Mumbai musicians Sankarshan Kini and Donn Bhat Reshape Folk Songs Of Arunachal Pradesh
The six-track folk fusion album, featuring Vasundhara Vidalur, was released last month
A couple of months ago, Sankarshan Kini, an artist who has been a part of the Indian music scene for over a decade now, was approached by Ziro Festival Of Music organizer Bobby Hano to work on a folk music project in Arunachal. The multi instrumentalist, who plays the guitar, trumpet and violin among other instruments, accepted the offer in a blink. Says Kini, who performed at the festival last year with acoustic rock bandÂ Whirling Kalapas and electro rock group Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator, “What drew me to this project was the sound of the three words put together ”“ Arunachal Tribal Music. It conjured up magical imagery ”“ the whole idea of going on location and capturing these singers.” Like most musicians who had traveled from Mumbai, Delhi and other metros to perform at the Ziro Festival, Kini too fell in love with the green hills swaddled in clouds, and the prospect of returning was irresistible. Kini recalls his first impression of Ziro, “At first, Ziro looked just like my idea of paradise. I was smitten by the surreal beauty of the Apatani plateau and taken in by how the place made me feel.”
The idea of the Arunachal Tribal Music Experiment, as Kini refers to it, was to document the indigenous music of the state and also find a contemporary audience for it. The project was commissioned by Dr Hatobin Mai and his charitable trust, Living Dreams that was set up last year. Mai, who is an OSD [Officer on Special Duty] to the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, tells us that the folk fusion music experiment was a project waiting to happen. He says, “It was already on my mind. Arunachal is a land-locked state in an extreme corner of the country and has a variety of rich art and craft traditions, butÂ nobody outside the state knows about this music. Even young people here don’t know about folk music from their state and which is why I thought fusion might be a good way of reaching out to them.”
The project is also significant because it documents not just the music of the land, but revives traditional languages too. Says Kini, “The Nocte tribes sing in the ancient language of Khapa, a language that is now lost to the younger generation. There’s a tradition of rich American blues in Mizoram and Meghalaya, but Bollywood has filled the void [in music and entertainment] in Arunachal and sadly, it’s not very deep culturally.” The music of six tribes ”“ Nocte, Nyishi, Monpa, Adi, Wancho and Galo ”“ made it to the album titled Enchantation ”“ Arunachal Folk Music Experiment, which was released last month on Arunachal Day [Feb 20]. Says the Mumbai-based Kini, who made two trips to Arunachal last year to record, “I came back to Bombay with several field recordings of tribal singers not knowing what the album was going to sound like. So I started tinkering with sounds and soundscapes, juxtaposing them with these voices. It was with a good deal of trial and error aided by intuition that helped me arrive at different musical solutions. And that’s where the word experiment found its way into the description of this project.
From monasteries located on mountain peaks to a road that led nowhere on the Burmese border to a hut inside a forest and across the Brahmaputra river ”“ Kini traveled all over Arunachal Pradesh to record various tribes. He says, “The tribes all had very distinct forms of music ”“ most of them vocal ”“ but what was constant is that the melodies and scales were very similar. Each song has a repetitive melody, which is quite trance-y.” Every recording had a story to tell, and Kini tells us one that stood out for him with the Wancho tribe. Last October, Kini and Hano, traveled all the way to the East of Arunachal to Longding, a district on the Burmese border, when they spotted a group of men singing around a fire. “We caught them during the recce I did,” says Kini, “The lead singer, a eunuch, had this high-pitched voice and a peculiar vocal projection. It didn’t look like he was singing, but the sound was definitely his voice. Each of the singers held different notes. One guttural (lead) and the rest of men were chanting. So the lead singer floated the whole harmonic interplay. They’d take a couple of sips of whiskey and sing a few verses or lines. The sheer volume of sound and effect of this unusual choral incantation was mind altering and I dare say, intoxicating.”
Kini recorded them for an hour and packed up. “As we were leaving, they suddenly started to sing again. They were properly warmed up now and in the mood. More in tune and in sync. I wanted to bust out my mic again and record them but then told myself that I’d be back to record them with better equipment. We came back two months later, armed to take back the magic so we could use it. Alas, they didn’t show up.” All tracks were recorded without a metronome or a click track, normally used to set the beat or pace of music. Kini knew they didn’t need a click track. “The tribal artists live and breathe their music. They don’t tune up or warm up. They just hit it and it’s all one take.” Kini returned to Arunachal for the final round of recording in DecemberÂ with recording engineer Vijay Benegal and cinematographer Omar Adam Khan.
Early on, Kini realized that the recordings should remain organic. “What I’ve attempted is a contemporary sonic exploration including both electronica and acoustic elements.” So on the Wancho track on the album, produced by Mumbai-based guitarist Donn Bhat, you’ll hear everything from a Jew’s Harp that steers the song towards psychedelic trance to a groovy bass line to a clear reggae riff on the guitar to violin parts, but the haunting chants are at the centre of it all. Kini invited Bhat to be part of the project and the guitarist produced two of the six tracks on the album besides playing on them.
The track by the monks of Â the Monpa tribe establishes how well both contemporary and folk music elements blend. One of the best produced tracks on the album, it opens with the monks chanting and the song segues into a dreamy accordion section than leads to vocalist Vasundhara Vidalur’s gospel blues-tinged vocal parts. The song’s uplifting lyrics also suggest Kini’s frame of mind as he rose to the challenge of wrapping up the album on a really tight deadline. He says, “Others involved with this album, especially the session musicians, who lent their fine minds and craftsmanship to this endeavor, are the true stars, for they came with trust at a time when I had lost hope and was numb with motivated purpose.”
Watch Kini in the studio with Vasundhara Vidalur and harp player Kunal Naik here