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Ska Vengers To Launch Debut Album

A racy video involving BDSM and a possible US tour should ensure that Delhi band Ska Vengers’ debut album reaches far and wide

Isha Singh Sawhney Jul 25, 2012
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Photo: Parikhit Pal

British-born Stefan Kaye is wary of being called a foreigner. Suspicion creases his face when questions about what brought him toIndia, are thrown at him. “I’m always turning down requests for stories on “expats inDelhimaking a difference” or “expat starting a band,” the founder of Delhi-based band Ska Vengers, says in a studied response. A general suspicion of hackneyed storylines aside, the fact that Kaye landed up in Tihar jail late last year when a disgruntled venue owner complained about his visa papers not being in order, makes the musician apprehensive. Luckily, his three-month stay in jail No. 4 culminated in the Tihar Ska Ska Ska gig, where the six-piece band performed with The Flying Souls, a band comprising Tihar’s inmates, and breakdance/beatbox collective Slumgods from Delhi in May.

 While this wasn’t the first show to be held at Tihar (Delhi’s Menwhopause performed inside the jail earlier this year), The Ska Vengers’ show was predictably picked up by international press since it wasn’t a routine gig and neither was it a regular all Indian band. The Ska Vengers are anything but conventional. With Miss Samara C and Delhi Sultanate on vocals, Kaye on organ and percussion, Raghav Dang on guitar, Tony Bass Guinard on bass, Nikhil Vasudevan on drums, Rie Ona on saxophone and Yohei Sato on trombone, the band is one cohesive voice that borrows from musical influences across the world. The ska, punk and Jamaican reggae mix of sounds now associated with them, have been able to not just inspire audiences at venues like Blue Frog, but also roused the largely Hindi-speaking jail crowds and in early March, a Gujarati-speaking audience gathered on the Constitution Club Lawns, Delhi to honor riot victims.

The 35-year-old polemic claims that he is no stranger to the radical. Always a great storyteller, Kaye tells us how he dodged arrest as a 20-something political squatter in London, and tried to convince nepotistic Spanish governments to support his non-Catalonian theatre acts, while teaching English and doing voice-overs for porn movies. So Kaye was definitely on home ground when the band recently shot a video with controversial film maker and Kolkata-based rapper Q. The video, for their track “Rough and Mean,” includes in its plot an Indian guy who marries a white girl who has a secret BDSM side to her. Slated to release in July, the video should set the band apart from its counterparts – a goal that has been on Kaye’s mind since the start.

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 After moving toIndiain 2006, Kaye followed Indian bands closely. “Most seemed like derivative losses”, Kaye recalls. The cynicism led to the formation of the theatrical band Emperor Minge in 2006, a variety show called the Stiff Kittens Medicine Show in 2009 and an offshoot of both, The Jazz Bastards in 2009. “We got into trouble for profanities and indecent behavior!” says Kaye.

 In 2008, a shot-in-the-dark question on a Facebook page called Reggae India brought Dang and Kaye together. Dang, who was jamming with an urban hip-hop label called Inner Circle Universal in North London, jumped at Kaye’s post asking if anyone wanted to start a ska band inDelhi. Says Dang, “My two biggest music influences formed the bedrock of ska; punk from bands like Sublime, Rancid and Bad Brain and reggae music from a short stint when I used to visit my father in the Philippines.”

 When Kaye and Dang came together in 2009 to form a band with their drummer Vasudevan, they started with Lee Scratch Perry and Desmond Dekker covers. “Classic foundation stuff and our interpretations of it,” Dang remembers, typified their initial sounds.

 Then, at a private party headlined by Emperor Minge, Samara Chopra, a TV host and a yoga trainer, joined the then four-member Ska Vengers. The minute Chopra sang “Feel Like Jumping;” she fit like a glove, albeit one that needed small adjustments. When the gritty punk rock voiced frontwoman who hadn’t sung in six years, stepped onto stage, she couldn’t get off. Chopra was hooked.

 Chopra in her blood red lipstick, bowler hat and stilettos became the band’s piece de resistance and sent their oomph shooting high. “We have a theatrical band and we vibe off each other,” explains Chopra.

 Eager to lay claim on being a dance band, Ska Vengers is happiest when playing to an audience that enjoys moving their feet to the delicious rhythms of the horns. But they’re equally driven to work the crowd with their explosive, thought-provoking lyrics. As a rapper illustrious for his socially conscious, politically charged lyrics, Taru’s nom de plume Delhi Sultanate isn’t afraid of touchy topics like the Naxal movement and state brutality as befi ts his background as an academic historian and political activist. Having given controversial issues like the Bant Singh project a visceral lease of life, Taru speaks for Dongria Kond tribes in Niyamgiri and Adivasis in Kashipur in Orissa through his project ‘Word, Sound, Power’. With videos and songs sometimes called “war music”, Taru isn’t an artist who can be ignored.

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“When Stefan approached me in 2008 to join their band, I was running monthly BASSFoundation nights in Delhi and wanted to engage with a genre that formed the foundations of dancehall reggae,” says the rapper- poet, who was in the US recently and was also working out the possibility of an American tour. Dalmia snapped up the chance to work with what preceded and inspired the Intellectual Rudeboy movement that his music stems from.

Finally a six-piece, the band had spent all of 2010 tightening their act and working on originals, when they performed at a Free Binayak Sen benefit. Their radical music caught the attention of Arundhati Roy who invited the band to perform at her book launch. Not wanting it typecast as a disconnected gig-follows-book-launch type of evening, the band got Roy to the studio to develop a track around a monologue of hers entitled The President Took the Salute. “The event was ransacked by Kashmiri Pandits,” says Kaye, with a guffaw.

Of course, for every Roy reading, there is a big record label that won’t touch the band with a barge pole. People aren’t happy with the band’s politicking. “People follow me around at gigs asking, what gives a foreigner the right to make these statements. How can you come to our country and be anti-India?” says Kaye. In their bid not to compromise Taru’s lyrics, Ska Vengers are taking their time choosing a record label that can comprehend their music. “We were in dialogue with Universal since January and were embroiled in a battle because they wanted to censor words like Naxalites. We reached a stalemate because we didn’t want to look foolish with altered lyrics,” said Kaye. The band is currently finalizing their contract with an alternate music label and are slated for an August end release.

(The Ska Vengers will be performing on July 27th at Blue Frog Mumbai, and on July 28th at Blue Frog, Delhi.)

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