The Ska Vengers: XX Rated
How India’s leading ska/reggae band interpreted jail encounters and Modi-era malaise on their biting sophomore record
“I think I spend a lot of time hanging around with the dregs of society,” says an exasperatedÂ Stefan Kaye. “Some people may think that these individuals have noble professions, but they’re the worst kind of morally bankrupt, parasitic fuckwits.” The British-born keyboardist/percussionist for The Ska Vengers holds a special caustic contempt for most servants of the law ever since he ran into visa violation trouble four and a half years ago.Â It’s the same legal tangle that’s led the 38-year-old to despise “most lawyers, every single police officer, magistrates, civil servants”. It’s also the same legal tangle that landed him in Tihar’s jail No. 4 for three weeks in 2011. More recently, it tossed Kaye back in court just hours before the Delhi ska/reggae band launched their second album XX (pronounced “double cross”) last month. But the gig went off smoothly; the six-member band””also comprising vocalists Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate and Samara Chopra aka Begum X, guitarist Chaitanya “Chazz” Bhalla, drummer Nikhil Vasudevan and bassist Tony Guinard”” weren’t the least bit phased from kicking up a rumpus.
XX comes four years after The Ska Vengers’ romping self-titled debut, and roughly eight years after Kaye first put together the band with former guitarist Raghav Dang (later replaced by Chazz). While a twist of Facebook page fate brought Kaye and Dang together in 2008, the former approached Dalmia at one of the rapper’s monthly Bass Foundation nights that same year. Drummer Vasudevan and Chopra joined in in 2009. The six-member band (along with saxophonists Rie Ona and Shirish Malhotra) spent a large part of 2010 jamming, smoothening out their sound and working on original material along with ””all of which started landing them gigs.
In 2011, there was the Free Binayak Sen benefit program where they performed tracks like “Vampire” and “Why Don’t You Do Right”, which would later make their way to 2012’s The Ska Vengers.Â There was renowned author Arundhati Roy’s book launch gig for Broken Republic the same year, for which the band also got Roy to the studio to develop a track around a monolog of hers entitledÂ “The President Took the Salute”. The Ska Vengers even returned to Tihar Jail the next year to perform at the Tihar Ska Ska Ska gig, where the band shared the stage with The Flying Souls, a band comprising Tihar’s inmates, and breakdance/beatbox collectiveÂ Slumgods from Delhi.
It was also around the same time that Dalmia launched his second documentary with socio-political trust and audio-visual project Word Sound Power””Blood Earth was a protest song remix project focused on conflict zones in Odisha””that later made it to German film festival Berlinale. By the time they launched their socio-politically fuelled debut four years ago, Ska Vengers were regulars on the club circuit””perhaps one of the few to take the stage in cabaret-style ties and suits, at that. So it figures when Kaye says, “There was no pressure on us to put anything out. We could afford to spend a little more time [with XX]. We already made a statement with the first album, the band is a little better known, we’re getting paid more for gigs.”
The band was back in the studio by mid-2013, prepping instrumentals like “Stef Bitten” and “shorter, more pop songs and covers”, as Kaye describes. Much of the earlier material never made it to record number two, however, tentatively foiling the band’s plans to release XX in a vinyl format. Says Kaye, “It was going to be a 13-song album, but we took off four songs. We originally wanted to put out a vinyl version and sequence it as side one and side two. The members of the band might be horrified, but it reminds me of some King Crimson LP!” he exclaims.
