On the day before his workshop on rare musical instruments of Rajasthan, Dr. Vijay Verma, an expert on folk traditions, is seated on a plastic chair under a makeshift canopy at Jodhpur’s Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhawan. An all-male group of over 20 folk musicians sit around him, on a large green cloth spread out on the ground, each patiently waiting his turn. The musicians are here to perform at Jodhpur Riff. Verma’s assistant, seated next to him, makes notes as Verma asks each musician the name of his instrument, how it was made and how it is played. The assistant notes their answers down on writing pads that have been stacked neatly on a table, next to a small audio recorder. After each exchange, Verma presses the record button and asks the musician to play something. After recording for almost a minute he stops and calls for the next musician. Verma has been doing this for the past two days. He is still worried that he may not be able to document all the folk instruments that are at the festival.
Interested in the folk arts and culture since his youth, Verma taught history at a university for two years before joining the Indian Administrative Service. He kept up with his subject of interest and continues to pursue it after retirement.
He feels a change in lifestyle may be the reason for the survival of several folk instruments being jeopardized. “The traditional audience, the traditional patrons and the performers, formed a complete matrix which nourished our traditional folk arts,” he says. “This matrix is at danger.” The primary reason for this, he says, is an urban disconnect with folk music. “The patrons may not be continuing to take interest,” he says. “The audience may not be as aware of what’s taking place as audiences were before— that this is from this region, this is this instrument, this is this story. They may just be out for a good time. The patrons and the audience determine, ultimately, the kind of performance. If these two are lacking in any way then the performance will also deteriorate.”
Backed by tourism, says Verma, folk music nowadays caters to entertainment and applause in the hope of securing a future for itself. “But showmanship is alien to folk art,” he says. “Showmanship and entertainment are taking over now whereas earlier folk music was a part of life. So, in a way, society, at large, is speaking through the performer.”
Nevertheless, the workshop titled ‘The Rare Instruments of Rajasthan’, which takes place at the Chokelao Bagh of the Mehrangarh Fort at 11 am, on October 18, is well attended. A large canopy has been set up, offering the participants as well as the attendees a welcome respite from the heat. The audience sits cross-legged on white mattresses with large bolsters that have been laid out on lush lawns.
Verma, for the most part, avoids using the traditional names of the instruments, referring to them instead by their generic musical classifications, for a wider and more instant connect. He introduces instruments as “aerophonic” or “string” or “zither” or “percussive”.
Among the many unusual instruments being showcased is the mashak, or the Indian bagpipe— an aerophonic instrument made of goat’s hide. The musician first blows into the bag, which creates a reservoir of air in a large bladder. This relieves him of having to continually blow into the bag while playing it.
The mashak has two bamboo pipes— one through which air is blown in and a second pipe which has holes in it, through which the air flows out. This second one with holes contains two single reeds within, that vibrate against the edge of the pipe as air passes through. One of these reeds produces a drone, the other a harmony. The mashak is played by placing the fingers over the holes of this second pipe as the air exits.
The tone of the mashak may be altered by pressing on the bladder with the elbow. The fact that they don’t have to blow into the instrument while playing it enables the Jogis to sing while playing the mashak. The Jogis are a religious and musical community of storytellers who sing mostly about Bhairavji, a deity they worship who is an avatar of Shiva. Here, in the middle of a song, a Jogi begins to blow into the mashak to refill it. “Observe how and when he blows in,” says Verma. “It has to be in rhythm with the music.”
Verma elaborates on the storytelling, the dances and other performances that accompany the playing of the instruments he showcases, for context. The workshop includes a small performance that demonstrates the Bhopa-Bhopi tradition of storytelling. The performance involves a painted ballad, a large colourful piece of cloth which illustrates the story being recited. It also involves a couple— literally, the Bhopa, or the husband and the Bhopi, or the wife. The Bhopi’s head and face is covered by her veil as she stands, along with the Bhopa, and sings. The Bhopas use a rawanhathha, a rudimentary lute like instrument which may be seen as a sort of precursor to the violin.
The Bhopa and the Bhopi take turns singing. They are singing of Pabuji, a folk deity and hero. The lyrics recount the story of how Pabuji borrowed a mare from a woman for his marriage. He had pledged that he would protect the woman, if the need arose. At Pabuji’s marriage ceremony, during the saatphere (the final rites), the owner of the horse appeared, claiming the general Khichi had stolen her cattle. Pabuji left his wedding to pursue Khichi and retrieve them.
Throughout the session, Verma interjects to explain every aspect of the performance, down to the significance of the clothes worn by the performers.
The workshop proceeds to examine an aerophonic instrument called a narh. When played, it produces a drone. Verma explains how this seemingly monotonous sound actually blends in perfectly with bait, a kind of poetry. The bait is known to be sung by one singer, to the accompaniment of the narh, as a caravan travels though the desert at night.
The stories and situations these instruments and their music evoke seem alien to begin with, but one is gradually drawn to them because they are our only window into another world. A world we are leaving behind all too quickly.
“The only hope,” concludes Verma. “Is to incorporate as much of the folk bequest into the web of life with as little loss of its nuance, spontaneity and vitality as possible.”
Every morning, at around 9 a.m., the courtyard of the ‘Zenana Deodi’ (Queen’s chambers) at the Mehrangarh Fort is filled with the sound of tinkling bells. This sound, that echoes throughout the courtyard, the corridors that lead from it and the intricately carved windows that surround it— comes from a group of Teratali dancers. From the Kamad community, they perform this dance in honour of the folk deity and hero Ramdev.
Teratali (meaning ‘tera’ or twelve, ‘tali’ or rhythms) is a devotional rite that involves a dance to the tambura, a long necked plucked lute. The songs comprise a poetic narrative and are a celebration of the saint’s life.
This group of dancers are from the Kamad tribe, a tribe of traditional snake charmers. Besides them, the dance is also performed by the tribes of Mirasi, Bhand, Dholi, Bhat and Nat. It is also an important ritual in the Baba Ramdev temple at Runecha.
The courtyard is the last stop in an audio tour of the fort. From here there is normally an exit via the Mehrangarh Museum’s gift store. The group is seated on a raised stone platform at the courtyard. There are four women and two men. The men, dressed in white with light pink turbans, play the dholak and tambura. The women wear maroon saris with heavy plastic bangles that cover their arms from their shoulders to their elbows. They play the manjira— an instrument made up of small cymbals tied together, which make the tinkling sound. They dance, while remaining seated, all the while manoeuvring the manjire—which are tied to their legs and concealed beneath the petticoats within their saris—to produce a rhythm. Also each woman holds a pair of manjire, with one cymbal held in her left hand and another tied to a string, held in her right.
As the performance progresses they swing the string held by the right hand to clang the cymbal attached to it to the one in their left. They do this in perfect synchrony. They also balance a stack of steel and brass pots on their heads while they dance. There are a few 100 rupee notes lying before the dancers. These are weighed down by a large sword. A crowd, a mix of Indian and foreign tourists, gathers. Some take pictures or shoot videos. After 10 minutes, the performance ends and the crowd disperses.
Kailashi Bai has a dusky complexion. Her eyes are the colour of hazelnut and her cheekbones are covered with freckles. Like the other dancers, she wears wine-red lipstick, and kajal. She isn’t sure of her age, but says she “must be around 30”. Her husband, Kaludas, who heads the troupe, plays the tambura. “I’ve been doing this dance since I was very young,” she says. She has three children— two sons, aged five and 16 and a 13 year old daughter. Has she taught her daughter the dance? “They don’t do it. They’ve learnt it as part of our tradition but right now they’re studying,” says Kailashi Bai. What about after they finish their studies? “It would be better if they get a job, but if not, then they can join us.” What about her daughter? Should she do it once she’s older? “It would be better if she got a job as well. We get a performance only every two or three months. Apart from this our occupation is farming.” They perform at government cultural programs, fairs and religious festivals. The troupe hails from Gogunda Tehsil in Udaipur district.
Kamala Bai, a fellow performer, overhears us and joins the conversation. “How old are you?” she asks. On learning that I am 24: “Are you married?” She seems disappointed at the fact that I am not. “What do you do?” I tell her. “You should be married by now. See I was already married at your age. Now I have a son as big as him.” She points to a male member of their troupe. He seems to be in his mid-twenties. Kamla Bai says she is “around 45”.
Soon another wave of tourists appear and they get ready for their next performance. In the evening this courtyard, which once served as private chambers for women from the royal family of Jodhpur, will be transformed into a beverage area for attendees of Jodhpur Riff. But for now it is their stage. They lift the swords resting at their feet and hold them in between their teeth, by the blades. The section of the blade inserted into the mouth is covered by a piece of cloth. Each such piece of cloth is stained red— it’s the colour of their lipstick.
(Image: Terataali dancers. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/Jodhpur Riff)
Cedric Leonardi, 44, is the drummer and front-man of the Gypsy Allstars, a musical project that “invites the multi-talented pedigree of gypsies to share their passion for music and life”. Leonardi grew up with the legendary Gipsy Kings families (the Reyes and the Baliardo families) in the gypsy barrio (neighbourhood) La Cite Gely in Montpellier (in the South of France), performing with them as their drummer. Singers and guitarists Mario and Georges Reyes, also a part of the project, are from the Gipsy Kings’ family (Georges, 38 is the son of Gipsy Kings founder Nicolas Reyes; Mario, 39, is his cousin) and wish to carry on its legacy.
Recently it was discovered that all gypsies around the world may actually be descendants of the Doms—an Indo- Aryan ethnic group from northwest India who had migrated to Europe approximately 1400 years ago—and trace their roots to Rajasthan. So the Gypsy Allstars embarked on a documentary project called Return to Rajasthan, which wants to chart the journey of gypsies from all over the globe back to their ancestral home in Rajasthan. This project kicked off this October at Jodhpur Riff with a collaboration between the Gypsy Allstars and some of the finest Rajasthani folk musicians.
As the sun sets over the horizon, Leonardi settles down at the poolside of Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan palace where the Gypsy Allstars are staying. He speaks to us about music and philosophy and tries to pin down that elusive idea of what a gypsy is and what he and his group, in turn, stand for.
The Gypsy Allstars has members from different countries and cultures. What does being a gypsy mean to you in the contemporary world? It’s an age-old tradition but how would you define it today?
You’re talking about the gypsy values. First of all it’s a way of life. Of course it’s something genetic, in the blood, but you don’t have to be a gypsy in blood to be a gypsy in the larger sense of the word. It’s an attitude, a way of approaching the world around you. What does that mean? That means being, first of all, a ‘traveller’. I believe this word is very important, going through life as a traveller and approaching life as a journey. And, in that sense of the word, being always on the move and not staying attached to anything…I was going to say ‘material’ but it’s above material, it’s above anything. Not being afraid of letting things go, jumping into the unknown, without knowing what’s going to come. Being a free spirit. And sharing. That’s a gypsy saying also— everything we don’t share is lost. Sharing the moment, the emotions, the material, the non material.
