Desert Strings – An Interview with Asin Khan Langa

Twenty five year old Asin Khan Langa is a master of the Sindhi sarangi. He has trained under the tutelage of Lakha Khan, one of the great masters of the instrument and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner. Before this, Asin had been inducted into the world of music by his father Muse Khan Langa. He began playing the sarangi when he was eight and has since then performed all over India and the world.

He is also part of an ensemble called Maru Tarang (‘Ripples of the Desert’ in English), his collaboration with Jeff Lang (on the slide guitar), Bobby Singh (on tabla), and Bhungar Manganiyar (on khartal). Asin was introduced to Lang and Singh at Jodhpur Riff in 2011. The collaboration was created as a co-commission between the Parramasala festival in Sydney, the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (the two bodies which organize Jodhpur Riff) and the Australian Government. On the afternoon of his show, Langa is seated in the dining room of the scholar’s retreat at the Mehrangarh Fort (where most of Jodhpur Riff is held), ready to field questions.


You play the Sindhi sarangi…

Yes the Sindhi sarangi. The one which the Langa community plays. The Sindhi sarangi is the one with the gaj— that’s the horse hair (that is used to make the bow strings used to play the instrument). Also, the Sindhi sarangi is made out of sheesham wood and, inside that, out of the four strings which are played, two are made of steel and the other two are made of goat’s intestines. We play the Sindhi sarangi because we play for the Sindhi Siphai community (A community of Rajputs who are said to have converted to Islam when the Arabs invaded Sindh in the 18th century, who live in the Western districts of Rajasthan, such as Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jodhpur).


When did you start playing the sarangi?

Since I was eight.


Did your father teach you?

Yes, my father Muse Khan taught me. Besides him, I also studied with Lakhaji (Lakha Khan, a famous Sindhi sarangi player). The most I’ve learnt has been from Lakhaji. I used to sit with him, get up when he did, play music with him…


Do you have any brothers or sisters who play music as well?

Yes, we are six brothers. My brothers are also musicians. Right now three of us are at (Jodhpur) Riff. The two others here are older than me— Kasim and Samsoor. Kasim played here last night. And today Samsoor and I are playing. He’s playing with the gypsy group (the Gypsy Allstars). Our women don’t perform publicly, except for at certain special occasions in the homes of our patrons. Weddings, for instance. My sisters sing at weddings.


Are there any particular songs that the Langa sing?

Yes, we mostly sing at weddings, so many of our songs are woven around the bride and the bridegroom. Most of them are about the bridegroom. We have some other older more traditional songs too, that we sing with these at weddings. We sing songs as the bridegroom travels to the wedding. Whenever one of our patrons’ children get married, we go there and sing and perform, and when the wedding is over they give us seeds or pulses or grain or a camel or some money. We call this our ‘dhan’.


You’ve played abroad. Which countries have you played in?

I’ve had a chance to go to a lot of countries. The first time I went to Paris. After that London, Germany, Italy. After that America— New York.


You’ve been to a lot of festivals like Jodhpur Riff.

Yes, I came to (Jodhpur) Riff  for the first time in 2011. Jeff (Lang) and Bobby (Singh) were there too. He was playing the guitar and Bobby was playing the tabla. Both are excellent musicians and when we played with them we paid more attention to our own performance. And Bhatiaji (Divya Bhatia, the Festival Director of Jodhpur Riff) was the one who brought us here to Mehrangarh fort for the first time, when we met them and heard them play. Then we did a jam at the Parramasala Festival, in Australia. We mixed our music together to make something— our Rajasthani songs, with some khartal, some tabla, and with the guitar and the sarangi. The people were really happy there. And now we’re back at (Jodhpur) Riff .


When you played with Jeff the first time, what were the challenges involved in playing with him?

None really. The first time we saw him and met him, he showed us his guitar and played. Then I too showed him my sarangi for the first time and he heard me playing it. Then I and Jeff did a bit of jugalbandi (a sort of duet or jam that involves one musician reacting to the other). Then we began working together.


You’ve done a lot of festivals abroad, how are they different from Jodhpur Riff? 

With the other festivals, we go for months and work with others. We miss our own people. (Jodhpur) Riff  is a festival where we can meet other people, like people who come from the mountains, in Rajasthan itself. Also, for us, this is the first time we’ve got a chance to play ‘together’ with someone, in the truest sense— as equals, not accompanying musicians.


Your collaboration is called Maru Tarang. What is the meaning of the name?

Maru was a woman, from the Dhola-Maru story (a famous love story in Rajasthan). She was a woman from the olden times. She, her resilient character, is what defines our collaboration as well. So our group’s name is Maru Tarang— just like the ocean (‘tarang’, literally means ‘ripples’ or ‘waves’), we have come from all around the world and that is the nature of our music. That’s why it’s called Maru Tarang. Take the kind of songs we perform. They have universal appeal. There are four songs which I sing. One of these is a Paniyari song, which is sung during the rainy season, when the paniyari (women who carry water) go to the lakes. The words are simple, but for us they arouse feeling. They go: “Today there’s lightning and the rain clouds are gathering around the village… ”Another song is about a wedding. It’s about the wife asking her husband what he is bringing for her when he arrives to marry her. And he tells her about all the things he is carrying for her.


You’ve worked with other musicians, abroad as well as in India. What did you find distinctive about Jeff’s music?

That when Jeff sang or played his songs, we could easily mix it with our Rajasthani raga. We could join it in…


How did you join them together? Indian and Western music are perceived to be very different…

This is the great thing about folk, we can just mix it with anything, everything. They (Lang and Singh) can also mix their music with ours. First they listened to us, then we listened to them, and that’s how it happened. Also it becomes easier because in our Indian folk music there is no set taal (metre, equivalent to the time signature in western music) or maatra (beat). (Folk music doesn’t make use of rigid timing and rhythm patterns unlike Western classical or Indian classical music, therefore making it more flexible.) Also, whenever we folk musicians sing we play the dholak to accompany our singing, so the tabla being there (played by Singh) helps. (The tabla is generally used to keep taal in Indian classical music, whereas the dholak is used in folk music.)


Is there anything that is special about the performance at this festival?

The way we do it is we sit together and we fix a key and perform. And we have had a lot of fun while doing that. The most fun has been between me and Jeff. We do a jugalbandi with one another often. Anyway, you don’t get a chance like this anywhere else. I’ve performed with others too, at other festivals or events. But everywhere else I feel as if I am playing alone. People don’t really mix. (Jodhpur) Riff  provides a space where we can meet other people and get a chance to work with them and they also like to work with us.


Have you heard any of the other international groups here?

All of them are good, like the one which performed last night… Joseph (Daud Khan Sadozai with Dilshad Khan and Joseph Tawadros), and the one in which they were playing with the Langa and the Manganiyar (Rajasthani folk music communities), there were two ladies, with the violin… (A Scottish folk ensemble— featuring Kaela Rowan, Ewan Macpherson, Patsy Reid and James Mackintosh with Rajasthani folk musicians). That was really good.


The Scottish collaboration? What did you like about it?

Our artists, the ones who were with them, they did their songs. There were some things which they played which went very well together, though each group was from a different section of the world.


(Image: Asin Khan Langa. Kavi Bhansali/Oijo)