With XX coming together in the background, The Ska Vengers””and most of the individual members””kept busy with various projects through 2014, including their animated video “Modi, A Message to You” aimed at (then-Prime Ministerial candidate) Narendra Modi; and their Doordarshan-inspired biter “Badda” (that riffs offÂ Grieg’s 1867Â “Anitra’s Dance” and theÂ 1980Â Ravi Shankar/Philip Glass collaboration “Ragas in Minor Scale”). Kaye, Vasudevan and Guinard scored gigs with their side project The Jass B’stards, Dalmia continued to work with Andhra poet activist Gaddar as part of Word Sound Power, taking time out toward the end of the year to fly to Afghanistan with Chopra for a “concert for peace” in Kabul. Raghav ‘Diggy’ Dang left the band to focus onÂ Reggae Rajahs and was replaced by Chaitanya Bhalla. “I had been able juggle both (bands) for about five-six years,” Dang explains, “but there came a point where I was spreading myself too thin and had to give undivided attention to one.” The band even roped in veteranÂ trumpet playerÂ Kishore Sodha that year as a member of their live act ”” his collaborators range from legendary Hindi cinema composer R.D. Burman to current favorites Vishal-Shekhar ”” and who continues to perform with The Ska Vengers till date.
The first public hint of XX, however, came last year with the release of their mellow murder ballad “Frank Brazil”, a reggae-driven ode to Indian revolutionary Udham Singh (aka Frank Brazil) who avenged the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre by assassinating British official General Michael O’ Dwyer.
But mellow is relative ”” XX, with all its left-wing political urgency and unbashedness, comesÂ at a time of expression-crippling, Modi-era malaise and vilifies much of that, disregarding the recent culture of clampdown on freedom of speech. That’s evident right from the album title: “It’s evocative of something which could be pretty censored, of an adult nature,” explains Kaye. “It could be toxic or poisonous; we liked the idea that like the image is defaced and the content deemed not acceptable.”
Not acceptable to right-wing purists, perhaps: the title track pays respect to “all the fallen soldiers” (“Bhagat Singh Shaheed, rest in peace/ Chandra Shekhar Azad and Kishenji”) and takes aim at corruption (“Politicians tell lies to get elected/ When you see say them have an ulterior motive/ So you know we don’t trust parliament), while “011” sees a visceral Dalmia call out state surveillance and media manipulation (“Newspaper is not my intelligence/Ambani controls the news intelligence”). The criminally groovy “Jail Mein” takes an offender’s lust for “lockdown”-free life straight from the cell to the stage: (“Rehena padega Tihar Jail mein”). But there’s a few (relatively!) lighter moments on the record as well: the tongue-in-cheek “Shut Your Mouth” sees Chopra grab a moment of sass, while “Afro Fantasy” is a heady trip through Latin, punk, jazz””and vacuum cleaner””stemming from Kaye’s interest in experimental, John Cage-esque “musique concrÃ¨te”. That probably also explains producer Paul Schneiter clanging pots and pans on the instrumentally-driven Latin/Afro-Cuban party-starter “El Cumbanchero/Red Fort Rock”.
The band are also plotting the video for their next single “Afro Fantasy”, due later this year. While it’s probably the least likely, “radio-friendly” choice out of the nine tracks, the video””featuring Russian ballet dancer Â Yaroslava YaroslawaÂ performingÂ “completely naked except for a coat of white paint and a thong””” is probably still going to stick. “It’s the least obvious song for a single and I actually really like that idea,” explains Kaye. “The band agreed that it’s nice to not do what’s expected”¦we thought, ”˜Hey, let’s put out a ten-and-a-half minute Latin-jazz-psychedelic odyssey with a ballet dancer!’ That’s the most un-Ska Vengers thing you can imagine, what a great idea!”
The band is headed to the UK next month for a 14-stop tour that includes festivals and a few one-off gigs. “I wish I knew what to expect!” jokes Bhalla, who will be touring internationally for the first time. “We’re just going to take it head on.” On the agenda are club shows and festivals including Hampshire’s Boomtown Fair””“like Glastonbury but for slightly more mature people”, as Kaye describes””and Riverside Live in Durham where the band will play the same stage as Jamaican producer and reggae powerhouse Lee Scratch Perry. The tour, which had been in the works for five months now, is the band’s attempt to break out of the scene and spread the ska beyond Indian audiences. Says Kaye, “The music is not complicated. You just get up and dance about and have a nice time, maybe with a dash of politics.”
Listen to ‘XX’ below.