What is gypsy music, according to you? The Gipsy Kings’ music was a lot about Latin fusion and pop-oriented flamenco. Have you taken from that lineage? Would you say the essence of your music lies in a style or styles? Or simply in the spirit of it, so to speak?
Well, gypsy music from where I come from, the South of France—everybody thinks the Gipsy Kings are from Spain but they’re not, they’re from France—is all about joy. It’s music full of rhythm and full of joy which maybe the music of other gypsy lands, such as that in Russia or Romania, does not emphasize. Their music is often more melancholy. I’ve travelled the whole world and listened to lots of different gypsy music—such as music from Ireland, the Celtic music and music from India. But then you start seeing some similarities in the various sounds. Like in the Celtic strings and the kamaycha here.
Tell us a little bit about your line up? How did the Gypsy Allstars come about? How often does it change? How do you choose who’s supposed to be a part of the group?
We have people from all over, from different musical traditions. We have been working with an Indian singer in Los Angeles and a fabulous tabla player who has been Zakir Hussain’s student for most of his life. But we didn’t bring them with us (to Jodhpur Riff) this time as we wanted to honour our Rajasthani brothers and sisters and allow them to bring their own magic to the music. This was the point of us coming here to collaborate. We didn’t want the folk musicians to be dominated by a sound which was part of our U.S. experimentation. We will be coming to India again, sometime in January next year, to continue our work.
The Gypsy Allstars is about paying homage to the Gipsy Kings as well as, simultaneously, experimenting and creating new sounds. How do you balance these two aspects of the band’s work when making music? One would imagine paying homage to another group, especially an older one, may go against the grain of experimentation…
We try to keep a balance between what the audience is familiar with and what we are doing, which is new, and which they also happen to really love. We have found that people love the combination of sounds and are going crazy for the fusion. We are not going to disappoint them if they want to hear ‘Bamboleo’ or ‘Volare’— which are in fact covers that the Gipsy Kings popularized, a sound which comes out of the South of France. The gypsy rumba is the sound of the Camargue (a region in the South of France) so it’s homage not just to the group but to the region the three of us Gipsy Kings alums come from.
Your band features musicians from different musical traditions and styles. Is there a process or any pointers you follow, currently, in trying to meld these styles together? What challenges have you faced? How have you overcome them? Could you give us an example of one composition, especially one of your better known ones, and take us through how it evolved?
It’s interesting. When we started this we felt that the musical traditions and styles were far apart— only because we were unfamiliar with ‘working’ them together. However now that we are in the midst of this grand experiment we see so many similarities. Hand movements, voices, rhythms. The sounds just work together. The biggest challenge is actually that both gypsy tribes, if you will, from France and India, are so embedded in their traditions. What they do is in their blood, in their DNA. They are so used to doing what they do that to explore something new is challenging. It requires curiosity and contemplation and in a way re-wiring the brain.
Actually overcoming these fixed ways of doing things requires time and intimacy. Trust takes a while to build. Listening to each others musical styles, enjoying what each of us brings to the music is a big part of finding the way through to a fusion. With ‘Katte’, which Bhanwari Devi has been singing all her life, we just kept listening to it over and over and over again until we found chords and patterns that worked. There is no formula. No prescription. At some point it just feels as if God is leading the way.
Indian music has 5, 7, 9 or 11 beats per measure as against the western 4 or 6. Has this been a challenge for you— when it came to fusing it with Western styles? How did you overcome it?
So far it’s been about the Rajasthani musicians accommodating the rumba beat which is all of 4 (beats per measure). It’s actually been quite a smooth experience for us gypsies— I imagine because we are not trying to work the other way round yet. That should be a question for the Rajasthani musicians.
You had once said in an interview with the Examiner that you’ve been trying to incorporate traditional elements, and not just be experimental. Could you elaborate on that idea a bit? How do you incorporate these elements? Do you choose specific instruments or rhythms? If so, on what basis?
You can experiment so much as a musician and yet totally alienate an audience. By ‘tradtional’ I mean familiar. We are not trying to create complicated jazz. We are looking to create sounds that people can enjoy, relate to and be elevated by. The tabla is very specific to Indian culture so it’s a natural choice for us. So is the voice which is the ultimate ‘instrument’. The guitar is the instrument of the gypsy culture of the Camargue, so again these are natural choices. We do not try to force anything or anyone. It’s a privilege to be a musician and coming from this space of gratitude and joy leads the way.
You spoke about wanting to incorporate Irish sounds into your music? Have you been able to achieve that? How? What other sounds are you interested in?
I am interested in everything. The more you delve into fusion the more you find the similarities between all cultures, as if there was one original sound which everything emanates from. I love Irish music and it will find its way into our project in its own time. At the moment we are just at the tip of the iceberg of exploration and creation with our Rajasthani family of musicians. And we have our hands, very happily, full.
(Image: Cedric Leonardi. By Kavi Bhansali/Jodhpur RIFF)
Kalpana Patowary, 35, is one of Bhojpuri music’s most popular singers today. She is often referred to as ‘the Bhojpuri queen’. Originally from Assam, she was inducted into music by her father, Bipin Chandra Nath, an Assamese folk singer. She is also a disciple of the legendary Hindustani classical singer, Ustad Gulam Mustafa Khan. Although her first language is Assamese, she sings in Bhojpuri, Hindi, English, Bengali and 23 other languages.
Patowary made her debut in mainstream Indi pop with her remixed album ‘My Heart is Beating’ in 2001. Her first Bhojpuri album, ‘Gawanwa Leja Rajaji’, released in 2003, was a bestseller and established her as a prominent figure in the Bhojpuri music scene. Despite her mainstream success, Patowary has continued her interest in various lesser known folk forms. Her most recent album, for instance, titled ‘The Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur’ is the first recording of the work of Bhikari Thakur. Known as the ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri’, Bhikari Thakur was an Indian playwright, lyricist, folk singer and social activist, who developed the folk theatre form of ‘Bidesia’. Fresh off a special performance of Thakur’s songs at Jodhpur Riff, Patowary is surrounded by a small group of admirers as she settles down on an empty stage for this interview with ‘Riff Diaries’.
You are originally from Assam. How did you come across the work of Bhikari Thakur? What about his songs appealed to you?
My father is actually a folk singer and through him I was introduced to Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, who’s considered a god in Assam. I’ve been inspired by him since childhood. He wasn’t only a singer or only a lyricist, or only a music director. He had his own ideas and thoughts. His belief in the Marxist philosophy, for instance, had led to him writing songs which were revolutionary, like Dhola he Dhola and Ganga Behti ho Kyon, which he translated too later on. These songs really influenced me.
When I came to Bombay I came with big dreams. But I was struggling and there wasn’t much of a choice about which songs I would be paid to sing. In Assam I had sung a lot of Western songs in a band. And in Bombay I first did a remix song with Times Music— My Heart is Beating. Through them I got in touch with T-Series Super Cassettes and they called me to sing and that’s how I was introduced to the world of Bhojpuri music. Overnight, suddenly, Kalpana became a Bhojpuri singer. Whatever people wanted me to sing I would sing— whatever the lyricists wanted. And I did a lot of work in the Bhojpuri film industry.
But, maybe with age and maturity, I felt, ‘Who is like Dr. Bhupen Hazarika here (in Bhojpuri music)?’ I thought about this for some time, and two or three names came to me. Bhikari Thakur was one of them. Another is Mahendra Misir, and then there’s Vidyapati, who’s a famous Mithila poet. I found Bhikari Thakur’s name very strange. Bhikari (beggar) and Thakur (lord)— they’re like opposites. So I wondered: ‘What is this?’ Then I found out that he was a hajam, a nai (both these words mean ‘barber’) and an uneducated villager. Despite this he was knowledgeable. The things he writes about… I am stunned at how anyone can write like this, on such complex issues, without even being educated. Like his work Kalyug Prem. Even the phrase ‘Kalyug Prem’— how can a layman even understand this concept, let alone express it so well? In it he was talking about wine addiction and using that idea as a metaphor. Many homes in the villages had been destroyed because of alcohol addiction and that was what he was referring to, directly.They’re poor people, they don’t have money, yet they’ll spend on alcohol and hit their wives. This is still going on. We sit in metros thinking that everything’s fine but it isn’t.
There was something else I had begun thinking about as well. Many youngsters come on musical reality shows, nowadays, especially a lot of girls. When I started 10 years back, girls singing was looked down upon in the world of Bhojpuri music, but today, especially on the Mahua Channel (a popular Bhojpuri TV channel) there are a lot of female singers competing with one another and I got the feeling, and heard too, that some of them want to be like me. So I felt a sense of responsibility.
So far I had done mostly ‘item songs’ which were from a completely different world from this. I said: ‘No, I need to do The Legacy of Bhikari Thakur.’ It took me three years to do the research as it was difficult. It took many years just to get the original songs. Bollywood or Bhojpuri films don’t play these types of songs— the rhythm is completely different. Suddenly I met Ram Mangia Ramji. There was a show in Dhara village (Chattisgarh) where he performed before me. He was singing Gangaji. I met him and I asked for his help and we made the album. I didn’t think: ‘Let’s keep a 35 to 45 rupees tag, a reasonable price.’ That’s why I didn’t go to T-Series or Wave to produce and distribute it. I went to Times Music and EMI Records. I explained to them and Virgin Records what the album was about. They understood that I wanted Bhojpuri music to go to a completely different level, like Punjabi music has gone to, for instance. And I asked if they could please help me. EMI and Virgin Records saw what I was saying and slowly The Legacy of Bhikari Thakur was accepted internationally, and is still being accepted. From that platform, another platform is (Jodhpur) Riff and that is taking Bhikari Takur one step forward.
How is folk music relevant to us today? And how can we include it in our modern lives?
MTV’s Coke Studio is a good example of how relevant it is. This time I was there with Papon and with Rajasthani folk artists to perform the song Baisara Beera. When I went for rehearsals what struck a chord with me immediately was Nathulalji (Nathulal Solanki), who was playing the nagada… Suddenly it made me remember my father and how he used to make me sit on the cycle and take me for shows. He was a folk singer. And yet, on the other hand, were Kalyan Barua and all the others with the lead guitar, the bass and the beatboxing. There were two worlds coming together. These days everyone is doing fusion, because that’s what the new generation is interested in. Because in fusion, the heart, the soul, that bhav (feel), is the same. It’s just some of the outer structures that they use that are modern. And that’s the way in which Papon and a lot of other people are working as well…
Have you seen any of the concerts at Jodhpur Riff?
