We explore how independent western music in India can blend with folk sounds
Three days of traditional music from across the world was about to end at Jodhpur RIFF, a folk festival that was held in the Sun City last week. Gene Peterson, a drummer from Australia, was entrusted with bringing the curtains down, with a segment named RIFF Rustle. His job was enviable. Peterson had been absorbing all the global sounds on offer at the fest, making notes while at it, and curating a jam session behind the scenes that was meant to be a cross-border collaboration. And he eventually shortlisted an Iranian band, a group of singers from Spain, a couple of musicians from Reunion Island, and around a dozen Manganiyar artistes playing their indigenous songs.
The longest part of RIFF Rustle was reserved for this last lot of musicians. Some might say that Peterson was playing to the gallery, Manganiyars being homeboys in Rajasthan. But to us, it didn’t seem so. Imagine the scene. We are at the main courtyard inside the incredible Mehrangarh fort. The time is around 1 am. The moon is full. People are drunk on music. And Peterson suddenly picks up his cymbals in the middle of his set with the Manganiyars, places it up front on the stage, calls out the two khartal players, and tells the audience, “I had a thought. Here are two people holding two pieces of wood [meaning the khartals]. I have here a piece of metal [pointing at the cymbals]. So why don’t we get together and see what we can make?” And the three of them then launch into a jam that is nothing short of magical. Call it fusion if you want. But for a moment there, the experience transcends the narrow limitations of music being boxed into genres.
And it made us think. What we had there was an Australian person blending a wholly western instrument with an Indian one that most people in this country haven’t even heard about. So why is it that artistes making western, or indie, music within our shores don’t take more of a leaf out of his book? Think about it. You’d normally associate a Manganiyar or, say, baul musician with a show like Coke Studio. Or, you’d hear strains of their influence in a Bollywood song. Rare is the indie band that would bring such an artiste on board. But, like we saw at Jodhpur RIFF, there is a mutually symbiotic relationship that these two musical worlds can share. Doesn’t that mean that both sides stand to gain by joining hands?
It’s a question we pose to Sahil Bhatia from Burudu, an ambient electronic act. The reason we call him specifically is because Burudu has just started making music with Mame Khan, possibly the biggest Manganiyar name in India. Bhatia tells us, “When we spoke to Mameji for the first time, he said that he was impressed with our music because he somehow found some emotion involved. And when he says that, I’m thinking, ‘He’s listening to the synthesizer. So we might have a groove in that which gives energy. And the whole packet of music that is being presented to his ears is allowing him to perceive emotions from it.’ And that’s a really interesting thought for us because he comes from a totally traditional background, but his perception of music is still the same as ours.”
That perception is what Donn Bhat, another western indie artiste, also wanted to explore while driving through Rajasthan last month. His sole mission was to try and understand the songs of the state. What did he learn during his time there? “It’s a very adaptable form of music,” Bhat says, adding, “It’s really evolved, and goes well with other kinds of sounds. So what I’ll now do is think about how I can take it forward in terms of recording and documenting it further.”
So, there are a handful of people who, despite their western aesthetic, are teaming up with Indian folk artistes and entering their sonic domain. The more they do so, the more these traditional musicians will get the leg-up that’s due to them. And the indie outfits, in turn, can take their music beyond an elite, English-speaking, upper-middle-class bubble. Makes sense, right?
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