Meryl Mary Sebastian

“The pressure that makes diamonds.” —Impressions, Joseph Tawadros

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Joseph Tawadros, 30, is an oud player of Egyptian origin who has lived in Australia since he was three. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Music from the University of New South Wales. In 2012, he won an ARIA for the Best World Music Album for the album ‘Concerto of The Greater Sea’. On his latest album, ‘The Hour of Separation’, he collaborated with legendary jazz musicians John Abercrombie, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette.

This is his third year at Jodhpur Riff. This year, he played with Daud Khan Sadozai (robab) and Dilshad Khan (sarangi). As we speak, Tawadros is also being roped in to perform at the ‘Riff Rustle’—an impromptu collaboration between a variety of foreign and Rajasthani musicians towards the end of the festival—by Cedric Leonardi of the Gypsy All Stars.

 

want to ask you about your collaboration with Daud Khan Sadozai and Dilshad Khan. Had you met the other performers before?

The collaboration was centered around the Afghani Robab master Daud Khan (Sadozai). I actually met him at the airport in Delhi. So that was the first time I ever met him, by chance. But, musically it was just at the festival, for two days. And we sat together and we had to get something done. Divya (Bhatia, the Festival Director) has ideas of bringing people together, and what will work and I think it worked. It was great. We had a good time. The crowd was enthusiastic and I think that’s a good sign that it did work.

 

I spoke to Dilshad Khan (one of the collaborators) on the morning of your performance and he wasn’t sure he was playing in the evening.

Yeah, you know, everyone is so busy so it’s very hard to align our rehearsals. So Dilshad really just came on in the last minute. But with music most of it is improvisation and I think it wouldn’t work if people involved weren’t improvisers. The Rajasthani musicians, for instance, are such great improvisers that you can put them in any sort of context. It’s about people adapting to each other. I think that’s a great thing about the festival. You bring people together that can work together and that’s what happens consistently every year, which is great news.

 

What do you do when this happens? When you are joined by a performer in the last minute, you’re doing it on the spot and it’s a collaboration. What are the things you keep in mind, some things that you should or should not do?

For me, personally, I think it’s just listening, and I’m happy to follow. I think if everyone tries and wants to lead then it’s a problem. I’m happy to follow and try and keep some stability. Because I think it’s very hard. I think the catch is that there’s no real person leading it and saying, “Oh it’s your turn, it’s your turn.” So I just like to keep it as stable as I can. That’s basically my job, to follow, and I’m happy to follow. I get moments of soloing of course but you have to look at the greater good rather than your ego. It’s more important as a project, and what we’re trying to say, rather than someone shining. It’s the only way a collaboration works— if everyone works together.

 

Was it easier because of the specific theme of your collaboration? The music being from a similar space?

No, I think everybody on stage is a motile improviser. That said, we didn’t have a Jazz player who was playing a blues scale. Pretty much we come from cultures that share very similar music traditions. So it’s not like we had a Chinese musician on stage, you know what I mean? One playing a pentatonic scale and the other playing kirwani. No. We’re all playing the same scale and just listening to what everyone else is doing. But the musicians themselves were having fun. When musicians on stage yell praise to each other, it’s an enjoyable thing, rather than competition, which can happen too. But in this context, I think Divya picked the right people. I’m happy to be part of the stabilizing system of my collaboration. I’m part of the rhythm section. The rhythm section is very important in such things because if you’re not holding the rhythm then things fall apart.

 

In your collaborations outside of Jodhpur Riff, are you used to leading more?

I lead my own groups. That’s what I do. In fact I lead… in a way I lead some of it by looking at people and giving them solos and things like that. I talked about the structure… that is mine. Though I can’t take credit for it. Everyone has a role to play in a group otherwise too many cooks spoil the broth.

 

What did you talk about with Dilshad and Daud Khan Sadozai?

Just about what would be suitable. First of all, the tuning. I had to tune my oud down to be suitable to their instruments. It worked, because it gave my oud a different tonal quality, which is another thing. I’m happy with that. Very inspiring. We all inspired each other I think. The audience was getting right into it.

 

What’s been your takeaway from performing here over the last three years?

Well I think in (Jodhpur) Riff you are forced to play with other people, often forced to play with other people you’ve never met until an hour or two before going on stage. Sometimes— half an hour. It’s that sort of pressure that you have to put up with. You have to shine. It’s kind of like the pressure that makes diamonds. There is some magic and moments in the organized chaos. But it’s not really chaos. As I said, you’re getting musicians together that are used to that sort of thing. So it’s not a big deal. If you got a classical musician who has never improvised in his life with Rajasthani musicians an hour before then maybe you have a problem. But you know, you have an Egyptian, an Afghani and some Indians, you can’t go wrong… You can’t go wrong on that combo (laughs).

Also, every year, for the last three years, I have collaborated here with some Rajasthani musicians. So I’m getting used to it. I’m starting to get more accustomed to the sound. I’ve always been a fan of Indian music and Indian ragas. Also, being in an area, an environment, where the air is constantly filled with the music— it’s easier to adapt and pick up the nuances.

 

Is there any particular performance this year that struck you?

I’m not singling out anyone. There are always some magic moments. That’s a great thing. And it’s always nice to perform for his Highness (Gaj Singh II, the Maharaja of Jodhpur) as well. I would make a joke every time with him, off the stage. Yesterday he came up to me and I made a joke. I said, “Look I’ve played here three times. I should get a room.” He came up to me afterward and said, “You have a room to the stage,” which is quite a great respect. And every time I have played he has come up and shook my hand. It’s nice sharing that bond with such a nice guy.

 

Was there any other musical insight or realization from performing at the festival, from watching other performances, in terms of collaborating or just in terms of your own music?

For me personally every day is like that. I could be in the street and… I think Rajasthan in general, not just the festival but the environment itself, people on the street, the way people interact with each other— is inspiring. The way people live life here. Anything can spark a thought or idea and some inspiration. That’s the beautiful thing about being in this environment. Not just the festival, though the festival is a promotion of the city. So the great news is we get to spend time in the city. The festival is enhanced by the people and the people, hopefully, get something out of the festival. It works both ways.

 

(Image: Joseph Tawadros. By Kavi Bhansali / JodhpurRiff. )

Strings That Bind – An Interview with Dilshad Khan and Imran Khan

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Imran and Dilshad Khan are nephews of the late sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan. Accomplished, acclaimed, the cousins belong to the Sikar Gharana, from which many stalwart Indian classical musicians hail from. Imran who plays the sitar, has been trained by his grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan and his father Ustad Niyaz Ahmed Khan. Dilshad plays the sarangi, following in the footsteps his famous uncle.

Their performance was one of the ‘dawn concerts’—which usher in the morning against the sun rising over the city of Jodhpur—at Jodhpur Riff this year, on October 19. They were accompanied by Praveen Arya on the pakhawaj. After the concert, as the audience dispersed, Imran and Dilshad Khan gave us this interview while still sitting on stage. At some point, Dilshad has to leave and Imran answers the rest of the questions alone.

 

Have you been to Jodhpur Riff before?

Dilshad: This is my first time.

Imran: I performed here with my uncle, Ustad Sultan Khan ji, in 2009. The collaboration of Ustad Lakha Khan ji on the sarangi and Anwar Khan ji on vocals— I was a part of that. I also performed at the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s literature festival (the Jaipur Literature Festival) in Amer.

 

What are some key things you keep in mind while collaborating with artists and with each other?

Imran: Our collaboration is unique— we have been together from childhood.

Dilshad: Because what we play is a part of classical music, we put a lot of thought into it. We also try and gauge how the audience is responding.

Imran: Dilshad bhai and I, we are of the same age nearly— we have an age difference of two months. We grew up together. We had talim (lessons in music) together, taught by our grandfather (Ustad Gulab Khan), and my uncle (Ustad Sultan Khan). So, between us, there was blood relation, family relation, music relation… Yet this is not a normal Indian classical collaboration because we included the instrument pakhawaj in this. And the way we played was little hatke from the classical style. We used Dhrupad also in our vocals. Because when Divya ji (Divya Bhatia, Festival Director of Jodhpur Riff) and I were talking about this, he said, “We do have classical music. The same people come to perform, they do the alap, play the vilambit and the drut and then finish it off. You do something new.” So that’s what we did.

 

What did you do differently?

Imran: Like I said, normally, in Indian classical performances nowadays, everything is accompanied by the tabla— but here we used the pakhawaj. There was no tabla. So that was unique.

Dilshad: Traditionally, the pakhawaj was played with Dhrupad and Dhamar. They didn’t have the tabla then, it was the pakhawaj, gayaki and saaz that were used as accompaniment.

Imran: Chhand banake jodan dikhaya (we created chhand, a rhythmic motif) with 4 counts, 8 counts, 10 counts… This idea already exists but it is not prevalent in present times. It is used by those singing in Dhrupad and Dhamar.

Dilshad: It’s an old shaili (style).

Imran: We were inspired by it. We had an idea of it in our minds and we rehearsed for a night. Baaki toh sab upar wala hi bajwa raha tha (as for the rest, it is the one above, God, who’s making us play like this).

 

How much do you rehearse when about to present a new collaboration?

Imran: We do riyaaz (practice our music) every day. For this performance, we rehearsed only for, maybe, one hour yesterday. We went through it, went through the ideas we had in mind. Dilshad bhai and I had been talking about it for a few days, how to go about it…

 

Is there any musical realization that has come about from watching the other artists and performances at Jodhpur Riff, anybody you have learnt something new from? Any performance which struck you in particular?

Imran: The good thing here (at Jodhpur Riff) is that Divya ji is someone who understands music. He has a good understanding of the artist, how they should perform, what kind of music it should be. He tries to deliver something new each time. It’s a good thing that the festival’s popularity is growing. We get to learn from all kinds of music. Whoever it is— an artist bigger than us or smaller than us. If you keep yourself open to learning, you learn. The night Manu Chao was performing, everyone was dancing. He was singing very well in Spanish. I didn’t understand what he was singing, but his style was so different.