I missed two or three. I had heard of yesterday’s evening show with Babunath Jogi… I was interested in that. I want to do something with him actually. I liked yesterday’s Scottish and Rajasthani fusion which they were trying to do. But there’s just one thing. Yesterday I felt the Scottish… Yeh nahin dikhna chahiye ki un logone Rajasthani ko ‘chance diya’. Aur aap oopar hain, aur Rajasthani music ko sirf aap ne ‘use’ kiya. Ya toh baraabar ho. Yeh feel nahin honi chahiye ki ‘un logone humein guide kiya’. (It shouldn’t seem as if they are giving the Rajasthanis ‘an opportunity’. And that they’re above them, but are simply ‘using’ Rajasthani music. They should be equal. It shouldn’t seem as if one group in a collaboration is ‘guiding’ the other). But then again, from Rajasthani or Indian music itself we need music directors and composers to come up and guide the Rajasthani folk musicians and use elements of their music in their compositions. Baat ek hi hai, lekin dekhne mein thoda alag hai (It seems like the same thing—whether the folk musicians are guided, or whether their music is imbibed, by an Indian or foreign musician—but when put together one combination seems a little different from the other). I have a bit of a problem with the former (foreign musicians guiding the Rajasthani folk musicians), perhaps because those musicians come from a completely different ethos. Then I have heard about this girl from Reunion…
Yes she was really good. I missed her performance and Manu Chao, I missed it, though everyone was talking about it. I also really like the ambience of the festival in the morning. You don’t see it anywhere else, in any other music festival to this extent: the idea of music with nature (during Jodhpur Riff’s dawn concerts). It gets you to try to know yourself. You find yourself. This is (Jodhpur) Riff’s specialty.
Have any of the artists or their music interested you? Are there any others you would like to collaborate with, besides Babunath Jogi, at the festival?
Lots. There are many that I haven’t explored. I’ve done a lot of work with Trilok Gurtu, he’s a well known percussionist. And he’s like a mathematical musician.
You’ve done Massical (Gurtu and Patowary’s music project which involves classical music but aims to integrate all kinds of music in order to reach a ‘mass’ audience) with him.
And I’ve done a lot of shows with him. And after working with him I realized I don’t understand anything. I mean, on one hand I’m singing and on the other I’ve got to keep counting beats. I’d like to, at some point, come here with Trilokji, do something with him. But right now I’m having fun doing everything. I’d like to sing some Assamese songs here as well…
What kind of music do you feel would blend well with Bhojpuri or/and Assamese music?
African and Bihu. Actually all Assamese music, African music would go very well with. There’s been a lot of greenery in both Assam and Africa, so the traditional music that stems from life in the forests in these regions may go well together. The African drum beats— you find a lot of such elements in Assamese music.
You have already worked with Rajasthani artists on Coke Studio. What did you learn from that collaboration? Were there any challenges you faced as a singer, in integrating the Assamese, Rajasthani and Western forms?
When I was singing Baisara Beera it felt like Bhojpuri singing, nothing different. It was live-singing in the studio, so, four times, I had to sing this song live. That was a challenge, to see if you were getting the sur (tone) right. But I enjoyed everything else. I want to do Bhojpuri next time I do Coke Studio.
For Trilok Gurtu’s album you worked separately from the other artists (she recorded in Mumbai). What was the difference between that experience and recording in the same space? How is that, for you, different from live collaborations at a concert, like in Jodhpur Riff?
It will definitely be different. There’s a technical problem when you record live, because you’re recording everything together. Everyone’s miked together. There can be leakage from one to another. If I want to increase the volume of the chorus, then with that the volume of two other musicians, for instance, will also be increased. Those are the technicalities, but everything else is fine. In fact, after a rehearsal, when everyone is playing together, then the ‘soul’ is stronger, that bhav (feel) is stronger. In a duet which I’m recording currently, I’ll sing and then (singer) Udit Narayanji will sing, but there seems to be no real connection between the two voices because we’ve recorded our parts separately. When you’re singing and listening at the same time, when you’re recording together,there is a connect. That’s one drawback (of recording separately), but then again it’s so convenient, to record that way…
Apart from Bhikari Thakur, what other Assamese or Bhojpuri folk singers do you wish to explore? Also, what role might a festival like Jodhpur Riff play in Bihar or Assam— in promoting the folk music there?
In Bihar there are situations that I still don’t understand. If something like this was done there I don’t know what kinds of problems we’d face. There’s still a lot of casteism there, for instance, especially politically. So the government there needs to understand that it is important for a festival like this to take place. In Assam, of course, it will help a lot. There is a lot of talent in the entire North East.
Actually, now, I’m working on a project called Sacred Scriptures of Monikut. Just like the Bhakti Movement happened all over India, like there was Guru Nanak and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in Assam Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhavdeva spearheaded a similar movement. But people don’t know about them. For this movement they made a lot of music. We call it Kirtan Ghoxa and Borgeet. There are many spiritual songs there and I want to take them in a different direction. These things could happen so easily if there was something like (Jodhpur) Riff there. Jodhpur Riff is quite different, even from other festivals in the country. There should be one in Assam, there should be that vision.
(Image: Kalpana Patowary performs on stage at Jodhpur Riff. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff)
Twenty five year old Asin Khan Langa is a master of the Sindhi sarangi. He has trained under the tutelage of Lakha Khan, one of the great masters of the instrument and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner. Before this, Asin had been inducted into the world of music by his father Muse Khan Langa. He began playing the sarangi when he was eight and has since then performed all over India and the world.
He is also part of an ensemble called Maru Tarang (‘Ripples of the Desert’ in English), his collaboration with Jeff Lang (on the slide guitar), Bobby Singh (on tabla), and Bhungar Manganiyar (on khartal). Asin was introduced to Lang and Singh at Jodhpur Riff in 2011. The collaboration was created as a co-commission between the Parramasala festival in Sydney, the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (the two bodies which organize Jodhpur Riff) and the Australian Government. On the afternoon of his show, Langa is seated in the dining room of the scholar’s retreat at the Mehrangarh Fort (where most of Jodhpur Riff is held), ready to field questions.
You play the Sindhi sarangi…
Yes the Sindhi sarangi. The one which the Langa community plays. The Sindhi sarangi is the one with the gaj— that’s the horse hair (that is used to make the bow strings used to play the instrument). Also, the Sindhi sarangi is made out of sheesham wood and, inside that, out of the four strings which are played, two are made of steel and the other two are made of goat’s intestines. We play the Sindhi sarangi because we play for the Sindhi Siphai community (A community of Rajputs who are said to have converted to Islam when the Arabs invaded Sindh in the 18th century, who live in the Western districts of Rajasthan, such as Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jodhpur).
When did you start playing the sarangi?
Since I was eight.
Did your father teach you?
Yes, my father Muse Khan taught me. Besides him, I also studied with Lakhaji (Lakha Khan, a famous Sindhi sarangi player). The most I’ve learnt has been from Lakhaji. I used to sit with him, get up when he did, play music with him…
Do you have any brothers or sisters who play music as well?
Yes, we are six brothers. My brothers are also musicians. Right now three of us are at (Jodhpur) Riff. The two others here are older than me— Kasim and Samsoor. Kasim played here last night. And today Samsoor and I are playing. He’s playing with the gypsy group (the Gypsy Allstars). Our women don’t perform publicly, except for at certain special occasions in the homes of our patrons. Weddings, for instance. My sisters sing at weddings.
Are there any particular songs that the Langa sing?
Yes, we mostly sing at weddings, so many of our songs are woven around the bride and the bridegroom. Most of them are about the bridegroom. We have some other older more traditional songs too, that we sing with these at weddings. We sing songs as the bridegroom travels to the wedding. Whenever one of our patrons’ children get married, we go there and sing and perform, and when the wedding is over they give us seeds or pulses or grain or a camel or some money. We call this our ‘dhan’.
You’ve played abroad. Which countries have you played in?
I’ve had a chance to go to a lot of countries. The first time I went to Paris. After that London, Germany, Italy. After that America— New York.
You’ve been to a lot of festivals like Jodhpur Riff.
Yes, I came to (Jodhpur) Riff for the first time in 2011. Jeff (Lang) and Bobby (Singh) were there too. He was playing the guitar and Bobby was playing the tabla. Both are excellent musicians and when we played with them we paid more attention to our own performance. And Bhatiaji (Divya Bhatia, the Festival Director of Jodhpur Riff) was the one who brought us here to Mehrangarh fort for the first time, when we met them and heard them play. Then we did a jam at the Parramasala Festival, in Australia. We mixed our music together to make something— our Rajasthani songs, with some khartal, some tabla, and with the guitar and the sarangi. The people were really happy there. And now we’re back at (Jodhpur) Riff .
When you played with Jeff the first time, what were the challenges involved in playing with him?
None really. The first time we saw him and met him, he showed us his guitar and played. Then I too showed him my sarangi for the first time and he heard me playing it. Then I and Jeff did a bit of jugalbandi (a sort of duet or jam that involves one musician reacting to the other). Then we began working together.
You’ve done a lot of festivals abroad, how are they different from Jodhpur Riff?
With the other festivals, we go for months and work with others. We miss our own people. (Jodhpur) Riff is a festival where we can meet other people, like people who come from the mountains, in Rajasthan itself. Also, for us, this is the first time we’ve got a chance to play ‘together’ with someone, in the truest sense— as equals, not accompanying musicians.
Your collaboration is called Maru Tarang. What is the meaning of the name?
Maru was a woman, from the Dhola-Maru story (a famous love story in Rajasthan). She was a woman from the olden times. She, her resilient character, is what defines our collaboration as well. So our group’s name is Maru Tarang— just like the ocean (‘tarang’, literally means ‘ripples’ or ‘waves’), we have come from all around the world and that is the nature of our music. That’s why it’s called Maru Tarang. Take the kind of songs we perform. They have universal appeal. There are four songs which I sing. One of these is a Paniyari song, which is sung during the rainy season, when the paniyari (women who carry water) go to the lakes. The words are simple, but for us they arouse feeling. They go: “Today there’s lightning and the rain clouds are gathering around the village… ”Another song is about a wedding. It’s about the wife asking her husband what he is bringing for her when he arrives to marry her. And he tells her about all the things he is carrying for her.
You’ve worked with other musicians, abroad as well as in India. What did you find distinctive about Jeff’s music?
That when Jeff sang or played his songs, we could easily mix it with our Rajasthani raga. We could join it in…
How did you join them together? Indian and Western music are perceived to be very different…
This is the great thing about folk, we can just mix it with anything, everything. They (Lang and Singh) can also mix their music with ours. First they listened to us, then we listened to them, and that’s how it happened. Also it becomes easier because in our Indian folk music there is no set taal (metre, equivalent to the time signature in western music) or maatra (beat). (Folk music doesn’t make use of rigid timing and rhythm patterns unlike Western classical or Indian classical music, therefore making it more flexible.) Also, whenever we folk musicians sing we play the dholak to accompany our singing, so the tabla being there (played by Singh) helps. (The tabla is generally used to keep taal in Indian classical music, whereas the dholak is used in folk music.)
Is there anything that is special about the performance at this festival?
