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.)