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Salim-Sulaiman: ‘We Work Without Any Blinders Or Prejudices’

The composers on growing their label Merchant Records, the star-studded album ‘Bhoomi’ and spearheading change in the Indian music industry

Anurag Tagat Nov 25, 2021

Music composers Salim-Sulaiman. Photo: Amit Bhakri; Hair and Makeup: Suman Singh Chauhan; Art director: Tanvi Joel

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Like heavyweight sporting champions, musicians enter the ring on Salim-Sulaiman’s newest music project Bhoomi 2021.

Everyone from rap stars like Raftaar and Arivu to ace composers like Ricky Kej and vocal heroes like Sukhwinder Singh, Sunidhi Chauhan and Vishal Dadlani step into a luminous circle for songs created by Salim Merchant – who helms synth duties and some vocals – and his older brother Sulaiman Merchant, who plays an intriguing MIDI-controlled percussive pad, kind of like if a drum pad could be played like a keytar. With a band providing the much-needed adrenaline, Bhoomi 2021 has something for everyone.

And that’s not entirely new from Salim-Sulaiman, because for more than two decades, they’ve always kept their ears to the ground about where music is headed. “I was very rebellious in my way of working. Like I never made an ‘Ainvayi Ainvayi’ sound filmy. We put some alternate vibes to it. We put a tumbi which we tweaked; we tried a breakbeat,” Salim says, referring to their 2010 Bollywood hit with vocalist Sunidhi Chauhan from the film Band Baaja Baaraat.

In the world of artists balancing entertainment and creative satisfaction, Salim-Sulaiman have delivered most of it all. From joining hands with British artist Fink for collaboration series The Dewarists to NH7 Weekender, remixing songs for Lady Gaga and even performing at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the duo has never leaned on the Bollywood machinery too much. After all, as a composing duo, Salim-Sulaiman first helmed background music scores for films, slowly making their way to the front as music directors. They worked with multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale for Coke Studio and later performed together at WOMAD festival in 2014.

(from left to right) Sulaiman Merchant, Shreya Ghoshal and Salim Merchant.

An immense amount of brand value has been built along the way, which has undoubtedly helped them take different paths in the music industry. It could be a commissioned project to write a song with Bengaluru folk-fusion band Swarathma, while also being called on as a judge on singing competitions like Indian Idol. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Salim-Sulaiman – like most top-tier artists – stopped gigging and turned their focus to starting a record label, Merchant Records. The idea was three years in gestation and kickstarted by circumstances, but it allowed Salim-Sulaiman to leverage a huge digital following when everything was virtual in the pandemic’s first year and a half. “We wanted to have an organizational place where we could actually release music through our own label. While everybody was struggling to come to terms with the pandemic, we were creating a platform for artists to be able to express their creativity through music,” Sulaiman says.

Amid young and seasoned artists alike being tapped for releases, the duo launched Bhoomi 2020, a collaborative series comprising new music which originated in 1999. This time, they brought on Arijit Singh, Shreya Ghoshal, Jonita Gandhi, Salman Ali and others, wielding a kind of influence that few music producers have in India.

With Bhoomi 2021, Salim-Sulaiman bring out 10 songs with 25 collaborators. This includes contemporary devotional music (“Sai Naryana” with Raj Pandit) to Assamese folk-prog (“Kasiyoli” by Anurag Saikia, sung by Vivek Hariharan, and Jutimala Buragohain), plus Raftaar and Afsana Khan’s Punjabi dark trip-hop on “Barbaad.” There are love songs like “Ja Ja Re” with Rajasthani vocalist Sattar Khan pairing up with Vishal Dadlani and a stirring wedding song like “Chidiya Da Chamba,” led by Sukhwinder Singh.

It’s housed within the monster truck/dream vehicle that is Merchant Records. Even as film projects pick up and Salim-Sulaiman also create music for OTT releases (Skater Girl and Spin, both directed by Manjari Makijany), Merchant Records continues to stand testament to their unwavering stance to never cow down to Bollywood. They never did before and now with Indian music thriving well outside of the film space, they’re coming at it with decades of experience and brand power, which is among the important currencies in the digital world.