The way we do it is we sit together and we fix a key and perform. And we have had a lot of fun while doing that. The most fun has been between me and Jeff. We do a jugalbandi with one another often. Anyway, you don’t get a chance like this anywhere else. I’ve performed with others too, at other festivals or events. But everywhere else I feel as if I am playing alone. People don’t really mix. (Jodhpur) Riff provides a space where we can meet other people and get a chance to work with them and they also like to work with us.
Have you heard any of the other international groups here?
All of them are good, like the one which performed last night… Joseph (Daud Khan Sadozai with Dilshad Khan and Joseph Tawadros), and the one in which they were playing with the Langa and the Manganiyar (Rajasthani folk music communities), there were two ladies, with the violin… (A Scottish folk ensemble— featuring Kaela Rowan, Ewan Macpherson, Patsy Reid and James Mackintosh with Rajasthani folk musicians). That was really good.
The Scottish collaboration? What did you like about it?
Our artists, the ones who were with them, they did their songs. There were some things which they played which went very well together, though each group was from a different section of the world.
(Image: Asin Khan Langa. Kavi Bhansali/Oijo)
It is midnight, and the beginning of the last day of Jodhpur Riff. The audience has spread out, through the courtyards of the Mehrangarh Fort, in search of refreshment and chatter. The performance that got over just a few minutes ago—by the Gypsy Allstars—is the talk of the night. The Gypsy Allstars, comprising members of the famous Gipsy Kings as well as those descended from the family that had formed the band, played old favourites from their repertoire—‘Volare’, ‘Bomboleo’—followed by music that is the product of a new collaboration at the festival, called ‘Return to Rajasthan’, with singer Bhanwari Devi as well as other Rajasthani folk musicians. Glasses clink and conversations ensue around how the group may well be on its way to finding a new ‘world sound’ with this collaboration. A sound in sync with the raison d’être of the gypsy, the eternal world wanderer.
The leader of the Gypsy Allstars, Cedric Leonardi, is missing from the party. He finally announces his presence, as well as the beginning of the last and most awaited Jodhpur Riff mainstage concert, with a drumroll. The concert will be a jam between practically every musician who has performed at the venue over the last three days— an event that has come to be known and looked forward to every year as the ‘Riff Rustle’. The conversationalists hasten back. Because the only thing that goes better with wine than conversation, is music.
Leonardi is this year’s ‘rustler’, or the musician who will conduct the jam. He has attended several of the performances at the festival but hasn’t really had a chance to jam with most of the musicians before now. This suits the scheme of things. The rustle, as its name suggests, is supposed to be impromptu: an exchange of thoughts, an orgy of ideas, a no-holds-barred musical conversation.
Earlier in the day, while speaking to us, Leonardi had expressed his regret at the fact that some of the musicians, who had played on the first two days of the festival, were no longer around. “I heard Spiro on the first day but they left, Manu Chao left, lots of people left,” he said. “Last night I saw the collaboration between the oud, the sarangi, and the robab. Only the oud will be here (he means Joseph Tawadros, the ARIA winning oud player), so I invited him to come.”
Leonardi had some sort of a vague plan in place on how to begin: “Maybe I start to play a beat and we’ll take it from there, depending on who is on stage. If it’s only Rajasthani musicians then we start off, maybe, softer, a little percussion, maybe a DJ would be nice… ”
And now he is in it. The audience has gathered around the mainstage, at the fort’s old zenana courtyard. Leonardi’s drumming is followed by the guitar solos of cousins Georges and Mario Reyes, inheritors of a rich musical legacy (the Reyes and Baliardos families from the South of France are the ones behind the famous ‘Gipsy Kings rumba’). They are joined by Tawadros on the oud. In the beginning the Reyes’ guitars, coupled with singing and folk percussion, seems to swallow the sound of the oud. Tawadros had been experiencing some trouble with the pickup from his oud during his sound-check. This seems to be happening again. He takes a while to settle in, looking a bit confused at first and then casting more than a few angry glances towards the sound console. In the meanwhile, Leonardi introduces new instruments and new musicians. Norwegian folk singer Linda Gytri’s band mate Vidar Berge joins in on the guitar. Berge strums along with the others while Gytri plays some notes on the accordion, on loop. DJ and producer Maga Bo stands behind this ensemble with his console. He creates a siren-like sound effect. After some time Tawadros’ oud and Mario’s guitar finally seem to have found common ground, in a short strings solo part, as both instruments begin to riff off each other before transitioning to more strumming.
This segues into a Rajasthani instrumental set with dholaks and a harmonium. Bhanwari Devi, who’s been sitting quietly at centre-stage all this while, joins in with an overwhelming rendition of a Rajasthani folk song. She quietly exits the stage once her solo is over. After she leaves the act seems to flounder for a few moments. The musicians seem to be searching for a coherent beat or rhythm to follow. This makes the music sound discordant, almost cacophonic for a short while. But the jam picks up soon, with some percussion by Scottish drummer James Mackintosh and the Rajasthani artists. Also, there’s a dhol solo which, though impressive, feels a bit excessive because the bass instrument is loud and overpowering. Still, the jam has livened up considerably, though there is a need for a unified sense of direction. Various musicians pop in and out for solos or duets. Finally, the guitar strumming appears to link the disparate musical elements together.
A guitar duet with Mario and Berge follows, which leads on to an oud solo by Tawadros. The tempo quickens, before breaking into vocals by Georges, followed by some more Rajasthani songs sung by Meru Khan Manganiyar. Both these vocal segments are accompanied by percussion, this time by LAZAbeam (of Jus Now) and Ewan Macpherson. The duo was seen jamming together in a sitting room, near the mainstage, before the evening’s performances. On stage they seem to have struck up a strong camaraderie. LAZAbeam brings in Trini carnival vibes to the mix. This new turn, apparently, has gone down well with the audience who though participative so far hadn’t been half as enthusiastic as they seem now. The ground in front of the stage is crowded with people dancing, head-banging, bouncing. One of the audience members—a black man in a loose t-shirt and a pair of shorts—runs on to stage, grabs the mike that was so far committed to Leonardi’s drums and proceeds to sing a song that sounds Nigerian. He is terrible. The crowds boos him and Leonardi, after the first few minutes that it probably took him to recover from the shock, shoos him off stage.
Gytri plays a jaunty polka which goes well, surprisingly, with the Trini beats. She does a short duet with LAZAbeam. The Reyes cousins begin another rendition of Bomboleo which takes the tempo a notch higher. Besides the crowd in front of the stage, there were also several people seated on the seats or along the fort ramparts, who are now on their feet dancing.
Unfortunately Maga Bo, who is well known for his use of organic samples and live music in his sets, has not really been utilized in this jam. His contribution has been reduced to dropping in the occasional sound effect.
Also, Gytri’s accordion has very little space amid the constant back and forth between the guitar strumming and the percussion. She does have a short solo towards the end of the jam, however, which features snatches of her compositions which she had played during her own set.
But jams are never perfect. That is part of their charm. At the end, the audience calls for it to continue, a request the rustler and the other musicians have to decline politely because it is already too late. They smile instead, and bow repeatedly. The last night at Jodhpur Riff comes to a close, after many rehearsed performances, with a raw, unpredictable, wild set that could have gone anywhere, and did— taking the audience with it.
(Image: The Riff Rustle. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff).
Jus Now’s music is a fusion of traditional Trinidadian Soca rhythms with the sub heavy sound of the Bristol Underground. The band is made up of LAZAbeam (Keshav Singh), 30, a percussionist and producer from Trinidad and Sam Interface (Sam Chadburn), 29, a producer and DJ from Bristol, UK. The duo, who describe themselves as “two riddim obsessives… separated by 4,500 miles and brought together by a shared love of bass, rum and parties” have played what is their first concert ever at an Indian music festival at Jodhpur Riff last night. The performance was interrupted by the police on a complaint about the music being too loud from residents who live near the Mehrangarh Fort (in and around where the festival is held). So Jus Now continued the performance— without speakers.
What did you think of the acts that you saw at Jodhpur Riff this year? Was there anything that you found particularly interesting?
Sam Interface: I found a lot of them intriguing. Although, a lot of them, I didn’t really know their names…
LAZAbeam: To hear the different types of world music that the festival has brought here in this setting is pretty cool. There was a Scottish group that was doing that Celtic vibe (a Scottish folk ensemble— featuring Kaela Rowan, Ewan Macpherson, Patsy Reid and James Mackintosh with Rajasthani folk musicians). Also, I guess Rizwan (of the Qawwali group Rizwan-Muazzam) representing the Fateh Ali Khan family— that was really cool for me. But we also liked the folk stuff…
Sam Interface: The folk stuff that was kind of just dotted around the fort— that intrigued me the most (live folk performances that occur throughout the day, during the festival at Mehrangarh Fort— called the ‘fort festivities’). The kind of small groups of people from different… are they all Rajasthani?
LAZAbeam: Yeah, they’re all Rajasthani like the Langa and Manganiyar. I got to jam with some of them too, which was very cool.
How did that happen?
LAZAbeam: That was just an organic musician thing. As musicians that’s what we do…
Sam Interface: We saw the drummers (the Dhol Thali Nritya drummers) as we were walking past and decided to try it out.
Will you be using any of that in your work?
LAZAbeam: Well, probably not this trip. This trip was basically for us to come and get a vibe of the thing, to kind of immerse ourselves in the Jodhpuri traditional vibes, the (Jodhpur) Riff culture, and see what will happen.
Sam Interface: Hopefully in the future that will be the long-term plan and the reason why we came here. I’m very much interested in Rajasthani music. Keshav (LAZAbeam) has roots here.
LAZAbeam: A little bit of Rajasthani blood (his father traces his ancestry to Rajasthan).
Sam Interface: And it’s the beginnings from where a lot of music comes from. It’s something we’re very interested in doing and exploring more of in the future.
About your performance here, were there any challenges?
LAZAbeam: It was interesting. You know any setting would have been a challenge in a place as grand as this. And there was a little problem with the PA system. The PA system had to be shut down, because apparently the public that is right outside the fort called the police. I think it was very loud and certain neighbours… you know, sometimes you get that, they didn’t want it to go on too late. So we basically played the gig through a monitor behind us and we just drummed our hearts out. And even the festival director Divya (Bhatia), came and drummed with us. It was kind of more like a jam but people wanted to enjoy themselves, they wanted to dance and rave out, and we brought the vibes to them. Until we could have brought them no more…
I remember seeing a couple of Rajasthani artists at Club Mehran before your rehearsal. What was happening there?
LAZAbeam: Maga Bo. He did a really cool performance with some Langa and Manganiyar. And he did his own set afterwards and there was a kind of jam with them. And we got one of the khartal players from among them to come and jam with us too. And that was really cool because incidentally… well we were kind of just walking past him and saw him playing. And I recognized his face from when I came here as a child, staying at Umaid Bhawan and coming for Holi celebrations. And we kind of instantly hit it off and I remembered certain things. And we wanted to jam. So we asked Divya and he came and jammed with us, which was really cool. Even though there was no sound system, we still had plenty vibes.