Dilshad: The pattern of his song, his style of singing, we liked that a lot.

Imran: I liked his guitar player a lot. Like this bol we have in the sitar dhad-dhid-dhid-dhad-dhid-dhid-dhada-dhid-dhid… He was using the same thing, with the plectrum. He was using his right hand so well. That is there in Indian classical music as well but the way he did it was remarkable. That was very unique and I liked that a lot.

Dilshad: There are so many more. Rizwan Muazzam are singing tonight. And there is Daud Khan (Sadozai) ji  whom I’ve heard a lot about. I’m playing with him tonight.

 

Do you know what you will be playing?

Dilshad: No I don’t know yet. Divya ji will be telling us what to do.

 

So you’ll discuss it and rehearse at the sound check?

Dilshad: Yes. At the sound check we will have to decide a little about what to play, when to play, how to go about it.

 

What are some key pointers that help you when a collaboration is at short notice and you have to play with artists you haven’t met before?

Dilshad: I think there are just a few things to keep in mind. For instance, where to play (in the middle of the performance)— if someone is singing then how much you should play or sing along with their singing. It also depends on what rang (mood) they are singing in. Like Imran bhai said, you never stop learning. If I’m playing with Daud Khan ji, with the robab or with the oud, it’ll be new for me. So when we play we think about what space we can make for ourselves there. Also, to do it in way that you have fun and so does the audience…

 

Have you listened to the music of Daud Khan Sadozai and Joseph Tawadros, with whom you will be performing tonight?

Dilshad: No, I haven’t. We’ll see if a rehearsal happens. If not then, we’ll just meet at the sound check.

 

You have performed at several festivals. Is there anything about this performance at Jodhpur Riff that has stood out for you?

Imran: We are performing at a heritage property, where we get to spend time and perform at the Mehrangarh Fort. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. Most festivals happen on some ground or in an auditorium.

Dilshad: Also, it’s a dawn concert (that they’ve just performed in). This was Divya ji and Imran bhai’s idea, performing when the moon is setting and the sun is beginning to rise. There was a time when, our guru, our father, used to wake us up in the morning for riyaaz, from four in the morning till 10 o’clock. That time also used to be called a time of ibaadat (worship). There are raags of the morning—ibadat bhare raag (raags full of the idea of worship). So it felt good to get an opportunity perform at this time of the day. It doesn’t happen at other festivals, where you perform mostly either in the evening or in the night. I have performed at Jazz festivals, and with Nitin Sawhney at the Royal Albert Hall.

Imran: Even if there are morning concerts, they are usually at eight or nine in the morning. So performing here was different for us.

 

At this point in the interview Dilshad has to leave.

 

In your opinion, what has been the legacy of your uncle, Ustad Sultan Khan?

Imran: The legacy is his music. Our family has been in music for generations. Our great great grandfather Azim Khan sahab was a musician at the court of the Maharaja of Sikar. Our grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan sahab was a vocalist and sarangi player. What we have we have learnt from them is also their legacy that has continued through all of us.

 

But in music, what would you describe as your uncle’s most important contributions?

Imran: All that he did with music was important. Apart from us, the whole world was inspired by him. The style in which he played the sarangi, the gayaki, few others have played the way he has played. And then he did that east-west fusion with George Harrison, toured with Pandit Ravi Shankar. He played on an album for Madonna, with Duran Duran. He was in the progressive electronic band with Bill Laswell and Ustad Zakir Hussain—Tabla Beat Science. He was so open hearted. He played the sarangi In Umrao Jaan and kept playing… even playing in Jab We Met. He would also sing— his voice had a different texture. He even composed a raag. He was very creative. His confidence and the kind of output he had was incredible.

 

Can you tell us about the raag  that he composed?

Imran: He believed that the existing raags had been there for a long time and they sounded fresh event today. But he did create a raag called Ras Mohini.

 

What was it about his style of playing the sarangi that was so unique?

Imran: It is difficult to explain. It’s apparent when you listen to his music and compare it with other sarangi players. His sarangi was influenced a lot by the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan. Our grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan sahab took Sultan Khan Sahab to him to make him his shagird (pupil). But he (Ustad Amir Khan) said: “He is like my own kid.” Because his nanihaal (maternal home) and my grandmother’s nanihaal were from the same village. “Why should I gandabandh (a traditional ceremony where the guru ties a string on the wrist of the student agreeing to teach him or her) him? You teach him. I will also do so once in a while.” So officially there wasn’t a gandabandh, but he was very inspired by Ustad Amir Khan, the way he played and his gayaki.

He went on to experiment later. He never thought about what people would say if he experimented or didn’t stay on one path. He wasn’t scared by this. That is how he left behind such a variety of music. Not many Indian classical artists have been able to do that. Classical, film music, electronic, fusion… He didn’t discriminate between any form of music. He saw all music as equal and taught us the same talim.

 

You had played with him as well?

Imran: Yes, several times. There was a time when we did 22 concerts in 13 days for SPIC-MACAY in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. I was very fortunate to be able to play with him then. There were also several other times where I played with him.

 

What did you learn from playing with him?

Imran: Whatever I am today has been because of him. He taught me how to present music, what note should come after which to bring about a rachaav (create a piece of music ) and what is the importance of that. If I was finding something difficult he knew what kind of practice I needed to ease that. So in a short time he would teach a person a lot. From Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur and Ustad Amir Khan Sahab to the music director Pritam to musicians like me— he had played with all kind of musicians. He had a long and fulfilling journey in music. He learnt from observing himself as well. We would have discussions on music all night. He didn’t sleep much. In the house, we both shared the same room. So we would talk all night, sometimes even doing riyaaz in the night. I was lucky to be born in this family, to be able to learn and play with such great musicians.

 

What did you learn from your father and grandfather?

Imran: I learnt the intricacies of the sitar from my father. I was very young, six or seven years old then. I couldn’t even hold up the sitar. My grandfather trained me in vocals. So early morning he would start with the sargam and teach me (Raag ) Bhairav.

 

Do you think that the place that the sarangi and sitar hold in Indian classical music will remain intact in the years to come?

Imran: Yes, definitely. It has been so for thousands of years and will continue to remain the same for years to come. The sitar and sarangi continue to be played and there are many great sitar and sarangi players amongst us today. Sultan Khan sahab played a great role in the sarangi being played solo. And that was a big contribution. If you see today, there are various bands that use the sarangi. It is being used with electronic music. It is being played alongside western artists. And this is all because of Sultan Khan sahab, because I don’t think there was any other sarangi player before him who played so much in the west. He opened doors for other people. They realized that the sarangi would go along with a variety of music and musical instruments. What Pandit Ravishankar did for the sitar, making it popular, that is what Khan sahab did for the sarangi. So I feel that the future of the sarangi is secure. There is no need to worry about it.

 

Dilshad ji and you started training in music together.

Imran: Yes, we are of the same age. We started learning music together. His father, Ustad Nasir Khan sahab played the sitar. He would come to the house and learn from our grandfather and my father. And when (Sultan Khan) sahab came to Jodhpur, we would learn from him as well. He lived in Mumbai then. We also later shifted to Mumbai.

 

How did he choose to play the sarangi and you the sitar?

Imran: Well in the gharana (a school of music), it is usually your elders, your father or grandfather who tells you what to play. “Why don’t you try this?” they say. My father wanted me to learn the sitar, so I started training in it. We were very young and you respect your elders and listen to them, especially in classical music. It was a privilege that we had them guiding us.

 

What are your dreams for yourself as a musician? Is there anything in particular that you seek to achieve in your music?

Imran: Apart from playing the sitar, I compose music as well. I have also released an album called Khwaja Sahib which has Rekha Bhardwaj, Parthiv (Gohil) ji, Krishna Beura and others. I arrange for my own programmes as well. My dream is that I follow in the footsteps of Khan sahab and other elders in my family. I hope that I make name for myself. Or at least hear people say: “Oh he is from this family, and he is doing as well as his father or grandfather.” Any artist wants to do well and earn respect and have their music appreciated by people. That is my dream as well.

 

Is the next generation in your family also continuing to learn music?

Imran: Yes, they are. My younger brother Irfan plays the sitar. Dilshad’s elder brother, Salamat Ali bhai and his children—Salman plays the sitar and Shahrukh plays the sarangi. Shahrukh was featured recently on Coke Studio. So the next generation is also coming up.

 

Is it difficult to keep the tradition of music going forward in the family?

Imran: There is, of course, a lot of hardwork involved. It’s not like it was a diamond that was passed on from my grandfather to my father to (Sultan) Khan sahab to us. It’s music, karthav vidya : a knowledge that comes to you from doing. So a lot of hardwork goes into it. And there is also an expectation because we are from this family. People do pay attention to what we sing and how we play. So it is definitely not easy to meet the expectations. It will take time for us to play at the level that our elders did. So we try and work towards that. All the male members of our family are working in music.

 

Will you teach your children as well?

Imran: Yes. Though they will go to school as well. Education is important in today’s times. But I would want them to continue in the tradition that has been kept going for nine generations in our family. The rest is in the hands of God.

 

What is unique to the Sikar gharana?

Imran: The Sikar gharana came from Indore. We are from Sikar and there were a lot of musicians from Sikar who became well known such as Munir Khan sahab who played the sarangi, Sultan Khan sahab, my grandfather Gulab Khan sahab. There were a lot of a well known sarangi players from this gharana because of Rajasthan’s connection with the instrument. Classical music is the same anywhere. The raag, taal, sapaat, dhamak is there in every gharana. But the differences are in the intricacies. You will hear it in how we play music, the little difference in style.

 

Is there anything you play differently when you play the sitar?

Imran: Because I learnt from sarangi players, my grandfather and Khan sahab, I don’t play just in the style of the sitar. There are things from the sarangi also that I play on the sitar. I try to do different things and keep my style a little different. The raag and raagini  in classical music is the same. You can’t change that but in the style of playing you can bring in your own andaaz.