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Salim-Sulaiman talk to us about Bhoomi 2021, Merchant Records and integrity in the Indian music industry. Excerpts:

How long had you both conceived this idea for a record label? Was it just a matter of finding time and energy to execute it?

Salim Merchant: We’ve been discussing our dream of launching our own music label for the last three years. But, due to our busy travel and work schedules we never got around to kickstarting this project, or for that matter even putting a plan around it. It was towards the end of 2019 that we thought the concept through and structured it, on paper. All we were waiting for was some extra time and bandwidth to set these plans in motion. We started releasing singles as Salim-Sulaiman without any distributor. Then we decided to structure it and go via a distributor that can distribute to the streaming services. And, then the pandemic and lockdown happened. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it. It prompted all of us to pause, rethink, and adapt. We formalized Merchant Records not only for our own music but to empower other writers, composers and music creators.

Sulaiman Merchant: We registered the company and I think it was just a matter of time and the right energy to execute it and make it right. Merchant Records is the fruit of labor of many sleepless nights and a vision to create a platform for artists to be able to release their music without being bound in contracts that would take away their most basic rights. We feel very proud to be able to create something that will change the rules and keep music alive. 

At the start of the pandemic and the lockdown, what was the mood like for both of you, as people were staring at what became a potentially difficult period for the film industry, plus fewer avenues for musicians to earn income? 

Salim: It was very difficult because firstly, we aren’t used to staying at home. We are used to traveling and gigging and working in the studio. Here we were just working from home. But at the same time, we had just finished filming Bhoomi 2020 in January and the edit had just started; we had not even started mixing. So we spent the first few days during the lockdown mixing remotely, which means discovering new technology and different ways of streaming audio from a master computer to all our headphones and computers and then working on Zoom. It was a very difficult process but also very interesting in terms of innovation. We all adapted to new ways of living and working and both Sulaiman and me moved our equipment to our respective homes and we started composing. That’s how we started work on composing Bhoomi 2021! In May, we had already completed two songs, “Chidiya Da Chamba” and “Ja Ja Re.”

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Sulaiman: We weren’t doing any films at that point and whatever projects we had, we were lucky we had shot Bhoomi 2020 in January. The mix and the edit was pending and so we weren’t thinking about the lockdown and the pandemic, we were just way deep into finishing and finalizing Bhoomi and that’s what kept us going. We were doing virtual concerts and charity work. We had our foundation Zariya to help the Manganiyars and Langas in Rajasthan. We kept ourselves busy and that’s what kept us sane and got us through the lockdown. 

With Merchant Records — plus other artists/composers who launched their own labels — we’ve seen a sense of independence (or at least lowered dependence) on the Bollywood machinery, is that fair to say? How important is this?

Salim: I cannot say about others but with us, we were doing independent music even before the pandemic and while we were doing movies, we were doing independent music anyway. Dependency on Bollywood was not much as we were doing this and doing films parallelly. Though, yes, there was a sudden kind of boost during the lockdown for making independent music because there was no film happening at all.

Sulaiman: It is fair to say that we don’t have to depend on anybody or any record label line up before our song release, as there is the freedom to create our songs, which a record label might not accept. The big labels are looking for popular songs or a party-songs which can go into a playlist as a top-heavy rotation song. But a lot of composers want independence and want to be able to release music that might not be the same genre as the record label wants. So it makes a huge difference for all the artists who have decided to release their music through their own platforms and their own channels. 

With cinemas opening up and some of that pre-pandemic cycle rolling again, how do you feel labels like Merchant Records can sustain and continue to draw a large listenership like it has so far? 

Salim: Well, Merchant Records were always making music that was not so filmy and had an independent kind of vibe. It’s funny for me to say this, but the lines are very blurred between independent and film music today. But at the time when we were doing a lot more film music, I was very rebellious in my way of working. Like I never made an “Ainvayi Ainvayi” sound filmy. We put some alternate vibes to it. We put a tumbi which we tweaked; we tried a breakbeat. When we made “Kurbaan Hua,” [2009] we tried a pop-rock kind of a groove on the title track or when we made “Ali Maula,” it was a Sufi song with a dark vibe to it. We always tried our experiments even when we were making songs for movies. So, Merchant Records will have its unique personality as we have songs in different languages like Gujarati, Assamese, English and even Tamil. 

