complete.
How did Bilqis happen? Why did you decide to call the song Bilqis?
It was during the time of activist Naveen Kumar's murder, I was in Delhi then. It was very disturbing. You don't stab somebody 19 times. He was simply talking about tribal rights. This set me thinking about the other such people in the country. I called it Bilqis because I had to call it something.
What are the craziest fan incidents you have experienced? Tell us about the nicest and the worst thing a fan has said/ done to you.
My fans are not crazy. I don't deserve the senseless praises they sing for me. A woman who once heard my song got emotional and touched my feet. I don't know why she did that, I find it baffling. I am surprised at the reverence people are willing to impart. I'm sorry if I come across as a fakir. The worst thing I have heard would be somebody saying, "Sir, I like the Sufi you sing" or "You sing Sufi well."
Are you fixated with the languages you sing in, Punjabi and Hindi? Would you diversify in this aspect?
I have sung many songs in Punjabi, two in Hindi and one in English. These are the only languages I know. You are the second person who has asked me this. Something is beckoning me now. I have nothing against singing in other languages, but with that you are playing blind. I might just continue staying in Mumbai, pick up some Marathi and then sing.
What are the plans for the future? What should we be looking forward to?
I think I will compose for a film now. For the longest time, I didn't want to. But what do poor independent artists like us do when television stops playing us?
Also, my new album is ready. It should have released by now but the record label and I are having petty boyfriend-girlfriend squabbles. I believe a record should be balanced and the songs should have some depth. I write an x number of songs over a period of time. They don't follow a single theme or content. The music is good old rock. You should look for a good time. I am just a song and dance person.
Catch Rabbi Shergill live at Kingfisher The Great Indian Octoberfest on November 12, 7.30 pm at Karnataka Trade Promotional Organisation, Whitefield
What would you have been if not a musician?
I would be a traveller. A driver doesn't sound too bad either, I would have perhaps been a truck driver or something.
What sort of music do you listen to?
Mostly rock music and a lot of classic rock. These days I am listening to 80s pop too.
What are you first, a singer or a songwriter?
A songwriter any day.
Most memorable stage show?
The one is Jammu a couple of years ago when there was a fear that the auditorium would collapse.
Favourite songs by international artists?
Born to run, Tangled Up in Blue and Like a Rolling Stone.
Swagatam by Vishal Bharadwaj sung by Hariharan and a few AR Rahman numbers.