'Jamming is a conversation with music'
Assamese folk singer Papon releases his first Hindi album, The Story So Far. Yolande D'Mello talks to the artiste about boat racing, Bollywood hits and almost becoming an architect
What did you grow up listening to?
Assam is a great place to grow up in and has been a major influence on my music. There is so much variety in cultures, since a crossover takes place from India and the countries it shares its borders with. The Northeast has so much diversity in music that I could probably dabble in just about 20 per cent of the sounds.
It was great to be born into a family of musicians. My father (Khagen Mahanta) is very well known for his folk tunes and has a large fan following and my mother (Archana Mahnata) is into Hindustani classical. Subconsciously, I think I picked up music long before I realised I was doing so, simply because it was all around me.
You wanted to be an architect. How did you end up with a career in music?
Music was something that was part of life but I never thought about it as a career that I should work towards. Plus I was always busy doing other things. I love to paint and I was good at it. That was something new for my family and they were very supportive about it. I was never told to become a musician. I read The Fountainhead and I wanted to be Howard Roark, I applied at an architecture college in New Delhi but before I could join, I realised that music is what I wanted to pursue and that was it.
A Hindi album has been in the making for a long time. What is -- The Story So Far about?
The album carries a note about how the songs were part of a journey and weren't written with a plan to get an album out. It was written through a span of four years and is about self-discovery as a standalone artist, not just someone from a family of musicians. You will see the music change as I evolved as a person. During the period I also released two Assamese albums.
Is there a story behind the songs?
Each song comes with a story attached to it. Boitha Maro Re is a Goalporiya folk song sung during a boat race that talks about moving your oars so the boat will go faster. Since the community is built along the Bramhaputra, most folklore revolves around the river. I remember my father singing this song and I was very moved by it. I see all this so-called "commercial" music playing everywhere and topping the charts and folk music is reserved to the man in the dhoti singing in the corner where everyone applauds but then forgets about it. Electronic sounds excite me, so I wanted to enhance the folk song with it. But I was careful to not interfere with the soul of the music.
Every musician has a unique, creative process. Take us through your journey of making music.
There's a difference between art and design. You don't follow a concept note to make art. There are seven musical notes and you create a combination that is straight from your heart. It forms a melody, which I immediately record, sometimes even on my cell phone so that I don't forget and then revisit it to see if I still connect with it later. From there I think of the mood that the sound evokes and it all happens around a moment. I try to feed off that moment and write lyrics that would teleport me to that time. It's a slow process.
Do you think there is adequate representation of the Northeast in today's pop music scene?
India is not one country; it is made up of so many languages, people and cultures. Hindi may be the most popular language but Bollywood too takes off from folk music. There isn't a lot of the Northeast in mainstream but the music scene has been changing. You can't count Northeast rock because it's western music. Thanks to initiatives like MTV Coke Studio and The Dewarists we have a lot more sounds to listen to. Artistes are coming together and music is available online, so that other countries too can consume it.
How different is it to work on a Bollywood song where you are given a concept note to follow?
When it's your music, you are working on your own story. When it's for a film, it's the director's story. But you try to choose something that you can relate to, so that you do justice to the soundtrack. I try to be picky about the films I collaborate on and have a debate with the director where we can reach common ground and improve each other's work. Bollywood is able to give you instant eyeballs and propel you into the limelight. The music industry is opening new doors and maybe with the help of online platforms folk artistes won't need to make it in Bollywood to be recognised.
Your album release show at BlueFROG was full of impromptu collaborations. You had Shilpa Rao and Agni on stage. How did that come about?
I had a lot of musicians who were simply there to support me and we decided to get them on stage and have a jam session. Its like a musical conversation and when you have musicians who know their stuff so well, it's bound to be a good show. There was no practice, I simply explained a couple of chords to them and we had fun with it. I hope the audience did too.
Papon; The Story So Far