 

You have collaborated and played with a variety of musicians, especially Western musicians. What were important things that you learnt from them?

Imran: I learnt that our approach to music and their (the Western musicians’) approach to music is different. The swar is the same, but the language is different. Their thought and process is different and you learn from that. You try bring in your flavour into it and give something to them and also take something from them. It’s very helpful. It opens up your mind. You look at notes in a certain standard way, until you get there and learn to look at it differently.

 

When the approaches are different, how do you collaborate?

Imran: You have to listen to each other. They don’t have raag, so if I try to talk to them in terms of raag they won’t understand. But if I play one, they will recognise the notes. Because sa-re-ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa is the same everywhere. They look at the chord progression, say going from A minor to D and then to E. So there you have to forget about your raags a little. Sometimes you see that in a chord it is going from one raag  to another, so you go with the raag  while they remain on the chords. And then you see that it is fitting well, the raag and the chords. So that happens. In raags, the notes are fixed, the particular notes you use, and they come and go in a particular way. The order is fixed. And they (western musicians) don’t have that. So, if you have say, “Oh, why has it started from B plus and come to shuddh nishaad ?”— how do I do that? So you have to forget the raags a little and concentrate on the notes more.

 

Apart from the musicians in your family, who else has influenced your music?

Imran: I like the sitar playing of Ustad Vilayat Khan sahab, the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan sahab, the singing of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. I have listened to them a lot. In today’s times, there is Ustad Shahid Parvez sahab who plays the sitar very well. I listen to him a lot. My idols have been Ustad Sultan Khan sahab and Ustad Vilayat Khan sahab. I listen to anyone who plays good music whether it is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan sahab or Hariprasad Chaurasia.

 

Is there any musician who you would like to play with?

Imran: There isn’t anybody specific right now. I have been playing with everyone I can. I recently played with Pandit Birju Maharaj who danced the kathak and that was a good experience for me.

 

(Image: Imran (centre) and Dilshad Khan (left) perform at dawn. By Shantenu Tilwankar for JodhpurRiff / Oijo.)

Making Waves – Backstage with Maru Tarang

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‘Maru Tarang’, whose English name is ‘Ripples of the Desert’ (the name is also inspired, in part, by ‘Maru’ the heroine of the Rajasthani love saga ‘Dhola-Maru’; Tarang, on the other hand, means ‘waves’), is a collaboration that evolved out of a residency at Mehrangarh Fort in 2011 when musicians Jeff Lang (now 44), and Asin Khan Langa (now 26), first met. The group comprises Lang (on guitar), Asin (sarangi), Bobby Singh (tabla), 38, and Bhungar Khan Manganiyar (khartal), 28. Now, two years later, ten minutes before their performance at Jodhpur Riff, three members of the group are waiting backstage with another big group of Manganiyar musicians who will perform after them. Singh and Lang indulge in light banter. Next to them, Khan sits silently. Asin is nowhere to be seen.

Maru Tarang has only performed together “maybe once a year so far”, according to Lang, in the two years since they formed. But when they do get together they have a packed schedule. In the few days they’ve spent together at Jodhpur so far they have, in addition to rehearsals for their show, taken out time to make a record. “We snuck away into a studio in Jodhpur and recorded the repertoire we had worked out,” says Lang. “We haven’t been able to add too much to it in terms of material but the way the four of us react to one another’s music has definitely got some new richness and depth to it.” Lang believes the camaraderie shared by the group has filtered into their music. The team seems happy with what they have done. “I think it went well. It’s always good to get together with them,” says Khan of the recording. Lang will get back to Australia and master the mix to make it sound as good as it can. Besides this, earlier in the day, Maru Tarang also managed to squeeze in time for a video shoot on the terrace of Mehrangarh Fort for the online music show BalconyTV. Lang is the liveliest of the lot, and always game to fool around. Once, during this shoot, he pretended to push Singh off the terrace (this gave everyone quite a start because the terrace is without a railing and leads to a very steep fall).

It is now minutes before Maru Tarang is due to perform and they stand by the stage joined, finally, by Asin. They are calm. The mad rush of the first two days of the festival seems to have led on to a sense of control. The organizers and volunteers too appear to be running the show with greater ease, as if on auto-pilot. Around the Fort, artists who performed in the past two days are hanging out together, talking, drinking, waiting to watch the evening’s performances. Maru Tarang is the first act on this last night of Jodhpur Riff 2013. As they are being introduced on stage, they shake hands and pat each other on the back.

On stage, Maru Tarang is that rare act where the joy the musicians feel in collaborating with one another is almost tangible. The group sits in a way that they are half facing the audience, and half facing one another.Each collaborator keeps making eye contact with the other, and listens intently to what is being played in order to be able to “keep up”, as Lang puts it. At points Asin’s voice soars powerfully over everything. The performance ends with a delightful jugalbandi. Every member of Maru Tarang is grinning widely as they take a bow. So is the audience.

 

(Image: Maru Tarang perform. By Kavi Bhansali / JodhpurRiff. )

Keeping It Alive – An Interview with Barkat Khan.

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Barkat and Jalal Khan come from a family of musicians. The brothers hail from the Manganiyar community of Rajasthani musicians whose patrons are Paliwal Brahmins. While Barkat, 40, can play the tandura, the harmonium, the dholak and the dhol, he usually sings and plays the harmonium. Jalal, 35, can play the tandura and the harmonium. 

Dawn breaks on the third day at Jodhpur Riff with bhajans sung by both Barkat and Jalal. Barkat plays the harmonium through the performance, Jalal the tandura. They are accompanied by their youngest brother Shway, 30, and their cousin Maangu, 19, both on the manjeera. Their cousin Abdu, 26, plays the dholak. After the performance, Barkat and Jalal settle down to an interview through which Jalal, despite being questioned repeatedly, remains quiet because he feels he must let his elder brother speak for him. So Barkat does so. But before this he listens to an interview he just gave Radio Madhuban play out on the radio jockey’s phone. He smiles as he hears himself sing.

 

Have you and your brother Jalal always sung together? What do you sing usually?

Yes, we are continuing our family’s musical tradition. And we liked singing bhajans, so we learnt those as well. We’re from Lava village in Pokhran, Jaisalmer. There are other Manganiyar whose patrons are Rajputs. But our patrons are Paliwal Brahmin. We converted to Islam at the time of Muhammad Ghori. We also sing songs of Sufi saints and we sing songs of Islam. We sing songs of all religions.

 

Do the Paliwal Brahmins continue their patronage to this day?

Yes even today we depend on them. We sing for them when there is a wedding in their family. We sing at their homes during festivals, especially on Holi and Diwali. On any special occasion we sing for them. At weddings we sing auspicious songs. We play the dhol as well as the gajanan ka dhol (the dhol played with bol, or incantations, praising the Hindu god Ganesh, at the beginning of a wedding). We sing banna banni ke geet (songs about the bride and groom). When a child is born in their house we sing the haleria (songs of birth).

 

Since what age have you been singing?

We have been singing since childhood. As soon as our eyes opened in the morning, we would sing. Our guru is our father…

 

Would he take you with him when he went to perform?

He would perform in our village. It wouldn’t be a festival like this. There would be a jagran (an all-night Hindu prayer congregation) in the village and people would gather for it.

 

Who else would accompany your father?

We would go with our father and with four or five other men who would play saz (string instruments). I started going with him when I was 11 or 12. Jalal was eight or nine years old then. When he was 12 he began accompanying us too. Even today, we don’t go anywhere to perform alone. We go along with our uncle’s sons. We have formed a group with members of our family.

 

Apart from music, do you do anything else for a living?

No, we are solely dependent on performing and singing.

 

What do you do when you don’t have performances?

We usually have some performance or the other. When we don’t, we do some house-work. We have a few goats, so we rear them.

 

(to Barkat) You usually play the harmonium?

We all play the harmonium. Jalal plays the tandura. Jalal and I play the dhol and the khartal… we play everything. Without this art form, we are nothing. For some performances they want us to play the tandura and the harmonium. So sometimes I play the tandura and he plays the harmonium, and sometimes it’s the other way round.

 

There are some Manganiyar who don’t approve of the harmonium and say that it is taking people away from instruments like the kamaycha.

The kamaycha is our traditional art. It is ‘by’ us. But the thing is that not everyone can play an instrument like the kamaycha or the sarangi. Where do we go to learn playing these instruments? That’s the reason they are becoming extinct. The harmonium, on the other hand, is easy to learn. So the kids now learn the harmonium and sing with it. If the government or the society can help create opportunities for people to learn the kamaycha, that would be good. Even if someone decides to learn, a kamaycha will cost thirty to forty thousand rupees, the sarangi fifty thousand rupees. Where does one get so much money from? So we depend on the harmonium. If people decide they don’t want to learn on the sarangi or the kamaycha, there is the harmonium as an alternative. One can play that well and do well with it as a musician. There is, of course, the question that, when the ones who play the kamaycha or sarangi today are no more, who will take it forward? Sure, four people will learn, maybe five. How will 10, 20 or a thousand people learn to play a sarangi? A harmonium, on the other hand, is there in every household and everyone can learn it. That is why it will survive.

 

Is it also because it is more difficult— learning to play the kamaycha or the sarangi?

Yes, that is there too. It takes two to three years to learn the sarangi. And it is a continuous learning process that never stops. When you are maybe 35 to 40 years old is when you can say that you have learnt to play it. The harmonium, however, can be learnt in 5 to 6 months.

 

Are there people in your village who still play the kamaycha or the sarangi?

No, there are none.

 

So, there wouldn’t be anyone who can teach them either.

Yes. Even the bhajan and the bhav that we sing is slowly disappearing. Because we don’t have facilities to teach our children this music. How do we teach them? The other Manganiyar have made trusts through which they teach the next generation. But they stay far away, so there is no one to teach our children. I try to teach what I can but children go to school as well these days, so they don’t have as much time as they used to.

 

Are you teaching your own children?

