Winds put out small fires and fuel the larger ones. The same could be said of distances and passions. Indian expatriates have struggled to hold on to a piece of their country and the struggle has often expressed itself through distinct musical sub-cultures from Birmingham to Jamaica. Surabhi Sharma’s documentary Jahaji Music follows singer Remo Fernandes as he travels into the Caribbean islands to discover the music of a culture where it has often been the means and the end of survival.
The film is mounted as an impressionistic collage of fragmented narratives, which do not always link up. The camera sets the tone for the journey with lingering long and mid shots, that take in the city and culture scape, turning curious and intrusive when the rhythm picks up.
We drive into the heart of Trenchtown with Bob Marley’s teacher and Rastafarian philosopher Mortimo as he pays tribute to the land that nurtures great music in the midst of debilitating poverty, violence and political neglect. The entrancing beats of the steel pan (a musical instrument that “came from nothing” when the colonial government imposed a ban on the African drum) set the mood for volatile protest songs against the system, the police and even the queen of England. There is a more upbeat chat with a visual artist in the Savannahs and dancehall queen Stacey. Singer, songwriter, dancer Denise Belafon takes us through the performance of her new song ‘I want an Indian man’ and talks, tongue firmly in cheek, of the protests that followed from the Indian community as she stripped off her sari mid-song.
Indians were shipped to the islands in the nineteenth century. They arrived with little except seeds and songs and began to work their way into an alien culture and country. Generations later it is hard to tell them apart from the majority of the population except for the pictures of Hindu deities on their walls and the Hindi film hits that play on as they go about their daily chores. Popular musicians from the community have worked hard at being accepted into the local music scene and are mindful of not sounding like ‘foreigners’ when they sing. Soca and Calypso have shaped their identity and they are acutely aware of that. Chutney-soca artiste Rikki Jai sings “hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me Soca”, but then he follows it up with Bindiya Chamkegi revamped to fit into Soca Rhythms. Clearly they are not up to abandoning their Indian cultural heritage either. Most of them do not speak or understand Indian languages but they must assimilate popular folk and film rhythms from the motherland into their music to complete their expression. Lyrics are written and translated for them by their mothers or grandfathers often. And strange as it may sound to hear “sanwariya hum hu chalab tore saath” in a distinct Caribbean accent it packs the same emotional punch as it would in a North Indian village.
The documentary is an emotional and musical journey worth taking. And somewhere along the way lies an uncomplicated answer to the pointless debate of who is the ‘real Indian’. A real Indian is someone you can take out of India but whom you cannot take India out of.
(Images L-R: Poster of Jahaji Music; A still from Jahaji Music; A still from Jahaji Music)