Where do you see your music going from this point, with regard to collaborations?
LAZAbeam: We don’t know yet. It’s not a boxed-in kind of thing. We’re not going to limit our options now.
Sam Interface: We’re in Rajasthan today and there’s a lot of things that inspire us here. He’s (LAZAbeam) going back to Trinidad in a couple of weeks. And Trinidad is a massive source of inspiration for us as well. So… we’ve got a lot of projects going on there. Working with interesting, talented people in interesting locations, enjoying and exploring new cultures…
Where do you see Jodhpur Riff with regard to other festivals that you’ve played at? How’s it different?
Sam Interface: Well location— first and foremost. I’ve played in some pretty incredible settings but to be set up in a courtyard in an ancient fort with such history… it was a beautiful thing. I just had to stop and take it in. Even though there were a few technical glitches. I think in another location I would have come out of it being quite annoyed but because it was such a beautiful setting and the people were… the energy was so amazing. I still came out smiling.
(Image: Jus Now performs at Jodhpur Riff. Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/Jodhpur Riff)
Maya Kamaty, 28, is the daughter of Gilbert Pounia, the lead singer of Ziskakan, one of the most famous maloya bands to emerge from Reunion, a French island located in the Indian Ocean. Folk music in the island—once banned by the French government because of its political leanings and its strong association with the local Creole culture—has seen a resurgence with artists like Christine Salem touring extensively in the US and Africa. Kamaty is working on her first album which will be released in 2014. She has released an EP, Ansanm, this year. Her music blends traditional maloya instruments with modern influences, and is a mix of African rhythms, modern harmonies and a touch of the blues. She sings primarily in Creole. On the evening of her arrival at Jodhpur, we are seated in a room at the Mehrangarh Fort, next to a laptop on which she is playing music.
Maloya has traditionally been a music of protest, since you see your music as fitting into this tradition, would you call your music political?
Not really. I’m born in maloya music and the history of my family has been made around it. My father and a lot of musicians, poets, writers of the island came together to describe the island in another way. To create their own identity— which was separate from France and separate from sega also, which was a different music. Sega at that time was talking about mountains, blue sky and the good side of the island. But these associations of musicians and poets were talking about Apartheid in the Creole language. Maloya was forbidden in Reunion Island till 1981. I was born in 1985, right after that, but I’ve started music very late. I studied in Montpellier— that’s where I rediscovered my own culture, because I was far from Reunion. So I missed this culture. I was in a band at that time as a percussionist and chorist but I wanted to have my own creation, my own composition. And I can’t say that it is political music. I kept maloya in my music as music— as rhythm and instruments. I used kayamb and rouler, traditional instruments, in my music. But I’ve got some human values, I mean: solidarity, justice, equality. So I talk about those in my songs as much as I sing about nature or love. This is exactly who I am. I don’t want to lie. I just want to talk about things that touch me.
Would you call the maloya that other musicians create today political?
The older ones like Danyèl Waro, Firmin Viry, they still keep political lyrics in their songs. But now we’re more out of that. In my opinion, maybe too much out of it. I think this is a question of risks and a question of… the young people in Reunion Island are not really concerned with politics. On the other hand there is a lot of unemployment and we have some social issues we could talk about in our songs. But it’s not enough in my opinion, we have to talk more about that. For example in one of my songs called ‘Dernier Viraz’ (Last Turn), I’m talking about alcoholism. This is a big problem in Reunion Island. But because there’s no real debate in Reunion Island among the young, we can’t talk with each other anymore. It’s very difficult. And I don’t understand why, but it’s like this. It’s not an issue they talk about.
So if they’re not happy with their situation they just go to the city and break stuff or set fire to stuff. This is not a solution. You have to discuss things first. I don’t have a clear solution to that. Also, all of this is very difficult to put it in a song today. In Reunion Island, we get a lot of subvention and funds from the politicians. So if you say something wrong you just ‘go out of the system’. So you have to be smart and put it in a way that it can be understood nicely and quietly.
What other themes or influences have affected maloya recently, especially among the younger crop of musicians?
My father’s band, at first it was political, but now with time and being old, my dad talks about travel. For example the last album they released talks about travel and love. There’s one song that talks about incest. It was written by a Mauritian poet. My father just wrote one song, called ‘Daddy’ because his dad passed away a few years ago. So, with time and the musicians getting older, it’s just calmed down. But the thing my father has always told me is that in 30 years, the system has not changed— so it is not worth it to scream and yell. But when I hear a band like Lindigo, for example—it’s a young band of traditional maloya, I didn’t hear all their songs but I saw them on stage—they’re very energetic, dynamic. And I spoke to the lead singer and he told me that he’s not quite into the lyrics, he’s into the music. I was shocked when I heard that the first time. But I understand this when I see them on stage. In fact they’ve been touring the US a lot, which is good for the music (because it gets more exposure).
And also, in the end, people don’t understand the lyrics. But that’s not a good reason for not working on it. Lyrics are very important for me. If I don’t work on my lyrics, my dad will kill me. In Reunion Island there is a lot of dancehall music at this time, and that only talks about dancing, smoking etc. And the young people in Reunion Island only listen to this kind of music. Sometimes I just say to myself, ‘There is no alternative. What is my thought worth here? What can I do here?’ Because they will say this is not ‘boom-boom music’, it’s not working…
Some artists, such as Christine Salem, have been trying to modernize maloya and her music is based on religious chanting. But some, like Firmin Viry, feel it should be more traditional and secular and not involve religious aspects. What is your opinion?
Firmin is an old man. He’s nice, but his way of thinking is old fashioned. Now we’ve got the internet, we’ve got all this stuff. We have to mix music if we want to move forward and be a part of society. We have to keep the roots. The funniest thing is, when you listen to Christine Salem’s music, it’s not so far from Firmin. Because, firstly, it’s traditional music, and secondly she talks about the roots and she calls out to the ancestors. So for me, while it’s not quite the same thing, there are similarities. But Firmin is more conservative. And, once again, now we have to move forward and at least if someone like Christine Salem is touring a lot in U.S.A, it’s good for us. It’s good for the music, it’s good for maloya…
Where do you place your own music in the context of these two opposing perspectives?
I’m taking influences from both sides— from Danyèl Waro, Firmin Viry, Christine Salem, from Ziskakan. But my music is not traditional maloya. I’ve got so many influences that I didn’t want to be traditional maloya. I just want to use it as an exceptional tool, so we can move the music in another way. Each one of us has got his own point of view and way of doing it. In my set list, I’ve put one song of Firmin Viry which I sung with him at Sakifo (a music festival in Reunion). The lyrics are: “Mum and Dad what is my destiny? What can I do next? You thought that I was dead, but I’m not. I’m still there, I’m still up and I will go forward.” I love this song.
I take influences from the traditional maloya— as percussion, voice and melody. There’s no melodic instrument in maloya, it’s only percussion and voices, sometimes question and answer. The chorists are very important. But while my chorists are very important, they also have other skills like being able to play the guitar, percussion instruments and the keyboard. And we bring all our influences. For example, the percussionist listens to dub-step music, the other one listens to soul. So we put it all together and work together. This is more ‘let’s do it together’ music. For me this is my version of maloya.
Maloya was traditionally sung my men. But you and Christine Salem are both very popular female artists. Do you feel that being a woman singer in maloya changes it? Either in terms of the style or the themes you choose to sing about?
Yes the topics obviously, because who better than a woman to talk about women? More and more women are doing maloya, since maybe 10 years ago. I think it’s a really nice thing that women have taken their place in this music. Because this music was such a male thing.
Was that because it was so political, so aggressive and so risky— that you had more men doing it?
I really don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know why women didn’t take a place in maloya. But now we are in 2013 and we have to be part of it. And we are a part of it.
In what ways are you looking to expand maloyan music? Through themes, instruments?
The first thing is the instruments, yeah. The musicians I’m playing with, my friends, they all have different influences and they listen to different kinds of music. Tomorrow, on stage, we’re trying to put some electronic music into this. We will still use the kayambs, rouler or carole. But we’re trying to mix it up. And sometimes a song works with very quiet, simple instruments. The ukulele, voice, triangle and kayamb and rouler. It doesn’t need anything else. So if it works like that, it suits me because I love acoustic music also. I love drums and bass but I still haven’t found the place for these kind of instruments in my music. But I’m telling you that today. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a drummer. I’ve been to South Africa last October, without my musicians. And I did a collaboration with a band, ‘Mix n Blend’. There was drums and bass, electro-music… They just sent me the tracks and I just put melody and lyrics on that and it turned out quite different.
You have roots in India. Your father has roots from Rajasthan— I think?
I think my father’s ancestors are from Rajasthan. We’re not sure, we’re still searching for the original town. I’m the 5th generation of Indian people in Reunion Island. He just got his PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, that’s a good thing. We’re still searching for where the great-great-grandparents were from. When Indian people came to Reunion Island it was many years after the slavery abolition. They were there for working. And my name, Pounia, my real last name, was cut. So I think my real name is longer than that. So we need to still search for it.
Have your roots in India influenced your music in anyway? Or do you think that it’s very much tied to Reunion Island? Could they influence you later?
They influence me a lot but I feel like I want to do more. I want to explore more classical music from India. But it seems to be so complex and so difficult. In fact, I want to try but, I don’t want to scratch it… it’s kind of a complex feeling. But I love Indian music.
Is there any instrument or any particular genre of Indian music that you find interesting?
Every morning I wake up with a Ravi Shankar CD or something. I really love all of it, like the sitar, the tabla, the tambura, the veena, the dholak. All the percussion, all the chords… this is wonderful and this is not logical. I mean logical in a European way. Our musical writing is different, a completely different system. It was decided that European music was the universal norm but when you come here, you see that it’s not. It doesn’t work and I love that.
(Image: Maya Kamaty performing at Riff. By Kavi Bhansali)
Jus Now’s music is made up of an unlikely fusion— traditional Trinidadian Soca rhythms, and culture, with the sub heavy sound of the Bristol Underground. This mix stems from the duo that is Jus Now themselves: LAZAbeam (Keshav Singh), percussionist and producer from Trinidad and Sam Interface (Sam Chadburn), a producer and DJ from Bristol, UK. Sam Interface is a Drum and Bass producer who has collaborated with DJ Die, TC and DJ Eddie K, on releases and remixes for labels like Shogun Audio, Clear Skyz, Hospital and Metalheadz. LAZAbeam is a well-known percussionist and producer in Trinidad who established himself as a producer by remixing the likes of L-Vis 1990 and Major Lazer.
A chance meeting through a mutual friend brought them together in Bristol in 2010. They describe themselves as: “Two Riddim obsessives… separated by 4,500 miles and brought together by a shared love of bass, rum and parties.” Jus Now have worked between both Trinidad and Bristol to create their debut ‘One Time EP’. As we settle down in the dining room of the scholar’s retreat at the Mehrangarh fort, LAZAbeam, who is recovering from an upset stomach, eyes a glass of water he’s been handed very suspiciously. The interview begins.