Yes I am. I am teaching them the songs and bhajans I know. My son is learning the harmonium. He will later learn the dholak as well. I have to teach him everything we do. The dholak, the dhol, everything…

 

Of all the songs you sing is there any one in particular you really enjoy singing?

I enjoy most of the songs and bhajans I sing. It also depends on what the audience likes. One song I like is Jith dekhun tum jho, Piya jun jhalke, Jith dekhun tum jho… It tells you that wherever we look there is Ishwar (God). In animals, in humans, anywhere we look. People say that they haven’t seen god, but everywhere we look is God, everywhere there is Khuda.

 

Is there any key difference between the kinds of songs you sing and the ones the other Manganiyar sing?

The gayaki is the same. But we also sing bhajans and those songs that are not sung by other Manganiyar. The bhajans should be sung with bhakti ras, in the dhwani (tunes) similar to those in which our saints, like Kabirji, composed them. We shouldn’t tamper with that.  Yes we could be artistic or experimental with it but in a way that is respectful on the whole.

 

Is there anything about playing the tandura that is difficult?

You can learn the tandura in a month or two but it needs to be played with precision. Songs are easier to play on the sarangi because it has all the notes, from the highest to the lowest, just like the harmonium. On the tandura, if I play on the fourth string, then it will play only one note. So we need to pay more attention to the sur (tone) to ensure we get it right.

 

From the other performances here, did you see anything you liked in particular?

Only yesterday I saw Rais (Khan) play the morchang. He is very talented. I used to like the late Ustad Sakar Khan who played the sarangi. He got our community a lot of attention. Lakha Khan on the sarangi is also a great artist. You forget to eat or drink when listening to him play— he’s that enthralling.

 

Do you worry that your musical tradition will perish?

We want to keep it alive. We hope our children will be able to take it forward, so we teach them. After we are gone it is on them. If they don’t take it forward, what can we do?

 

(Image: Barkat and Jalal Khan perform at dawn. By Shantenu Tilwankar for JodhpurRiff  / Oijo.)

“A little bit more.” —Impressions, Maga Bo

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This is producer, DJ and musician, Maga Bo’s third time at Jodhpur Riff. This year he is collaborating with Rajasthani folk musicians Rais Khan (morchang), Manzoor Khan (dholak), Hakim Khan (vocals) and Jassu Khan (bhapang and khartal). It’s the last day of the festival. Having performed with the group the night before, he is finally free from rehearsals and soundchecks and is walking towards a part of the Mehrangarh Fort that affords him a good view of the sunset. We walk with him.

 

What performances did you watch?

I saw Maya Kamaty from the Reunion Island. Really, really liked her and her band. I saw Spiro. I saw Manu Chao, of course. Manu Chao was great. I saw a bit of the qawwali yesterday (by Rizwan and Muazzam). That was great. And that was it. I didn’t have any time to watch more because I was rehearsing and working on getting our own performance ready.

 

From among the ones you saw, is there any particular performance that stands out for you?

I think Manu Chao. He was incredible. I am a huge fan. I was really hoping to meet him but…

 

With your own collaboration you had said you had an idea of what you wanted to do, but you were also open to exploring other possibilities. How did it go? Where did you start?

In some ways it exceeded my expectations. In other ways it didn’t quite meet my expectations. I guess that’s normal because to create a performance, meet new people—I had met them before but I didn’t really know them—to put together a performance for half an hour… and we ended up playing for 45 minutes. Anyway, to do this within three days is not easy. Especially with electronic music, because it requires a lot more preparation than just taking up an instrument and playing it. I was really happy with the result and I hope we get to do it again because I think the more time we spend on it the better it gets.

 

What exceeded your expectations?

What really exceeded my expectations was that the musicians were really enthusiastic and energetic and had a lot of ideas and were open to trying new things. And the part where… maybe I shouldn’t say it didn’t meet my expectation…

 

But you wished you could do more?

We made some mistakes. I don’t know if other people noticed but we noticed it of course. But that’s something that takes time and practice to prevent. Some of the things were cultural differences— because the music that I’m bringing, the beats that I’m bringing, have a certain method of counting, and how the musical system is approached and understood here is a little bit different. So there were times where they didn’t understand what I was doing. And there were times where they were doing things that were obvious and clear to them but I just didn’t understand…

 

How can one get past that?

Oh, with time. Time, learning and exposure.

 

How did you pick the songs to work on?

I think I had 12 beats ready to go and we went through all of them. And they would say, “Maybe it could be this one for this one. Let’s try this.” Someone would throw up an idea and I’d say, “Yeah, that’s the rhythm that works with that.” And then we remember the lyrics: “Oh! What are the lyrics here?” And then we would put it all together in a way that works. So it was pretty natural on that level.

 

Did you ask the Rajasthani musicians you were collaborating with what the lyrics meant?

Yes, I asked them what all of the lyrics meant but it’s really time-consuming to get a complete translation. They don’t speak English so well. And my Marwari and my Hindi are, well, non-existent. So someone standing there and translating all of this is not practical. But I asked about all the songs and what each one was about. One was about the woman sending her husband to buy jewellery—“Oh! I want an earring.”—and then the whole verse is about the earring. And the next verse is about: “These are the bangles that I want.”

 

So how did you choose which songs you wanted from the songs they suggested?

I think it was most important that the rhythm and the melody… that musically it went together without even thinking about the lyrics. There were some that we tried on the first day and it seemed like those worked. Then we did it the next day and: “No, no. It’s totally wrong. Doesn’t work at all. Let’s drop that one and do something different.” It’s funny because I think there were beats of mine that they really liked and they wanted to do something with them. So they didn’t understand why it wasn’t working for me and I didn’t understand why it was working for them. That’s normal. It could happen with someone from my own culture.

 

Any insights you drew from working with them, collaborating with them and listening to them play?

I don’t think there is anything particular, anything specific. For me it was about gaining more experience in working. This was a very special situation. It’s not every day that someone flies you to the other side of the world and pays you to do something like this. You have the entire infrastructure— a place to stay, a place to rehearse, a venue to play, a sound system, a sound engineer. I’ve had the fortune of doing that quite a few times in a few places and so my methodology of working has kind of slowly evolved with that, in a way. So I don’t think I have any specific insight but I think I have a little more confidence. Something special about Riff is that people are really nice here. A lot of people who have come and played here, they’ve come once with an attitude that’s like, “Okay, let’s see if this works. Let’s see if we like each other, if we like the music, if we have the same ideology, philosophy of life or whatever… ” And the next time you do a little bit more and then a little bit more. I think there is a relationship that is sort of developed. I know when I get here everything is going to be taken care of. I know that someone will pick me up from the airport. That’s a small, banal example but there are many, many small details like that that happen and make it all work.

 

Do you play according to the taste of the audience here? Do you gauge how they respond to what you play and decide accordingly, while playing sometimes?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve played here before and I play music from all over the world— music that I have made and produced myself. But a lot of it they don’t understand, or they’ve never heard it before. It’s something really new. So to bring them and guide them to that place you have to make connections between something that they know and something that they don’t know.

 

So you do play a bit differently here then.

Yeah, I got to play tracks that I produced for the film Patang, set in Gujarat. At the first song people go crazy. Every time I play this song, people always come out and say, “Oh my god! What is that?” It’s called Pujari. So that’s something that I made in collaboration with other people. It has bhangra in it, it has elements in it that people understand and can relate to, but it also has things that come from me and from my background. So that’s a nice starting point, or one place that can make new connections with other things as we go along.

 

(Image: Maga Bo performing at Jodhpur Riff. By Rajesh Prabhakar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)

“We never stopped speaking the language of music.” —Impressions, Jeff Lang

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Jeff Lang, 44, is a singer, songwriter and slide guitarist from Australia. Lang is well known in the Australian roots music scene. Among the instruments he plays are the standard and slide guitars, the mandolin and the electric baglama. His latest album ‘Carried in Mind’ won the ARIA (the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Award) for Best Blues and Roots Album for 2012.

He is at Jodhpur Riff as part of Maru Tarang, a collaboration that was sparked off at a residency at the Mehrangarh Fort in 2011. The collaboration includes Bobby Singh (on tabla), Asin Khan Langa (sindhi sarangi and vocals) and Bhungar Khan Manganiyar (on khartal). Lang is perhaps the most talkative of the group, frequently cracking jokes as they wait for their sound check.

 

Can you pick one song and take me through how you went about it in the collaboration?

There is a song called Two Worlds and that is one that Bobby suggested has a rhythm that is similar to an Indian folk song. Not sure where that song is from but we felt it could be a good place to start. So I played the song as I usually play it but with Bobby’s input on it. When I played it at home, I would play it with a drummer and bass player. But having tabla, immediately gives it different flavour. The Rajasthani musicians were listening to it. As we go along, it’s got more and more of a plan for them, because they hear the song more. Asin would pick up on the melodies that were different or things in that song that derive influence from African music. Other things, like the way I place my guitar is coming from listening to Irish and Scottish music pipes. There are certain ways of playing the Irish and Scottish music and the fiddle that I’ve tried to incorporate. It’s impossible to get it exactly the same on a slide guitar. So when they hear those things it’s not what they would normally do on a sarangi but the sarangi is playing melodies that I’ve copied from an Irish pipe player and played on my guitar and now those are headed somewhere else. And then Asin would just improvise and sing. It’s pretty stirring, a human voice that powerful and beautiful…

 

You play several types of guitars. How did you choose your guitars for this collaboration?

For all their songs, I’m using the acoustic slide guitar. And there are two songs of mine where I’m using the electric baglama that I thought might be good to use and see how they feel about it. That’s pretty much the distinction. I’m a little more fluent on the acoustic steel, so it’s easier for me to adapt on that.

 

One of the songs that you collaborated on had a similar theme in the Australian song and the Rajasthani one that you combined with it…

Yes. Running by the Rock. I sang that song. And Asin sang a Rajasthani song that went well with it. It was later that we realized both the songs had similar themes of love and loss. For that I used the electric baglama. I play it back home on the regular guitar but I thought if I could get the same feeling and the same drive out of this instrument that might be a nice interface with what the Rajasthani musicians do. It worked. It’s pretty cool that one.