Sulaiman: The behavioral pattern of people has changed in the lockdown. The big thing that’s happened is that the OTT platforms have been able to cater to the entertainment quotient for a lot of people. So it will be a herculean task for cinemas to actually open in to bring in the crowds. With a big film or a few hit films, we might see a behavioral shift but as of now, people are very comfortable to wait for a film to go into OTT. Just the way the behavior for films has changed, also the behavior for listening to music has changed. No one is thinking of music in reference to a movie star but consuming music based on the kind of sound preferences you like. It’s a very interesting time to see how it’s going to pan out in the coming year. 

Salim-Sulaiman with Vishal Dadlani and Raj Pandit.

Coming to Bhoomi 2021, what is it like following up on a massive project like Bhoomi 2020? What did you want to do differently this time? 

Salim: To start with, we wanted different composers to join the party apart from the two of us. We wanted to try different artists from different genres and backgrounds. For example, Sattar Khan — a Rajasthani singer – with Vishal Dadlani; folk meets rock. Arivu, a Tamil rapper meeting Ricky Kej, a Grammy award winner. Vivek Hariharan, who doesn’t know a word of Assamese, sang an Assamese song with Anurag Saikia. Shor Police did an intense song with Harshdeep Kaur about the historical Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Also, there is a devotional song by Raj Pandit which has a very acoustic sound. So, we have ten songs in Bhoomi 2021 whereas we had seven songs in Bhoomi 2020 and three new composers apart from Salim-Sulaiman.

Sulaiman: We brought together 25 different musicians across India bringing authenticity to the musical influences in styles, melodies and lyrics across our own “Bhoomi.” In Bhoomi 2021, the one thing we realized that we had explored territories not many people were willing to explore. Also, we had gone electronic, which people loved. But this time we consciously wanted to reach more people and to keep it real and organic in terms of musicality, we’ve actually done that in Bhoomi 2021; there are songs people can relate to. 

Which songs are you really pumped about releasing from Bhoomi 2021? 

Salim: I’m pumped about each and every track. We’ve tried an epic combination of Raftaar with Afsana Khan with a Punjabi breakup song, we did a real-life couple, Nikhita Gandhi and Shashwat Singh; we also have a 300-year-old Bandish “Ja Ja Re” and of course, a Tamil song which talks about the environment. All very different themes. 

Sulaiman: Powerful lyrics of “Ghar Aao Na” – “boonde hai barse ghar aao na…Naina yeh tarse hain ghar aao na…Teri lauh se hai roshan mera jahaan…” tell a tale of passion and undying love from a woman’s unique point of view, waiting for her man to return home. Sunidhi’s sensational vocals do complete justice to the track. Her legendary versatility is on full display as she showcases her theraav and emotional range on this one.

We go to Assam with “Kasiyoli,” which means ‘ray of light,’ a magical fusion of progressive rock with Tai Ahom chants composed by Anurag Saikia and sung by Vivek Hariharan and Ahom folk singer Jutimala Buragohain. 

In the South, we have “Kaadu” a Tamil song about the environment, composed by Ricky Kej featuring Arivu, Charan Raj and Rasika Shekar on the flute. “Naad-E-Ali” is a powerful prayer, calling Hazrat Ali and resonates the event of ‘Ghadir Khumm,’ in a traditional Qawwali with high-pitched vocals of Salman Ali and Vipul Mehta accompanied by Salim and Raj Pandit. 

Salim-Sulaiman collaborate with Arivu and Ricky Kej on a Tamil song called ‘Kaadu’ for ‘Bhoomi 2021.’

The artists you’ve got on board for Bhoomi 2021 are quite diverse. What do you seek out in collaborators? More than that, what is it like keeping your ear to the ground about artists you want to work with? 

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Salim: I think everyone has a great song and a great voice. For Bhoomi, I do try to see whom do I have a vibe with as the collaboration becomes smoother. Bhoomi is a movement so I wanna work with people who believe in the movement and are supportive. Ricky Kej spoke to me about Arivu and I didn’t even know him, but I was so happy that he wanted to work with him. [Shor Police’s] Clinton [Cerejo] and Bianca [Gomes] wanted to collaborate with Harshdeep and I completely approved of their choice and got her on board. So it’s been a very smooth process. Everyone is very loving and supportive of the movement and we’ve truly had a blast. 