What does ‘roots music’ mean to each of you respectively? LAZAbeam, you are from Trinidad which has a strong musical history of different genres, or different ‘roots’, so to speak: soca, reggae, riddim. And you also have roots in India.
LAZAbeam: To me it means the source, but the source is ever changing. It all depends on when you look, at what eras you are looking at. But I think folk music is basically the music of the people. No matter what country you are from, the folk music is what drives the passion and soul of the people. Jus Now is very much an appreciator and utilizer of folk and traditional music. It’s very much the basis of what we do. We put it in a context that is palatable to a wider range of people, simply because it makes people dance. And folk music can make people dance. That’s basically our modus operandi.
Sam, you were part of the UK underground electronic music scene, which also comes from an urban sub culture, but which still is very neighbourhood, area specific. How do you see it fitting in with roots culture that is seen as evolving from a more traditional, less urban setting?
Sam Interface: Yeah there’s a different sound in Bristol and Manchester, London, Berlin. It’s very city specific. And that comes from the different kinds of ethnic groups. Bristol for example is very much a big Jamaican… Bristol has a sound which is very well known for (trip hop and electronic) bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky. And then they have the drum and bass scene with Roni Size and Reprazent. The dubstep scene came out of Croyden in London and the first place it went to is Bristol and they evolved their own separate style of the dubstep sound. When you look at all these different sounds that have come out of Bristol in these past 20 years, they’ll always be very bass heavy and that comes from the Jamaican sound system heritage. The Bristol carnival is a big thing there. Bristol’s thing is this weighty sub sound. I think most of the music that comes out of Bristol has got a slight dub, reggae, Caribbean feel to it.
Your last EP One Time had a distinctly dark mood, through it. How did you achieve that feel? Especially since Sam has spoken about the happy, party atmosphere that’s part of carnival music of Trinidad as what drew you to it and what drew you to collaborate with LAZAbeam and work on this EP…
LAZAbeam: The question of whether or not music is dark is quite a relative thing. And I think Western music and perception views certain chords and melodies as dark music whereas Eastern music and culture views certain chords and melodies in a different light. Like shlokas, Sanskrit singing, can be construed as very dark to a Western person. To us, we sort of gravitate to that kind of thing, because it seems very real, rooted. Also that was the first instance of our material and we kind of went— Wham! Straight into that stuff, whatever felt good, whatever came naturally.
Sam Interface: I think the weather had something to do with it as well. One way I would describe our music would be Caribbean music, but for the cold winters in England. We have a bit of rain and thunder and darkness, because that’s what I grew up with. The summers in England aren’t very bright. It’s still quite a happy song though but…
LAZAbeam: Chordally it sounds dark…
Both of you live on separate continents. How did you manage to work together? Could you take us through the process? Do you send across samples? Does a lot of your collaboration take place online? How does this affect your work? And what are the pros and cons of this vis-a-vis working from the same physical space?
LAZAbeam: We kind of came up with it as we went along. Sam invited me to the studio when I was in Bristol. We met through some mutual friends. I put on some drum tracks for him. And later I invited him to Trinidad. He came directly to Trinidad because you need to see the culture to understand the culture. He immersed himself in the culture, hung out, drank the rum, partied with the people, did the wining, dancing, understood the Trini vibe and we started working there.
Sam Interface: When I was visiting him, we had our own projects which were our main focus, we were doing this as fun. We played the tracks we were making in his bedroom in Trinidad to a few people in England and they were really interested. They said, ‘You should keep doing this’. And then he visited me in summer 2011, and we worked for 2 months in England. After that we didn’t think about it for a little while. Then we did a little bit more work over Skype.
LAZAbeam: That was a key element of our collaboration during the winter but we try to do most of our work in the same room to hash it out. We spend 10 to 15 hours in the studio everyday.
Sam Interface: Skype does come into play when we can’t be in the same continent. Skype and Dropbox. But we prefer to be in the same room.
Will you be collaborating with any Rajasthani artists?
LAZAbeam: We’ve started already. In preparation for this gig we sampled a couple of Rajasthani songs and sang certain things in the Rajasthani style.
Sam Interface: One of the main things we are excited about, about coming to (Jodhpur) Riff, is the opportunity to collaborate with some Rajasthani musicians. It’s one thing to sample it, it’s another thing when you can actually work with a musician and maybe try to take them slightly out of their comfort zone and try something that is still traditional but done in a different way which might open them up to a wider audience.
What Rajasthani songs or instruments did you try?
LAZAbeam: We did a few things like Ghoomar and Kesariya Balam and a couple of the wedding songs of the Langas and Manganiyars. Basically we focused on instruments. So khartal, very percussive and also it’s the root of the castanet which is something we use in our music a lot as well. The khartal, the morchang, the ghara. It doesn’t really matter what the song is, as long as it’s not anything that we’re blaspheming.
Do you see this kind of music as being adaptable to a bass heavy style (that is characteristic of your kind of music)? What do you see as the biggest challenges in melding these 2 forms?
LAZAbeam: There are wide chasms between Western and Indian music. But because of the simple fact that Jus Now is related to Rajasthan, by blood. My father’s ancestry is from Rajasthan. I don’t believe that there’s a chasm. I think it’s a joyful meeting. A little while earlier we met one of the khartal players and we just clicked. I remembered him from when I was a child and had visited Jodhpur.
Sam Interface: I suppose there’s a time signature thing where modern dance music is very much 4/4 (four beats in a bar, common time) and obviously a lot of folk signatures will explore a lot of time signatures and tempos throughout one song. But that’s something we’re interested in experimenting with. That doesn’t mean you can’t add interesting production and bass just because it’s got a time signature a DJ might have to struggle to mix. A lot of our tracks will be DJ friendly but we’re also interested in doing stuff that a folk listener could appreciate, while still sounding totally alien and futuristic at the same time.
(Image: Jus Now. By Shantenu Tilwanker/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)
The Norwegian folk band Apal arrive together, about halfway through when a collaboration between Daud Khan Sadozai, Joseph Tawadros and Dilshad Khan is playing out on the main stage of Jodhpur Riff. It is around 8.30 p.m., on October 19. Some members of Khan’s entourage, who were hanging around earlier, have left the green room and it is now quiet. The only people backstage are a handful of volunteers. However, the members of Apal prefer to sit silently on a raised stone slab, in a corner right behind the main stage where the performance ensues.
Apal is a group that has come together specially for Jodhpur Riff. They play traditional Norwegian folk tunes as well as original compositions by their accordionist 33 year old Linda Gytri.
The band members—Linda Gytri, (accordion), Kristoffer Kleiveland (diatonic accordion) and Vidar Berge (mandolin and guitar)—are dressed mostly in black, except for a cream and blue kurti with a floral design that Gytri wears. They have placed their instruments next to them, either on the slab they are sitting on or, in their cases, at their feet. They sit bunched together, occasionally speaking in quiet murmurs to each other, in Norwegian. Kleiveland and Berge are bent, their heads over their knees with expressions of intense concentration on their faces. Gytri, on the other hand is bobbing her head and swaying slightly to the sound of the music coming from the stage. Her eyes are closed. She has a slight smile.
After almost half an hour of silence, Gytri approaches me. She has an affable smile. “How do you say ‘Sharad Purnima’?” she asks. I tell her, repeating the words a few times so she can get the pronunciation right. She goes back to her band members and repeats it to them. They repeat it in turn. I compliment Gytri on her kurti. Has she had a chance to do any shopping? “A little. I bought this from a shop just outside our hotel. See?” She turns around and turns the back collar of her kurti. The label reads ‘Anokhi’, a brand which specializes in clothes made from traditional textiles, coincidentally run by John and Faith Singh, who also run the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, one of the organizers of Jodhpur Riff. “We bought this shirt too,” she says tugging gently on Berge’s black shirt sleeve. Berge and Kleiveland look up and smile politely. They listen to our conversation for a while, then return to staring intensely at their shoes.
Gytri will be staying for a day more after her performance is done. “The normal life here is so different from ours at home. It is very interesting. But I didn’t get a chance to see any of yesterday’s performances. When we were done with our rehearsals, we went back to the hotel, the food was good and the band that was playing was so nice we decided to stay in.”There is more small talk. “Ok,” she says. “Now I’ve got to get on stage.” She joins her band. Their set is delayed as the audience refuses to let Tawadros, Sadozai and Khan leave, demanding an encore. Apal return to wait, silently.
When it’s finally their turn they kick the set off with a composition written in anticipation of coming to India—‘Tuk Tuk’—followed by another they composed the night before, inspired by their time spent in a hotel, and named after it: ‘Ranbanka Palace’. But what the audience seems to love the most is a tune dedicated to the moon. “To Sharad Poornima,” Gytri explains on stage.
(Image: Apal performs onstage during Jodhpur Riff. Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/JodhpurRiff)
It’s around 7 p.m. on the 19th of October. Daud Khan Sadozai paces around the green room behind the main stage at Jodhpur Riff as he waits for the musicians who will be collaborating with him. The 58 year old Afghani is a master of the robab (a lute-like instrument originally from Central Afghanistan). He will be collaborating with 30 year old Dilshad Khan, on the classical Indian sarangi and 30 year old Joseph Tawadros, playing the Middle-Eastern Oud. This is the first time the three of them are working together. Sadozai and Tawadros met for the first time at the Delhi airport on their way to Jodhpur, while Khan was only told that he was performing with them this evening. Both the robab and the oud come from a long tradition of Persian music. The classical sarangi, on the other hand, evolved from folk instruments in Rajasthan through the period of Islamic rule in India.
Sadozai was born in Kabul and now lives in Cologne, Germany, where he is the head of the Academy of Indian Music, founded by sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is one of the few artists who still play the robab, which he learnt under Ustad Muhammad Umar in Kabul. He was also a student of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, whose ancestors are supposed to have brought the robab from Afghanistan to India, and developed the Sarod from it. His knowledge of Hindustani music makes it only natural that he will lead this collaboration. Tawadros was born in Cairo and moved to Australia when he was three. He currently lives in Sydney. He is an ARIA (Australian Record Industry Association) award winner who has collaborated extensively with other musicians, from various genres, on many of his albums. Notably, with jazz musicians John Abercrombie, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. Khan, who was born in Jodhpur, lives in Mumbai currently. He belongs to the Sikhar Gharana, that has produced several stalwarts of Indian classical music. He was tutored in the sarangi by his uncle, noted sarangi player and vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan and is seen as a promising talent. He has played with several luminaries of Indian classical music such as tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Pandit Ajay Pohankar and gazal singer Pankaj Udhas.
Tonight Sadozai is wearing a colourful skull cap and, despite the heat, has a tan coloured shawl draped over a white and silver Pathani suit. He seems quiet, almost contemplative, but one gets the sense there is more happening beneath the calm exterior. He occasionally speaks to his assistant, a young woman in a mustard yellow kurta, and the tabla player who will be accompanying him in his solo set.