 

What common spaces do the two songs share in terms of sound?

The song Running by the Rock has a polyrhythmic theme. But there is also a four that works across it. At a certain point in the song, they start singing their song. Bhungar and Asin play a four across. Me and Bobby stay on the six count and then we join them and it goes into four and then Bobby does a tabla solo and it goes back to six. So the two rhythmic things run alongside each other and you can pick which one comes forward. That element is interesting for me in that song.

 

Doing any collaboration, are there any specific ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ you keep in mind?

You try to be sensitive musically… you don’t rely on your own taste. I can’t be an Indian musician. So what I can do is look at what other people are doing and see where my language would fit. If something is not working then you play less or ask, “Hey, what are you doing there?” There’s no point in being somebody who holds things up. So if something doesn’t make sense or I’m finding it difficult, it’s always better to go “Can you play that section again? I would like to work out what the hell is going on.” So I look like an idiot (laughs). Having a healthy sense of your limitations is a good thing.

 

Is there anything you feel you’ve learnt from this collaboration? Any sort of musical realization?

I don’t think there’s any tangible thing that I have learnt. It’s just how much further I have got to go with my instruments. So you hear stuff from a player that is so great and you’re hearing what they are doing and you think, “Wow! I’m really struggling to keep up.” It should always be like that I think. You can always hear someone who will inspire you to improve and feel good about that. There’s room for me playing with these people but I could really work at what I’m doing and improve it based on their ideas. The melodies, for instance— to try and play them properly and listen to the way the sarangi is doing and the way that Asin sings. And I think, “I could just try and phrase that a little closer to what he is doing.” Then new nuances come into your playing. So that’s wonderful. And then the rhythmic thing is going on between Bhungar and Bobby. Again, I’m fighting to keep up. So it’s really exciting. And I try to tell them, “Please don’t baby me along too much. I don’t want to be the one holding this whole operation up. I’d like to somehow try and keep up with you guys.” I’m sure they are being nice to me (laughs).

And the other thing is just on a personal level. The idea of collaborating with people— you get a sense of joy and fun from their company and from what comes out musically. And things do go to new places. You do write a new song in Melbourne, Australia and it’s written from the point of view someone who is there and it combines with people from Rajasthan and a whole lot of other things grow out of there. That’s a testament to the idea of collaboration with different people.

 

Is there anything you have learnt from watching Asin and Bhungar play?

Having the ability to have someone play melodies and trying to work out how to play them on the slide guitar is great. Because I’ve done it before, listening to records and then sitting on my own trying to work out how it goes. But with someone actually sitting with you it’s great because you understand: “Oh you’re going down to that note like this.” And the rhythmic thing that goes on between Bhungar and Bobby. There are so many things. They can go any which way. It tests you to either go with them and know where you are or go through it and listen to what’s around you, but not lose where you are.

 

Over the two years, has the repertoire changed?

Well, some things have been added to it. We don’t get to do it very often. Maybe once a year. Would be nice if it was more.

 

Has it changed each time you have come together to play?

Well, we’ve done different things in between. Each person has done different things so I think you naturally bring new elements into it. Without even having to think about it, you’ll have different skills, different ideas. So even if it’s the same song that you have done before the experiences you’ve had will colour it. Doing them again and reconnecting with them, getting more familiarity with what’s happening, it gives you the confidence to start adding. With Bhungar and Asin they are feeling more comfortable with some of the songs they hadn’t played before, so they are able to feel freer to take it somewhere. And I feel the same way in doing the same thing with some of their material. Bobby, he seems to fit in easily with all of it. Bastard! (laughs)

 

What have you seen so far at Jodhpur Riff?

I saw the opening concert. Also the collaboration between the Rajasthani players and the Scottish musicians last night was tremendous. I thought that was really great. My favourite thing that I have seen, amongst a lot of really great stuff. Again, that wonderful thing where you can see the music grow right before your eyes. It’s now no longer a Scottish team or a Rajasthani team. It’s becoming something midway. You can see that pleasure and excitement among the performers up there as well. Very powerful.

 

Were there any ideas about musical collaborations that arose from watching them?

I’m sure I have in some way. But really, what I’m doing when I’m listening is I’m enjoying the music. I’m not really picking it apart thinking what I could use. I tend to just listen to music when I’m not playing.

 

Any other performance that stands out for you?

The qawwali singers were tremendous as well. The opening concert was cool too. The drummers in white, dancing (chang drummers). It was kind of peaceful and graceful, but haunting as well. The women dancing at the same concert (kalbeliya dancers) were amazing too.

 

What’s your takeaway from the festival? What’s different from other festivals?

The setting, for starters. How often are you playing at a fort overlooking the whole town and a full moon overhead, no less. It’s a pretty amazing setting for a concert. There also seems to be an emphasis on collaborations which is really nice to see. You know, a lot of the times—though there’s nothing really wrong with it—at festivals musicians come in and do what they do normally somewhere else. Here it’s different because it’s a different audience and every show is different. This one (Jodhpur Riff) is set up where people come in… Joseph Tawadros last night, for instance. He’s a brilliant oud player and he was collaborating with a really great Rajasthani musician as well. So you don’t see that happen and he doesn’t get to do that every festival he goes to. It only exists here. You can only see that particular combination here. I think that’s a great thing, a unique experience.

 

Because you are meeting everyone from the collaboration after a long gap, is it easy to pick up where you left off?

It’s not like we stopped speaking the language of music in between. You are still playing. It’s not like the last time we played together was the last time we played period. Again, as long as you are willing to have your ears open, things come back.

 

(Image: Jeff Lang at Mehrangarh Fort. By Kavi Bhansali / Oijo.)

Drumming Up a Dance

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In Daulat Khana, one of the many courtyards of Mehrangarh Fort, a group of 12 men sit on a carpet on the floor. They are clad in white kurtas and pajamas. They wear blood red turbans on their heads and a red sash is tied around their waists. Ghungroos—small bells that are strung together and worn by dancers on their feet—are tied to their ankles. Round drums lie by their side. As a gaggle of tourists passes by, one of the men beats on his drum to try and interest them in a performance.

The group, which goes by the name of the Shyam Mithra Mandal, is here as a part of the festivities that take place at the Mehrangarh Fort, every day, during Jodhpur Riff. They play something called the ‘chang’, a shallow, round drum that the drummers hold up in their hands and beat while simultaneously dancing to its rhythm. It is made of bull or goat hide, stretched over a spherical, wooden frame. On the off white flat surface of each chang, which the drummer beats, the name of the group, their village, Pabusar, and their district, Churu is painted in red. “We don’t make the chang ourselves but we get them from Jaipur,” says Omprakash, 30, one of the group members. “You get the best chang there.” At the fort, they perform throughout the day, from 10 am to 5 pm.

Their performance is a mix of a unique dance form, the pleasant notes of a bansuri, or flute, and the steady rhythm of the chang, coupled with that of the ghungroos on their ankles. The dance, called gindan, has the men leap, in step with the drumbeats, and turn in the air. At times they walk from side to side, half sitting as they beat the chang. The dance form is from the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, native to the districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu, and Sikar. The drummers usually drum and dance on festive occasions, such as Holi and Diwali. “It is a dance of celebration,” says Gopal Ram, 36, the leader of the group. They only ever perform together. The group members are related to one another: each is either a cousin or a brother of the other. “We learnt to dance on our own,” says Gopal Ram. “We taught each other.”

Of the 12, two members play the bansuri and the dholak. During the dance, they sit in the middle while 10 others dance in a circle around them. Do the women in their village dance as well? “No, they don’t. That is against our tradition,” says Samandar, one of the drummers, who claims not to have a surname. “They may dance with each other inside the house but not outside, in front of everyone.”

But these restrictions don’t bind their audience. Earlier in the day, when a large crowd had gathered to watch the group dance, a number of women from the audience could not help but sway to the beat of the chang. Some of them eventually joined the drummers, dancing with them. The drummers spread out, making them a part of the performance. Eventually they were dancing within the circle.

 

(Image: The chang drummers of Shyam Mithra Mandal at Jodhpur Riff. By Kavi Bhansali / Jodhpur Riff. )

Everything Under The Sun – Jamming with the Scottish Ensemble

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Kaela Rowan, a Scottish singer, is sitting on the main stage at Jodhpur Riff, under a white canopy put up to shade musicians from the scorching afternoon sun. She is going over the lyrics of a song that her group is about to sing; singing along with James Mackintosh (on drums), Ewan Macpherson (Jewish harp and guitar) and Patsy Reid (fiddle). This group, in turn, is collaborating with Kamru Khan (on the kamaycha), Kasam Khan (saarangi, vocals), Sheru Khan (morchang), Bhanwru Khan Langa (khartal), Mustaq Khan (dholak) and Dayam Khan (harmonium, vocals).

As Rowan goes over the lines to the folk song Balamji Mora Jhilmil Barse, Dayam begins to play the harmonium. He sings and the musicians playing other instruments join in. Rowan listens to Dayam, mouthing the lyrics along with him. This is followed up by a Celtic folk song by Rowan. Then Dayam and Rowan take turns, each singing their bit alternately. The other musicians join in on the chorus of this new creation. Confusion ensues. When should everyone stop singing so Rowan can sing some lines solo? The music ceases abruptly as the instrumentalists, one after the other, stop playing. The kamaycha is the last to trail off. They look to each other to see where they’ve gone wrong. They discuss the order of singing that they had decided upon earlier. Finally, the confusion is cleared. Mackintosh (on drums) reconfirms the order out loud: “It’s the guys, then Kaela, guys, Kaela and then we take it up.”

It’s getting windy now and the white canopy above begins to flutter noisily. The group goes over the song again. Some of the instrumentalists join in while the rest listen and try to figure where they would best fit in. Reid pays attention to the sarangi, trying to match her fiddle to it. Mackintosh switches between playing the drums and playing the pacay pods (two pods tied together to create something like a maracas, but with a duller sound).

