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Rooting for folk music

Lalitha Suhasini Oct 10, 2012
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Rangeela at Clanergy Studios in Mumbai playing for the Mumbai Chapter of Food, Friends & Folk Music. Photo: Rani

When Assamese folk musician and singer Angaraag Papon Mahanta launched his debut indie album at Blue Frog in Mumbai in January, he was completely taken by surprise at the turnout. The venue was packed to capacity. The 37-year-old singer is used to being a superstar back home, but this urban following, thanks to his Coke [email protected] appearance and his hit song “Banao Banao” composed by Midival Punditz and Karsh Kale for the score of Soundtrack, still needed getting used to. Papon joked: “It’s great for me that folk music has suddenly become so cool.” But his dig at fickle-minded mainstream audiences wasn’t entirely untrue. Not only are there more bands like The Raghu Dixit Project and Swarathma from Bangalore and Papon’s East India Company who have found an impressive audience for their contemporary take on folk music, it’s almost as if urban audiences have collectively woken up to folk music. Going by how well The Kabir Music Festival fared in February this year, audiences also seem to have taken to traditional folk music. 

In 2005, Indian Ocean from Delhi were probably the only Indian band to have worn their folk-rock-classical sound as a badge. And won over audiences. It took them far ”“ the highlight of that year for them was performing at London’s Trafalgar Square. In the same year, I traveled to the Malwa heartland to watch Beat of India’s (www.beatofindia.com) team leader Shefali Bhushan document the music of folk artists in and around Indore. Shefali has been nudging unsung folk music heroes towards a bigger platform at every opportunity, much before folk became hip. Earlier this year, Anupama Bose, a friend of Bhushan’s from her Jamia Milia Islamia university days roped in composer Rohit Sharma and TV personality Gurpal Singh to organise the first Food, Friends & Folk Music session in the city. F3M, as Anupama refers to it, has been planned as a series of mini-concerts to promote traditional folk music in the city.

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So on a rare free Sunday, I showed up at Clanergy, a recording studio that Sharma frequently works at, to witness a performance by Deene Khan Manganiyar and his group named Rangeela from Barmer in Rajasthan. Not unlike their vibrant saafas (turbans) that added much needed color to the stark interiors of the studio, their music too changed the tone of the evening ”“ from a dull routine to one that was filled with tales of valor and love stories. 

The Manganiyars and the Langas are the most famous folk music communities from Rajasthan. Ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari was instrumental in documenting and popularizing both these bands of musicians internationally in the early 1960s. Khan and his group are also well traveled having recently wrapped up a show in Holland and arrived in Mumbai after performing in various parts of Maharashtra including Latur, Pune and Igatpuri. “Ab yahaan se kahaan jayenge (Where to next?)” asked Shefali. “Ab ghar jayenge,” said Khan in a blink, making the audience break into laughter at the relief in his voice.

The studio was packed by the time Rangeela was ready to perform. Photo: Rani

The five-member group was seated on a make-shift stage ”“ a few mattresses on the floor ”“ and by 7pm, at least 20 people were seated on the mattresses laid out in front of the group. A narrow, upper level space doubled up as balcony seating and slowly, some audience members made space for themselves on the stairs until the entire studio was packed.

Much like how Shefali taps into the talent of folk musicians when she records their music in a setting that they are comfortable in ”“ preferably at their homes back in a village or under a tree where their group gets together ”“ F3M too was arranged with minimum fuss and little effort. Audience members were asked to contribute Rs 500 towards the artists’ remuneration and included the cost of dinner and tea served at the venue. Pretty reasonable considering what I shell out at Frog every week or Hard Rock Café, where one is never sure whether the band would overcome the faulty sound set-up or not.

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The best part was that folk musicians don’t need a sound set-up ”“ no microphones, no monitors, no sound check ”“ just a pure aural stream. For two and a half hours, Khan and his group rendered folk and Sufi songs. There were some favorites such as Amir Khusrau’s “Chhap Tilak”, the qawwali hit “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” and traditional numbers such as “Kesariya Balam”. But it was lesser known folk songs such as “Dholo Ji” that pulled me in ”“ Khan’s vocals lost their sheen and gained in texture. Others such as “Loli”, a bhajan sung in praise of the Hindu god Krishna with origins in Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace according to mythology, evoked calls for an encore. The audience, which was fairly familiar with Rajasthani folk numbers, had several requests including “Nimbuda”, made popular in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the musicians happily obliged. An old couple who made repeated requests for songs related to Phagun or the month of Holi, elicited a response from the otherwise reticent Khan: “Aap Holi bahut pasand kartein hain. (You really like Holi, don’t you?)”

During a 15-minute break, more requests were made. Khan continued performing without another break for an hour or so. His group Rangeela would have easily pulled off an all-nighter given a chance.

I’ve always had a soft spot for folk music and believed that these guys are the real rock ’n rollers of the country. About 50 people made it to the concert that evening and all of them would second this. The next Food, Friends & Folk Music event, a collaborative show with filmmaker Shabnam Virmani’s initiative, The Kabir Project, is scheduled to be held on October 20th. 

More details will be available on F3M’s Facebook page soon.

Watch Rangeela’s performance below

 

 

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