A little while later Tawadros enters the green room, wearing a purple errand boy cap. He seems relaxed. He doesn’t interact with Sadozai, but sits quietly after keeping his Oud on a chair. A Rajasthani folk musician enters. He is over six feet tall, with a large salt and pepper mustache, wearing a colourful turban. He is accompanied by a slightly built older man with spectacles and a white mustache. He introduces his companion to Sadozai in Hindi. His name is Sakaram and he crafts kamaychas and sarangis. Sadozai greets him politely in chaste Hindi. He then sits down, his hands clasped in his lap, eyes shut. The usually talkative Tawadros leaves the green room to roam around backstage by himself.
Sadozai’s assistant reenters the green room after leaving to fetch his wristwatch. She bends down to speak to him but his eyes remain shut. He seems to have dozed off. She smiles to the tabla player and takes the seat opposite him, waiting for him to wake up. She joins in a quiet conversation with the tabla player. The folk musicians speak among themselves in hushed voices.
The silence is interrupted by the arrival of Dilshad Khan and his entourage, a group of chatty young men. He is wearing a brown salwar suit and conversing animatedly with members of his party. The young sarangi maestro is introduced to Sakaram. He promptly discusses an order he has recently placed for sarangis and kamaychas. “Lekin Langa sarangi nahi, desi sarangi hai. (But it’s not a Langa sarangi, it’s an Indian—classical—sarangi),” he says. One of his companions removes Khan’s sarangi from its case and plays a bit. It produces a rich, mellow sound. He hands it over to Khan who invites Sakaram to inspect it.
Sadozai removes his robab. It has intricate Afghani inlaid work along its neck, possibly in mother of pearl. The white floral patterns stand out in contrast to the dark brown of the robab’s neck. Sakaram looks on appreciatively. Sadozai leaves to get on stage. The conversation continues.
Meanwhile Tawadros has returned. He picks up his oud which he allows Sakaram to inspect before strumming it quietly. Khan plays a few snatches on the sarangi as Tawadros listens and tunes his instrument. He looks up once or twice to quietly smile at me from across the room.
Sadozai’s set has begun. A volunteer enters to ask us to keep things quiet. Khan apologizes and takes the sarangi from his companion who is playing it absent-mindedly.
After a few minutes Khan begins playing it himself. Sakaram continues to inspect the oud as Tawadros plays. The music, talk and laughter in the green room get steadily louder. Sadozai is about mid-way through his solo set.
Khan is now just outside the green room and talking to his companions. A volunteer scolds him again about talking too loudly. He apologizes profusely. And then turns to his companions, and grins like a mischievous school boy.
Soon they will all be up on stage playing sets they have barely rehearsed together. Up there they are unrecognizable. Transformed by the charisma of the stage and setting, music they are playing and the audience’s awe and reverence. The coming together of masters of instruments that come from very different parts of the world and yet seem to have a common beginning somewhere in the history of music is a gratifying idea. We hear strains of very different ethos of music and yet their unlikely blend is exhilarating. The men with instruments I met backstage are magicians now and they are being treated so. The audience refuses to let them go after their final set is done. This puts them in a tight spot— one in which they have to improvise an entire composition; build it from scratch. As they fidget with their instruments on the stage, glancing uncertainly at each other, for a moment I glimpse the men I met backstage again. But then they start playing and very soon they are having a conversation with each other. A strong, powerful and mesmerizing conversation unlike the mundane chatter behind the scenes. Their eyes light up most in this last set. It is one thing to be treated as magicians, quite another to know you truly have made magic.
(Image: Daud Khan Sadozai performs on stage at Riff. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff.)
The rigour of rehearsing for hours at a stretch seems to have caught up with 50 year old Bhanwari Devi on the afternoon of October 20. The renowned Rajasthani folk singer is due to be on stage with the Gypsy Allstars for one of the most anticipated acts of Jodhpur Riff 2013 this evening. Her sound-check for the act is on soon. But she’s running a fever. She’s lying on a couch in a room at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, where her performance will take place. On a table next to her is a plate with slices of apple and a paper cup full of black tea. “What does she want,” asks Hedda Leonardi, manager of the Gypsy Allstars, when Bhanwari asks for some salt to add to the pieces of apple in Hindi. Leonardi seems a little nervous. The Gypsy Allstars have been rehearsing with Bhanwari for a few days now. She is an important part of the show they have planned. But Bhanwari’s face, famously veiled when she sings, is the epitome of calm as she waits for her sound-check. She has collaborated with many celebrated musicians before this, among them singer Rekha Bhardwaj and Sona Mohapatra for Jodhpur Riff, and Hard Kaur for Coke Studio, and performed at festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival. She seems confident of being able to deliver.
Seven hours later she is backstage with her 26 year old son Krishan Bhopa, laughing with a group of Manganiyar musicians who have their act before hers. They are a group of about 20 in all, a mix of young and old. They are seated around the green room in groups of four or five. Some of them are tuning or practicing pieces of music on their instruments. Bhanwari is the only female musician in the room. Her veil has been pulled back from her face, covering only her head now. In two hours, when she goes on stage, it will be back on again. Manganiyars who enter the room greet her with a Namaste. A few touch her feet.
Krishan pulls out a photo album from his bag. The pages are made of textured hand-made paper on which photographs have been stuck on with glue. The first photograph is one of a smiling Bhanwari, her head covered. She’s looking off camera. There are many snapshots of Bhanwari performing at various music festivals. Also, there are candid moments from their travels. A widow for over a decade, Bhanwari, has had nine children. Of her three daughters, one passed away when she was young. Two others are married. Of her six sons, four are too young to work and are either studying, or helping in farming the land she has back at her village. Two of them Krishan, a farmer, and Inder, a driver, work full time. They are also the only two children to have pursued music as a career alongside their other professions. They play the dholak as well as the harmonium. They accompany her when she tours to perform.
There are photographs of other musicians in the album too. One is a close up of a girl, wearing dark lipstick and heavy make-up, and singing into a mike. Her head is covered by a portion of her red sari, that has a golden border. One of the older Manganiyar points towards a lanky, bespectacled young man in his group and bursts out laughing. Bhanwari peers over his shoulder at the boy and begins to giggle. “That’s him in the photo, when he was a child,” she says. “He was dressed like a girl when he was singing.” He was 12 when the picture was taken. Now he’s 20. He takes the album and starts leafing through it with a group of other Manganiyars in another corner.
Also in the album are a few images that aren’t stuck, which lie loosely between the pages. There is one of Bhanwari and Inder bending over and touching a wave as it washes over their feet. Both of them are looking up into the camera and grinning. “Juhu Chowpatty (a beach in Mumbai),” she says. “That was the first time I saw the sea.”
There is another photo, at the beach, of Krishan alone. He is wearing a shirt and trousers and sunglasses. His hands are on his hips and he’s looking into the distance. I tell Bhanwari he looks like a hero from a Bollywood film. She throws her head back and laughs the loudest I have heard her laugh so far. Bhopa smiles sheepishly.
Soon enough she is called to perform. With the veil now pulled over her face, obfuscating the smile, she quietly walks on to the stage. Her seemingly disembodied voice takes over the entire performance. The audience tunes out of everything else. The strength of her song is awe-inspiring and formidable. Only, I can still hear the echo of the laughter backstage.
(Image: Bhanwari Devi and Krishan Bhopa at her rehearsal with the Gypsy Allstars. Jodhpur RIFF/ Oijo)
The people who make up the instrumental music group Spiro got together in 1993, in Bristol, UK. They released an album called Lost in Fishponds under the name The Famous Five in 1994. As Spiro, they’ve released 3 albums, the latest being Kaleidophonica. They don’t want their music to be put in a box, but here’s how the group’s guitarist Jon Hunt defines it: “Weʼve got as much to do with minimalist classical and dance music as we have with folk. Even though we use folk tunes, theyʼre raw materials that the rest of the sound is built around.” We’re seated with the group at the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, where they’ve come to play at Jodhpur Riff. The interview takes place over endless cups of hot sweet milky Rajasthani tea, infused with lots of cardamom, which Jon, at least, seems to relish. Two remarkable facts about the group are that their line-up has remained unchanged over the years (Jane Harbour on the violin or viola, Alex Vann on the mandolin, Jason Sparkes on the accordion and Jon Hunt on the acoustic guitar or cello) and that their albums are recorded as if they are playing live, with no over-dubs or multi-tracking.
You have described yourselves as “watch-makers who have made an intricate machine”. Tell us a little about how that machine is built. For instance, you build some of your music around folk tunes. But how do you decide which folk tunes to use? What is your ‘process’ when it comes to composing music for Spiro?
Jon: I’m the one who puts the tunes in. But really the tunes aren’t integral and the tunes are one element that gets thrown into a pot. In fact there aren’t always traditional tunes there. Quite a lot of the pieces don’t have any traditional tunes.
Jane: The tunes give a kind of backbone to it, a kind of linear structure if you’ve got a long melody. But sometimes we write our own tunes. But really we love riffs and kind of putting riffs with riffs and building it that way.
But when you do go with folk tunes, how do you pick them?
Jon: I just love traditional English tunes. I’m the one who really like the tunes. I research them and find the tunes and put them in the pot. And things go around. Or sometimes they reject them. Sometimes things just go in, and then they go out again.
Your compositions don’t have solos. You have said you prefer to ‘share out’ the riff among yourselves. Was there a conscious decision to avoid solos? Why?
Alex: I think there was. We all felt the urge to make the band fully composed, so all the notes are written. And there’s a conscious decision to not be show-boating talent, to not be what we can individually do on our instruments. It’s about what we can do together. So a single part might be very, very simple or make no sense on its own and it’s only with the other parts… The whole is much greater than the part.
Jane: The thing is the whole doesn’t work if it has one part that sticks out.
Jon: That’s why it’s like a watch. If there’s one part missing from the watch it doesn’t work.
Jane: If there’s one part louder than the rest then it breaks up the unity of it, the unity of the art. Like if there’s a front person then other pieces become a backing to a front person. Whereas if you get jostling parts and weird, freaky effects, like… you get one note there, and one here and you don’t quite know what you’re hearing, it works. What makes it work is that each person is the same volume and playing equally strong parts.
Alex: There’s an equality of instruments. Even with the melody lines, even if they’re traditional, they’re not right on top, they’re in with the other parts.
Jane: And the parts are like characters or people. It becomes not about us as musicians but about the musical parts and the story, with each of them being like characters. So at some point we may double up on a riff or triple up on a riff or bring a riff in and out and you’ll feel two riffs meeting at the end that were never together at the beginning, or ones that were breaking up, or dying.
A lot of your pieces have a recurring pattern and then they take these sudden surprising turns. How do you build a unity which enables you to take these sharp turns in synchrony?