They take a break, settling down to tune their instruments before beginning again. The wind grows stronger. Two of the wooden poles holding up the canopy fall forward. They are almost immediately caught by a few volunteers. However, everyone rushes out from under the canopy, not quite sure of what just happened. The volunteers struggle to get the canopy back up. There is a tear in the sheet. While the tear is fixed Rowan and Reid wonder whether they should grab some lunch. Sheru and Bhanwru continue to watch on silently as the wooden poles are fixed back into position.

The canopy back up and the break over, the group gets together to go over the song again. They seat each other according to the instruments they are playing and the order in which they will play these. The Jew’s harp being somewhat similar in sound to the morchang, Macpherson and Sheru sit next to each other. Reid sits between Kasam on the sarangi and Kamru on the kamaycha. Mackintosh sits next to Mustaq on the dholak. Rowan walks around, checking to ensure that everyone has space to sit comfortably and maneuver their instruments.

Once again, Dayam begins playing the harmonium and sings. Towards the end of the song, the dholak and the morchang pick up, and Bhanwru raises himself on his knees clapping the khartal enthusiastically. Everyone seems happy at having gotten the song right. The afternoon sun shines bright on their faces. The wind begins to blow hard again but the canopy looks like it will hold.

 

(Image: By Shantenu Tilwankar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)

Without the Veil – An Interview with Maangi Bai

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Maangi Bai, 45, a renowned Rajasthani folk singer and dholak player, is from the village Kolayat, in Bikaner. As a child she travelled with her parents who sang at the weddings of Rajput families. Unlike Bhanwari Devi, another singer who is her contemporary, Maangi Bai sings with her face unveiled.

At Jodhpur Riff, Maangi Bai is performing as one of the festival’s ‘living legends’, which is the name given to a series of performances by senior Rajasthani folk artists that take place at the Mehrangarh Fort between 5:45 pm and 7:15 pm, on each day of the festival. Over an hour after her session is over Maangi Bai is still on stage, answering questions asked by a posse of journalists. She talks to them animatedly while her son plans their travel back to the village. Her daughter gave birth to a child two days ago and she has to be home in time for the celebrations.

 

How old were you when you started singing?

I was around nine or 10 years old. I had always liked singing. I would go with my parents to sing. I would say, “I want to sing!” They would ask, “Why do you want to sing? What is there in singing?” and I would respond saying: “There is everything in singing.” When I sing people say, “Arrey Maangi Bai! You are such an artist.” So I wanted to sing well and get better at it. If I didn’t sing well, I wouldn’t be able to go on.

 

What nakh (social group) and got (clan) are you from?

I’m a Muslim. My family is Bamania and my in-laws are Hansals.

 

Who taught you to sing?

My mother, my father and my brother. They would all sing. My father has passed away but my mother is still there. My mother would sing while playing the dholak. I like playing the dholak as well.

 

You would go with them to perform?

Yes, I would go with them. I would go with them so I could learn.

 

And would you perform with them as well?

No, it’s only been nine to 10 years since I began performing in public. I have travelled a lot to perform. Before that I would just sing at weddings in Bikaner. Now people take me in cars to places so I can perform. They drop me back home in a car. I make a lot of money now. I sing well, that is why they call me. If I didn’t, then who would ask me to perform? My throat has a lot of sur shakti (power of the voice).

 

In Bikaner, would you go to sing alone?

No, I would take my sons.

 

Would you go with your husband and perform with him?

Yes. He would say, “But I’m going with other men.” And I would say “I’m not going with the other men. I’m going with you.” And I started to sing with my veil lifted. It opened up my awaaz (voice). My awaaz wasn’t open before that. The veil was in the way.

 

Where did you first perform in public?

It was at Jodhpur. After that people would say, “Ask Maangi Bai to perform.” People at the Jain market at Bikaner started to appreciate me. My sons were young then. My husband had passed away.

 

When did he pass away?

It’s been about 12 to 13 years. My children were young so my brother would go with me.

 

You sing maand (a style of singing that is Rajasthani folk music’s contribution to Indian classical music) and lok geet (people’s music).

Yes. I sing maand, lok geet. I also sing bhajans and wedding songs.

 

From these, which do you like singing the most?

I just like singing. I especially like banna banni ka geet (wedding songs). There is a Marwari song that is sung when the son-in-law comes to the bride’s house and is given dowry. I like singing that. My father and mother used to sing at weddings too. But they wouldn’t make a lot of money. It was a difficult to run the household on that income. If the money from singing wasn’t sufficient, they would do a little bit of farming. They would get invited to sing at weddings and at the jagran (all-night Hindu prayer vigil) in the village.

 

You sang for your patrons who were Rajputs. Do you still do so?

Yes, for the Rathores. I still sing for them. I don’t sing at the houses of the lower castes. If at a performance there are Meghwals as well, I will sing but I will not eat there. I would sing in the courtyard of the Rajput household, for the women of the house.

 

You compose your own songs as well. How do you compose them?

I compose from the heart. I don’t write them down. If you tell me to sing a particular kind of song, I will rehearse within a day and a half and just sing it. And I would never forget that song. I can create a song within just one night. I make a tune first and then put some bol in it and see which ones fit. Ultimately, if the audience likes it, then I know it is the right song.

 

When did your start making your own songs?

From when I was 30 years old.

 

You sing for NGOs as well, to help them promote their causes. Do you believe in the causes you are singing for? Why do you sing for them?

They ask me, “Maangi Bai can you make a song on cleanliness?” I say yes. “Can you make a song on pregnancy?” I say yes. After the child is born, they have to be wrapped in a clean cloth. I tell the women that during their pregnancy they should eat dal, eat papad, eat spinach, eat vegetables. Be neat and tidy. Maintain cleanliness. If they do that, then they don’t fall sick. So I make songs for these things in Marwari. In villages, a lot of women die during pregnancy because of not taking care of these basic things. So I sing for them. I have made songs about vaccination and garbage as well.

(She begins to sing.)

Roti jeemane su pehle behna haath sabansu dhovo/
Haath sabansu dhovo behna/
Haath sabansu dhovo/
Roti jeemane su pehle behna haath sabansu dhovo… 

(Before you eat the roti, wash your hands well with soap, sister.)

 

Do you play any other instrument other than the dholak?

No, just the dholak. My parents taught me to play it. Many women sing in my village but no one else performs. I was young when my husband passed away. I started performing to feed my household. My children were six to seven years old. I had no choice. I needed to do it. And it has helped a lot. Because of it my daughters could get married.

 

Your husband would also sing. What would he sing? Did he sing the same kind of songs as you?

He would sing wedding songs and ghazals. He had a feminine voice and could sing like anybody. He would sing at jagrans too. His elder brother taught him to sing.

 

Did he teach you any songs?

He taught me a few bhajans.

 

Did you teach music to your children?

I taught my son to sing. My brother, Muhammad Ali, taught him the harmonium. I would sing for Rajput households on festivals like Diwali and Holi. But he was not happy. He didn’t want to play at their houses. He thought we were doing it just for the money. But then he realized that it is treated as an art and respected. He understood that I’m trying to keep this art alive. I have travelled across India and performed in various cities. Most of the times, among all the male performers at a show, I would be the only woman.

 

(Image: Maangi Bai. By Shantenu Tilwanker for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)

Reaching for the Moon – An Interview with Linda Gytri

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Accordionist and composer, Linda Gytri is from Oldedalen in Norway. Her first album Umbra (2012) which had her own compositions, was named the third best folk album in the newspapers Dag og Tid and Adresseavisen. Gytri, 33, has a Masters degree in Folk music. She has studied with Maria Kalaniemi at Sibelius Academy, Finland and Jon Faukstad in Norway.  She works as a music teacher at Stryn Kulturskule where she teaches the accordion and the piano.  

She has a cheery disposition, much like her composition ‘Rasmus Rare’, a polka that she often performs on stage. For Jodhpur Riff, Gytri got together with Kristoffer Kleiveland (accordion) and Vidar Berge (guitar) to form the group APAL.

 

Your influences have been Balkan music and Finnish folk songs and your collaboration with other musicians have also been in the same genres. Are there other musical genres or traditions that you are inspired by?

Yes, I think I’m inspired by all the music I listen to. Sometimes I’m very aware of where I get my inspirations from and sometimes I don’t know about it. But I hear (my song) later and I think “Oh! That sounds like…” something. And I think I’m influenced by the people I meet, landscapes, buildings, the moon and the sun.

 

Can you give me an example of another genre that you were inspired by and used in your music? Directly or indirectly.

I like Nina Simone a lot. I’m not sure if you can hear Nina Simone in my music. I like the spirit of her music. And in Norway, a fiddler called Hans W. Brimi. He was very into his playing. He would play small melodies but it’s very intense and very present. And that’s a goal I have, to be very present.

 

You talked about being inspired by people and landscapes. How do you bring that into your music?

It’s hard to put words to it. Before we came here, when I was thinking of going to India, I was getting some inspiration. So I already made a melody called Tuk Tuk about the cabs and it is just mood. Some years ago, I was travelling a lot in Shetland and I discovered after coming back and making new tunes that my scales were inspired by the music there. Also, I listen to a lot of Balkan music and I think you can hear some of it (in my music). A little of the fiddle players and I think my ornamentation is inspired by that a lot. It’s not normal for accordionists to do so much ornamentation.

 

Which fiddle player?

Again, Hans W. Brimi. My main inspiration is Maria Kalaniemi and Markku Leppistø from Finland, two accordionists. They are also very into their spirit of the music. I also listen a lot to Arvo Pärt, Tchsikovskij. I am very inspired by the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge. I also find inspiration in art and photo – Oddleiv Apneseth is one of my favourites, together with Susanna Majuri and Frans Widerberg.

 

You came together with Kristoffer and Vidar for Jodhpur Riff. Have you played with them before?

Vidar, yes. We played together two or three years ago. Kristoffer and I have never played together but I had good intuition about him which turned out to be right. We have very good communication, the three of us together. When we practice we don’t plan very much, we just play and it flows.