Sulaiman: Most of the artists we collaborated with are friends who have their own unique identities, energies, unique voices. Ricky Kej is a very dear friend, Vishal Dadlani and we have worked on many songs together, Sunidhi has done many film and non-film projects with us, Sukhwinder Singh has such a unique personality. We are already thinking of Bhoomi 2022 and who knows where this will take us, maybe there will be new people or fresh voices, it’s exciting and keeps us going. 

“All our collaborations are purely based on the vibe of the song.”

Sulaiman Merchant

I read about how you got CarryMinati on “Date Kar Le.” He’s a YouTuber (and somewhat notorious one) so did you feel like you saw working with him as a good way to reach his fans/subscribers? What do you think about creators (like YouTubers or just social media influencers) turning musicians? 

Salim: Firstly, I don’t bother about who is popular or influential or has more subscribers. In that case, I should be working only with influencers. So far, I’ve worked with only two influencers, one was Faisu whom I didn’t even know and was introduced to me by [digital media company Qyuki’s co-founder] Samir Bangara and he just seemed like a nice, hardworking guy. Lots of people in fact looked down upon him that he was a TikTok influencer, but for me, I work with every creative person. I don’t keep this hierarchy and work without any blinders or prejudices so long as they have something amazing creatively. Every person has a human spirit and I like to work with every kind of artist. 

Sulaiman: I think that we are often misguided by relying on fan and follower count instead of the outcome of these fans and followers, whether it is in influencing them or introducing them to our music. The number of subscribers is not a popularity indicator for me, so all our collaborations are purely based on the vibe of the song. It would be wrong to call any artist ‘notorious’ as every artist has his own kind of fan following and what appeals to one might not work for another. We are here to entertain our audiences and not in competition with anyone. Also, these days people are not always listening to music. They’re watching music. So, influencers like CarryMinati create an impact on the music itself. 

With Afsana Khan and Raftaar.

How does it happen that Salim-Sulaiman are often outspoken about unfair industry practices and your reputation doesn’t get dented? What do you attribute this to? 

Salim: I think everyone knows what we talk about, it’s just that some people speak and some people don’t. We don’t always rattle about this situation. The industry knows and everyone knows but people just stay shut. Just like a lot of bad things happen in this world, whether in politics, governments, corporates etc., but people who are powerful remain powerful and weak remain weak. Some speak about it and some don’t. This is how our world is, this is just a small part of it. Some people like to express themselves when anything is unfair and I think it’s good to speak out. 

Sulaiman: We are not here to criticize anyone or pull down anyone but everyone knows that we are true to music and the art form and haven’t spoken much about what goes on in the industry. And we don’t mince our words when it comes to speaking the truth. We decided to move away from any kind of politics and started our own record label, Merchant Records. The music industry has a responsibility towards only creating good music and it is up to the listeners to support good music.

What is your advice to artists who want to speak up without fearing professional repercussions in the Indian music world? 

Salim: If you want to have a good sound life and sleep peacefully, then it’s best not to hold anything in your heart and speak the truth. At least you know that you are not living with unfairness. There is a way of doing it and you have to reason why you’re saying it. You cannot just be pointing fingers and there has to be some kind of politeness and way of speaking. If you can justify your thoughts and your feelings in a good way, you will be able to send out your message in a fearless and peaceful way.

Sulaiman: One advice I would give everyone is to be true to yourself, true to your profession and true to your music. That has kept us going. We didn’t have any Godfathers when we were growing up and yet we worked with pretty much every producer and director in some way or the other… 

What else is coming up through 2021 and 2022?

We recently had a film release, Haq Se India, which is a beautiful story about our victory in the 2007 World Cup. We’ve done another song for Madhuri Dixit for her dance track in “Finding Anamika,” our weekly releases for our album Bhoomi 2021 go up to end-December, so it’s a very exciting time for us as music composers, record producers and label owners. The next year we have another IP we will be announcing and also Bhoomi 2022. We will have several collaborations which will be massive. 

Watch the video for “Barbaad” ft Raftaar and Afsana Khan below.

Photgrapher: Amit Bhakri

Hair and makeup: Suman Singh Chauhan

Art Director: Tanvi Joel

Brand Director: Tulsi Bavishi

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