Jane: It takes a lot of honing and practices, trying out different orders till an arrangement, or order that tells the most human story to us happens. Where we juxtapose the various parts that has an emotional effect on us. Oh yes. You heard that rhythm in the beginning and now it’s back in that particular point with that other riff and it makes total sense. So, just by experimenting with it.
Your group members all seem to have different influences in music, ranging from folk and classical to some punk as well. Has balancing these out ever proved to be a challenge? Has there ever been an instance where you’ve had to work around competing influences?
Alex: I think the influences are a part of us and a part of our past. I played in a punk band and so did Jon. And it’s not like we’re thinking: ‘Oh we want to make sure we have this punky bit.’ It’s just a part of your musical history. And I think some of that punk energy is there in this band. The influences are there but we don’t consciously try and bring them in.
Jane: And we don’t want to make fusion— where you get this kind of music plus that kind of music, and they’re kind of identifiable parts. We want to make a music that’s… whatever comes out. And whatever comes out is a melting pot of who we are musically and what our musical experiences have been. Hopefully it’s not identifiable, like a punk-folk mix. It’s all mushed up in our brains and it comes out as something that is a new take on it.
Has there been an instance where these influences have clashed or not meshed together and you’ve had to compromise?
Jon: We have what we call the pot of ideas and if someone comes up with a jerky punky riff and someone else has come up with something more classical and the two don’t work then they don’t end up together.
Alex: Those things will quickly die if they’re not feeling good or wholesome. So it never gets to a crisis.
Jane: I like how we look to put together things that a little edgy. So we look for things that go together in a difficult way, but a beautifully difficult way. So if things go together too well it’s out. It’s got to be uncomfortable and strange but beautiful.
Jon: Because life is uncomfortable. Art should mirror life. That speaks to people. Because life is never easy, then music shouldn’t be either.
You had mentioned in an interview that you’re also influenced by modern dance music as well as folk. Do you feel there could be a common ground between these two?
Jane: It’s kind of like the popular music of now whereas folk was the popular music of then. They’re both dance musics. Folk music is dance music but just on acoustic instruments— that’s repetitive and cyclical, just going round and round the tune.
Alex: And also some of the rhythms that occur in traditional tunes, the rhythmic patterns, are quite dancey in a way. Specially some of the Northern English tunes that we use.
You’ve been compared to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Steve Reich and other minimalist musicians. Do you agree? Do you feel that your work falls within the ambit of this larger genre?
Alex: Penguin Cafe was an influence on a lot of our work. And we absolutely think we relate to what Steve Reich does. I don’t think it falls under any larger genre…
Jane: We want to start our own genre. We thought about calling it Kaleidophonica.
You recorded Kaleidophonica live in the studio without overdubs. Why did you decide to do it this way? Have you used the same process for recording your other albums?
Jon: We’ve only recorded like that.
Jane: Because it reflects what we do live and because we ‘write’ music for live. That’s what the whole band is about. To create that live… to create all these amazing effects as four instruments, get the most out of these four instruments. It makes us write in interesting ways, the fact that it has to be live.
Alex: If you put restrictions on art you can reach greater heights of creativity. We’re going to do it on these four instruments and we’re going to do it live. If we’ve got a bit that needs something else, then we’ll probably just scrap it and try something else.
Jon: There is a technical reason as well. A lot of the interplay that makes that magical effect actually happens in the air at the time the instruments are physically sounding. The resonance actually happens between them in the air. And if you recorded them separately you wouldn’t get that magic. Another thing is that it’s a performance of ‘the band’. It’s not just about individual performance.
Alex: You’re speeding up and sliding down together, putting crescendos together, you’re working live as it’s being recorded.
You’ve also said some of you play “more than one part at the same time” at times. You’ve said: “We try to play two lines on one instrument.” How do you tailor your compositions to your line-up?
Jane: Not always. If you want things to happen musically and there aren’t enough instruments then that’s what we’ll do. We think: ‘Oh! It’ll be great to have that riff as well, but everyone’s busy, so who can play it?’ So we’ll weave it into an existing part. It’s usually Jase (Jason Sparkes), the accordion player.
Jon: He’s got two sides to the accordion so he plays two parts. But Alex also plays 2 parts.
Jane: We all do. But Jase gets the brunt of it.
Jon: I get the easiest parts because I’m the bass.
You’ve done some work in other media— theatre, TV etc. How is it different from your work with the band?
Alex: I’ve done some theatre and music is compromised there as it has to support action. So that’s why I love just being in the band. It means you can do complex, demanding music.
(Image: Spiro on the ramparts of the Mehrangarh Fort. By Shantenu Tilwankar/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)
At around 4:30 a.m. on the 18th of October, while it’s still dark, Chetan, Mala, Damora, Ballu and Manwar Ram ease in the first dawn of Jodhpur Riff with the Harijas— a style of Rajasthani Lok Bhajan (or popular devotional songs) that tells religious stories in a sequential manner. They are seated on a wooden platform on a terrace right next to Jaswant Thada (a white marble memorial built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, an erstwhile ruler of Jodhpur), with a stunning view of the city of Jodhpur. The city’s Umaid Bhawan Palace can be seen in the distance.
The four musicians, ages ranging from 32 to 45, are from different villages within the Jaisalmer District. They belong to a community known as the Meghwals of Marwar. Here, they play the dholak, the jhanjh (which resembles cymbals) and the tandura (a string instrument with a distinctive sound).
And they sing. In the beginning, while the moon still shines bright, there is a devotional song about the moon. How its reflection seems shaky and how, yet, when we watch it in the sky it is steadily there. An analogy is drawn to the way one may perceive life.
The next song is one by the bhakti poet-saint Kabir, sung by Ballu Ram. Some members of the audience clap to keep rhythm with the music. Some sway. Others simply sit or lie still. “Kabir is surprised,” say the lyrics. “How can a fish in water be thirsty.” The Meghwals are Dalits, a word used to denote a group of people who were once regarded untouchable (Jyotirao Phule is said to have first used the word in the 19th century— in Sanskrit it means ‘crushed’ or ‘broken to pieces’). Another popular saint of the community is Ramdevji, believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu, also a saint of the poor and oppressed, whom many of their songs are weaved around.
Like Kabir, who did not entirely renounce the material world, Ramdevji was a Rajput ruler who is believed to have possessed the power to work miracles. Stories of him are endless. “Ramdevji’s father’s name was Ajmal,” says Chetan Ram. “He went to Dwarka. At first he didn’t have a son. He asked the Almighty: What should I do? God said: Don’t worry, I’ll be born in your house as a small you and I’ll be called ‘Chhota (small) Ramdev’.”
Though traditionally treated as outcasts by the Hindus, the Meghwals, ironically, have played a significant role in certain religious rituals. And they continue to do so. For instance, the custom is that if a person asks something of God, and it is granted, then he or she organizes a jagran (an all-night gathering for devotional songs). Meghwal singers, or ‘rikhiyes’, as they are known here, are a must for such a gathering. So, in a strange way, music plays the role of the great leveler. Songs of the very gods they have been forbidden from worshipping bring them back into the folds of a community that wouldn’t otherwise have accepted them.
But the audience on the terrace is probably unaware of all of this. They sway and clap to the music because they take it at face value, for what it is. This is the first time, since 2007, that the Meghwals are singing at a ‘dawn devotional’ concert at Riff. Last year they performed as part of the ‘dusk devotional’ concert. Mala Ram goes on to sing a song by Sadaram Sahib (a saint from Jaisalmer), with a swinging, almost hypnotic, beat. The sun rises. They end the session with songs by the saint-poet Mirabai.
(Image(s): The Meghwal from Marwar at the ‘Dawn Devotional’ concert. By Rajesh Prabhakar/Shantenu Tilwankar | Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)
Georges and Mario Reyes are late for their rehearsal. Far from being put out, their drummer, Cedric Leonardi, throws his hands up in greeting: “Bienvenue! Nous avons un petit theatre personnel! (Welcome! We have our own little personal theatre!)”
The Gypsy Allstars are about to rehearse with a trio of Rajasthani artists. The artists—Bhanwari Devi (vocals), her son, Krishan Bhopa (on the harmonium) and Pappa Khan (on the dholak)—are seated in the front row of seats at the Ali Akbar Theatre in the Umaid Bhawan Palace— the house of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and the hotel where the Gypsy Allstars are staying. Hedda, the band’s manager and Leonardi’s wife, is seated right next to Bhanwari Devi. They’re listening to the band’s tracks on Leonardi’s MacBook to decide on what to play for their performance at Jodhpur Riff. Hedda wonders whether they should have Bhanwari Devi sing the Gayatri Mantra. Bhanwari Devi seems focused, yet reticent. Right now they’re listening to the Gypsy Allstars song ‘Toca’.
The band has spent the mornings of the past two days listening to various folk artists at the Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhavan, where the folk artists are putting up, to figure who they might be able to collaborate with. Apart from Bhanwari Devi, Bhopa and Khan, they have yet another group of artists whom they will be rehearsing with soon.
They’ve kept the number of instruments to a minimum. There are two guitars, a harmonium and a dholak. On stage, Mario and Khan begin. Mario starts to strum while tapping the body of his guitar to set up a rhythm which Khan quickly matches with his dholak. Meanwhile, Georges sits in one of the audience seats, strumming quietly on his guitar. Once the beat is set, he gets on stage as well. Now Mario joins Georges in an enthusiastic flamenco riff.
Bhanwari Devi and Bhopa come in at the end. They are singing a folk song. They hope to find some common ground with the notes of ‘Toca’ and the raag it is based on, the Raag Kirwani. As she sits on the stage floor, Bhanwari Devi draws up her veil to sing. She is wearing a yellow ghagra-choli (skirt and blouse). She is still unsure of her aalap and is finding it difficult to sing in the same key in which the Gypsy Allstars are playing at the moment. After several false starts, Mario finally demonstrates three different keys to her as options. She can pick the one she is most comfortable in. There is a quick exchange as the volunteer attempts to translate Mario’s French to Hindi and Bhopa’s Hindi back to the band.
Bhopa, compared to Bhanwari Devi, is more outgoing. He discusses the changes in key with Mario and Leonardi, via the translator. Occasionally, he helps Bhanwari Devi with her aalap, or simply reassures her. He smiles most of the time and nods his head confidently when Leonardi suggests changes or improvisations.
An hour and a half later, they seem to be in sync. Now the Reyes brothers begin the song anew with some energetic strumming and peppy vocals. They are joined by Khan’s dholak and by Leonardi, thumping a beat on the hard shell of a guitar case. Bhopa’s restrained harmonium enters the mix here and Leonardi gestures at Bhanwari Devi. A voice rises through the auditorium, plaintive yet powerful. Leonardi lifts his hands joyfully in the air; Bhopa, Khan and the Reyes brothers smile broadly. Hedda clasps Bhanwari Devi’s hand.
(Image: Cedric Leonardi jams with Rajasthani musicians, by Shantenu Tilwankar/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)