 

Because you are all from the same genre, does that make it easier to collaborate? Does it allow you to take risks?

Yes, we are in the same genre. But we are open and all of us listen to other sorts of music. But maybe it would be different if I played with a jazz pianist, other things would happen. With the three of us, we bring colour from each of our traditions.

 

You play the free bass accordion. Do you prefer it over the stradella bass accordion?

My accordion is a convert. So I can change between the normal bass and the free bass.

 

Do you prefer one over the other?

It depends on the tune. Very often for the slow tunes, the free bass accordion and for the more upbeat tune it is better with the normal bass. Kristoffer plays the diatonic accordion. So the difference is that when he bellows out on one key and bellows in on the same key, it’s a different tone. But I have the same one all the time.

 

Is there a particular a song or composition you like to play often?

Yesterday we made a new song called Ranbanka Palace, named it after our hotel. That’s kind of a favourite now and we’re going to play a new song that I wrote. It’s called Ser Du Pa Manen. It’s Norwegian for “Are you looking at the moon?” This will be the first time I will sing.  So I came all the way from Norway to India to sing (laughs). I think because of Sharad Poornima it will be nice to play this song.

 

Why did you decide to sing this time?

We decided today because we just tried it. It felt natural so we wanted to do it.

 

Why haven’t you sung on stage before?

I’m a little bit shy. But now, together with them, it feels good. I was talking to Vidar yesterday, “Now we need something extra. Something new. Maybe another instrument.”  The other instrument was me singing.

 

Do you like playing traditional compositions more or the contemporary ones? Because you compose as well.

Little bit of everything. I have a Masters degree in Folk Music. So I have studied all the traditions and specialised in one tradition from Norway and also some Finnish tradition. I think, after studying all this music, it’s natural to want to make your own music. And all the traditional music I have studied kind of come true in my new compositions. Composing is an intuitional thing to do. If I’m in the mood or if we sit together, “Oh now we should do something in D minor, and this should go to G and end up in which key and which scale.” But I see that there is some pattern in the composition, it is similar to the traditional. So there are some similarities and something new.

 

You teach the piano. Why don’t you perform with it?

It’s been the accordion that has been my voice. But I use the piano and the harmonium for making new compositions. The instrument I make the composition on influences how it sounds.

 

Why do you prefer composing on the piano or the harmonium?

It’s just for variety. It’s strange but there is such a great difference when you play with your hands up (by the side of the accordion) or down (on the piano). Maybe it’s the personality of the instrument.

 

What would you say is the personality of the accordion?

It’s a personality with a lot of colour, from the very quiet, romantic, lyrical, melancholy to great big tunes. A lot of temperament.

 

When you perform with other musicians do you learn something from there that you bring into your teaching of music?

Yes. And I also learn a lot from my students. I have students from seven years old to 65. Children are very wise people to learn a lot about everyday life and also music. One of my students, she is seven years old. When we play she likes to dance a lot. So after we finish the main session, we always end with improvisation. We take away the chair, so she can dance while she is playing the piano. So they are very open.

 

And is there anything you learn from performing with other musicians that you bring into teaching?

Yes, always. And I think the most important thing is to be humble and kind and to be open. Sometimes things don’t end up the way you planned them but maybe it’s better, the new thing that came around.

 

Did you listen to any Indian music before coming here?

I listened to Ravi Shankar and tried to play along with this CD.

 

Did you listen to any Rajasthani folk?

No, but I have been since coming here. I listened to them at the opening concert.

 

Do you see possible collaborations?

Yes, of course. When I was studying at Sibelius Academy with Maria Kalaniemi I had some improvisation lessons with her and my lesson was to do a solo improvisation for one hour. So that is very, very long but it was very useful also.  My tunes are kind of structured. So it would be nice to work with someone who is open to find something new in between. Some years ago I was in Mozambique, playing with musicians there and it was very different from our Norwegian music and that was a good thing because when it was two very different things, they met in the middle.

 

Did you like any particular instrument?

I loved the harmonium and I also like the way they are singing here. When they are sitting and singing with their hand, singing directly to you.

 

(Image: Linda Gytri. By Shantenu Tilwanker for Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo.)

Hip Hop Skip Jump – An Interview with Maga Bo

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Producer, DJ and musician, Maga Bo is from Seattle but has been living in Brazil for the last fourteen years. He has worked in over 40 countries, in several languages. His latest record Quilombo do Futuro mixes urban music genres from around the world with Afro-Brazilian rhythms and explores the theme of cultural resistance.

At Jodhpur Riff, he collaborates with Rajasthani folk musicians. Back this year for the 3rd time, Maga Bo is a favourite with them.

 

This is your third year at Jodhpur Riff. You first came to India when you left Seattle and travelled widely, spending nine months between Sri Lanka and India. Did you record and experiment with the music here then?


Yeah I travelled all my life, trying to find music everywhere, wherever I found myself. I was first here in 1998 or 1999. And I just kept coming back.

 

But this is the first time that you are collaborating with the Rajasthani folk musicians? You have worked on the film Patang and collaborated with Shilpa Rao for one track…

This is my third time at (Jodhpur) Riff and for the first time we have managed to get musicians here (to play with me). A kind of collaboration. So today will be the first rehearsal.

 

Have you met them before? In the previous years you were here?


Some of them I have, I think, but I’m not sure. I’ve met the morchang player, Rais Khan. I think he can play virtually anything. He can play the ground. He can play the wall. He is a very versatile person. So I will be working with them as well and then there will be several other musicians coming. There maybe be surprises as well. I don’t really know because not everyone is here yet.

 

When you decided to do this collaboration, did you have particular sounds in mind that you wanted? Any particular instrument?


I wanted the harmonium, the dholak, the khartal and the morchang. Kind of the basic (Rajasthani folk) sounds.

 

Did you listen to a lot of Rajasthani music? Do you know what you are looking for in the collaboration?



Yes and no. That is part of the excitement of it. Some musicians I work with— I know their sound, I know what they are interested in, I know their vibe. But with anyone, even people I have worked with for a long, long time, they may surprise me. That’s beautiful. So, yes, in a general sense, I know what I’m looking for but I’m sure there are surprises that are going to happen.

 

You did a show in Brazil called Sambacana and you said that you learnt more about old and new Brazilian music ‘on the go’, as you did the show…

I began working with Brazilian music before I went to Brazil. Almost 20 years ago. For me, learning about music is a process. I think that is the best way to learn. You can study music. I mean,I studied music in University. But that doesn’t prepare you for playing music live or working with musicians. So, yes, you learn on the go.

 

You said you can’t answer the question “Where are you from?” But really, where do you say you are from if someone asks?


Depends on how interested the person who is asking me is. In India, I’m always a foreigner. On the streets people ask me where I am from, and so I say Russia, from Japan. Sometimes I say I’m from Ethiopia, in a jokey sort of way. I say, actually, that I’m from the US but I’ve lived in Brazil for a long, long time. So I’m turning into a mixed person in a way.

 

You mix a lot of different styles of music. And you travel extensively. How intrinsic are these to your creative process?


It’s very important because for me to work with a Rajasthani musician, for example, to do that in Brazil is almost impossible. If you want to listen to Hindi music in Brazil there is almost nowhere to go really. Maybe one artist will come once a year. You just can’t find musicians who know about this sort of thing. Maybe it’s a similar thing if you wanted to work with Brazilian music in India; there are very few Brazilians who play here. So to get access to that kind of information and the people that work with that music you need to go there. And the other thing is that, especially with electronic music and electronic production around the world, people tend to use pre-recorded samples or things that they download from the internet to create music. So you’ll find that with Brazilian music— a lot of people who haven’t been to Brazil, haven’t worked with Brazilian musicians and who don’t know Brazilian music really are making something that they call Brazilian music. I don’t mean to criticize what they are doing because it’s part of the evolution of music in general, but it’s a very shallow way of making music. I think the way to do it is to go after it and go to the source of the music.

 

I wanted to ask you about that because you work with a lot of styles and the music you use is from a lot of different countries. Are you worried about cultural appropriation? How do you negotiate that line?



It depends on the situation. For example, I’ve come here a couple of times; a relationship has been developed with the festival over time. And I’m not here to record and sell something commercially. We’re here to create a performance for one day and one time. Cultural appropriation happens with very specific, very subtle things. It’s hard to generalize it but I think working with the person on an equal level is necessary. It’s very different from, say, recording someone and selling it. It’s like taking a photo of someone. When you take a photo of someone you don’t know, you need to take permission. I remember a flute player I wanted to record in Kerala, the first time I came to India, complaining that I was going to record him and sell it for a lot of money. So what we’re really talking about is respect. It’s about the communication and the exchange. If the person you are collaborating with is not coming from the same point of view, then it’s obvious very quickly.

 

How important is it for you to understand the lyrics when you work with artists singing in different languages?

The lyrics are very important. I think, mostly, because I work with a lot of hip hop and a lot of hip hop is superficial, bling bling, which is not interesting for me. I’m interested in more profound subjects that are spiritually positive and uplifting, critical, that are deeper than talking about what car you drive or who that sexy girl is or whatever.
When working with other artists, I always ask them. Normally I ask for all the lyrics written out and get them translated. Sometimes the characters are not Roman. Usually there is someone around who can translate it. So I get an idea of what’s being sung about. Because if the song is a love song about how happy the guy is that he met the woman, or whatever, then probably we don’t want to create some sort of depressing, noisy, loud, industrial kind of sound to go with it.

 

In another interview, you talked about ‘conscious lyrics’. You said you liked them because they are challenging. What did you mean by that?


‘Conscious lyrics’ is kind of a catch all phrase in hip hop. ‘Conscious hip hop’ would talk about things that would matter, that benefit humanity. It would talk about racism, sexism, social justice or have lyrics that are political. Lyrics that involve critical thinking. Not ‘My Ferrari… ’ or ‘My sexy… ’ whatever. I don’t mean to say that those should not exist, because there is a definitely a time when everyone should stand up and put your hands in the air and dance and have fun. There is a time and place for that. I’m not necessarily the artist that needs to make that kind of music. What’s interesting for me is conscious critical thinking.

 

You record and use a lot of live vocals and instruments. You don’t use pre-recorded sounds.

In the sense of using pre-recorded, pre-produced samples, from some sort of sample library or something like that— no I don’t use that. Because that’s the kind of “Brazilian” or “Indian” or “African” or whatever kind of music, which… Basically if you have a $ 100, you can buy a CD with all these recordings and make ‘Indian music’. There is no human interaction in that. It’s pre- fabricated. It’s like buying a hamburger. There’s no soul in it. There is no artistry. No, I shouldn’t say that. Because someone did play that, someone did make that. But it’s something that everyone has access to. There is nothing special about it. So I want to make something special. I want to make something new that doesn’t exist. Like, I can play percussion but I can’t play the dholak or the harmonium. Sure, I can make music from them but I’m not a master of these instruments. So if I say I want a dholak at this rhythm, then it makes sense that I find a dholak player who spends his whole life playing that instrument and has mastered the instrument. Someone who can say: “Oh that’s the idea? So what about this? Something like this?” Then all of a sudden you’re collaborating. You’re doing something that is greater than the sum of its parts. With a sample CD, it’s only the sum of the parts.

 

(Image: Maga Bo. By Shantenu Tilwanker for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)

The Sound of Desert Folk

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It is 11:30 am on the 19th of October, the second day of Jodhpur Riff, 2013. The sun makes standing outdoors unbearable. One may find respite, however, inside the Mehrangarh Fort complex, under a canopy in the Chokelao Bagh. Here, anthropologist Vinod Joshi, Community Director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation (one of the festival’s organizers), oversees a workshop and interactive session called ‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’ whose purpose is to showcase the varied and rich musical tradition of one of Rajasthan’s best known musical communities, who hail, mostly, from the districts of Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.

Joshi tries to explain the intricate relationship the Manganiyar share with their patrons by using the idea of three main stages a person’s life may be divided into. “Janam-Paran-Maran (birth, marriage and death),” is how he puts it. The Manganiyar’s patrons range from the Brahmin Paliwals to Muslims to the Rajputs. They are bound to their patrons and have to perform at their houses on these three occasions, perform through celebration or sorrow.

Besides being musicians, the Manganiyar are also genealogists who keep records of their patrons’ lineages. These records are passed down through the generations in each Manganiyar family. But, most interestingly, the records subsist not as dry facts on paper or parchment but as poetry which is learnt and recited or sung by each new generation of Manganiyar to whom the mantle is passed. Babu Khan Manganiyar (the Manganiyar often affix the name of their community to the end of their name) recites one such poem. It begins with describing the evolution of the world and the marriage ceremony of the Hindu god Ram, then going on to list the names of the ancestors of Gaj Singh II, the current Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Darra Khan uses the kamaycha (a string instrument unique to the Manganiyar) to create the musical impression of the arrival of the first train of the day in Jaisalmer. Then, through swift finger movements, he recreates the impression of a train beginning to move, and picking up speed. There is enthusiastic applause.

Joshi says that the most challenging performance for the Manganiyar is when a patron asks them to play something for his or her son-in law. This becomes a “matter of pride” for the patron, and the Manganiyar as well.

The women of the Manganiyar community do not usually sing in public or perform before a public audience. But today, in a rare appearance, Daria, Khalima and Sakla Khan from Barmer, perform at the workshop. Daria plays the dholak.  Khalima and Sakla sing. Also, brothers Rais and Sheru Khan play the morchang and then demonstrate, via a short rendition that mixes beatboxing with the sound of the morchang, how the instrument can be adapted to create a modern sound. 25 year old Rais, thanks to a Jodhpur Riff collaboration that led to a musical group now famous world over as ‘Dharohar’, is also the first beatboxer to emerge out of Rajasthan. Sheru, 5 years younger to him, is following in his steps.

Then, 80 year old Mishri Khan, the only surviving player of the jal tara, shows the audience how the instrument is played. He maneuvers a clay lid over a steel plate half-filled with water, using the vacuum created by the lid to produce notes of music.

The final performance, called Jaloji, is one where all the Manganiyar present come together to sing and play the dholak, kamaycha, morchang, sarangi and khartal, and create the music that has made them as popular as they are today.

 

(Image: Mishri Khan plays the jal tara. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)

The Improviser – Backstage with Jumma Khan

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It’s the 17th of October. 7:45 pm. The ‘Opening Night Variety Concert’, the first concert of Jodhpur Riff, has just begun. 43 year old Jumma Khan, one of the festival’s most famous Rajasthani artists, who’s been a part of it from the beginning, is preparing his safa, or turban. His cousin Mukesh, a bhapang player like Jumma, unrolls the pink and blue cloth till it is about 3 metres from his head, then wraps it around. “You can tell where a Rajasthani is from by the way he ties his safa,” says Mukesh. Unlike the turbans worn by another group musicians sitting nearby, which seem to be wrapped around in straightforward circles, those worn by Jumma and his five companions (three of them are his cousins) seem to peak towards the centre of their foreheads, a feature that Jumma and Mukesh say is “characteristic of turbans from Mewar”. Also, says Jumma: “The turbans worn in Mewar, at least in my village, are usually white.” As white as the kurtas and lungis or sarong-like garments the men usually wear. Jumma and his team are dressed in white kurtas and pajamas instead. The pink and blue turban has been donned to greet an audience that expects no less from a colourful performer like Jumma. “Especially a Rajasthani performer,” Jumma adds, for Rajasthan is the land of colour. “Also, white is difficult to keep clean— it easily gets dirty.” The pajama too makes it easier for him to perform while standing up or moving around on stage, as he often does to rouse his audience. Together they are a testimony to Jumma Khan’s greatest strength that has seen him from his village Pinan, in the Rajasthani district of Alwar, to Jodhpur Riff, to the iTunes festival in London: his ability to improvise.

The concert, the only Jodhpur Riff event that can be attended without any entry fee, is being held at the parking lot outside Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. To the right of the stage is the majestic backdrop of a medieval killa. Beyond it, and to its right, is a splendid view of the blue city, now lit up to look like something out of the Arabian Nights. Above, is a moonlit Jodhpur sky. Jumma Khan finishes his tea that has been served in a paper cup. He lights a ‘Telephone’ bidi, a brand that he says is “quite popular in these parts”.

He sings two lines of a song as another companion, Deen Dayal, strums a few notes on a harmonium. They are trying to settle on the right sur (tone) for the evening. Jumma has been singing with this team “from when we were kids.” Besides them, he gives public performances with Dharohar, a group that was born out of one of Jodhpur Riff’s first collaborations, which has gone on to tour the world (it was with them that Jumma had performed at the iTunes Festival). They have had a rehearsal in the afternoon, but he isn’t sure of which songs to sing here: “I look at the audience; I gauge how they are responding to the songs and then decide according to what I feel they would like.”

Jumma is a Jogi, one of a community of storytellers. His songs often draw on mythology (there’s one on the marriage of Shiva—Shivji ka Byawla—and on the Mahabharatha— Panduvon ka Kada) and history. But his most popular songs are what could be termed Lok Geet, or ‘people’s music’, with cheeky yet incisive and insightful lyrics that explore contemporary issues, from corruption to dowry, bride burning and female foeticide.

 

Dhan daulat ki kami nahin hai mere desh mahaan mein /
Phir bhi karzwaan paida hota hai, baccha Hindustan mein.”

(There is no dearth of wealth in my great country /
Yet children in Hindustan are born with debts to pay already).

 

Like the wandering minstrels of yore, Jumma’s lyrics have the rare quality of being able to put forth a complex thought— simply.

He plays a recording of a song he sang at India’s Got Talent, a TV talent show:

 

Bin baat taraazu le lo /
Kami nahi hai pyaar mein.”

(You don’t need to weigh it on a weighing scale /
You can have as much as you want, for there’s no limit to love…)

 

The recording is constantly disrupted by static. Jumma has a basic phone, hardly fit for recording and listening to music, just about all right for taking calls. But it keeps ringing. An organizer from Baroda wants him to sing at a show in a couple of days. Jumma’s trying to fit it in. A politician wants to record two of his songs and use it for his election campaign. He isn’t interested. Jumma hates siding with one politician over the other (“Each one is equally corrupt”). Instead, he talks about how Bollywood producer and actor Arbaaz Khan had approached him immediately after an India’s Got Talent shoot at Film City, Mumbai. “He had an air-conditioned car that we sat in,” Jumma remembers. “He asked if I could create a song for him, on the ‘Bombay woman’, then and there.” Jumma produced one in minutes. He sings:

 

Rangeeli Bhabhi chale chamakwa chaal /
Fashion pe kare kamaal… 

 

He’s quickens the pace of the song because he has to be on stage soon. The lyrics of this one are not easily given to translation. Arbaaz had wanted to record the song immediately. Jumma declined. He said he would do it the next time.

It’s time for Jumma to go on stage. He goes on as part of Dharohar first. While the rest of the group sit on a wooden platform, Jumma sits away from them, on a chair, very obviously the star of the show. He’s the only one getting requests from the audience. Most of the requests are for one of his most popular songs known simply as ‘Tar’, where Jumma uses the sound ‘Tar’ as a something that can be a suffix for words used for most important positions in today’s world (Collec’tor’, Minis’ter’, Doc’tor’, Direc’tor’ and so on… ). As more members of the audience begin to shout ‘Tar’ in unison, Jumma declines the request, deciding instead to sing the song he had composed in just a few minutes for Arbaaz. The last stanza goes:

 

“ …Kabhi Malaika Kabhi Kirron Kher /
Kabhi Farah Khan ban jawe /
Kabhi Hema, Rekha, Sridevi si lehraawe /
Kabhi India Got Talent pe Judge ban /
Pooch rahe sawaal.”

 

They love him anyway.

 

(Image: Jumma Khan at Jodhpur Riff. By Kavi Bhansali)