How regional music from India and abroad is coming out of shadows

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Updated: April 18, 2019 2:27:52 PM

Regional music from India and abroad is slowly coming out of the shadows and becoming popular. From Marathi ballads and Naga folk to K-pop songs and Nepali tunes, music from the farthest corners of the country and the world is being loved and accepted by listeners.

Half-Moroccan, half-Israeli musician Igal Gulaza Mizrahi of the band Gulaza, which sings about the Yemenite-Jewish women of Yemen in the Arabic language.

When Gangnam Style released in July 2012, it took the world by storm. A K-pop (a genre of popular music originating in South Korea) single by South Korean musician Psy, it transcended borders to become a worldwide sensation, garnering billions of views on YouTube—the goofy horse dance in the video, in fact, also became a massive rage, leading to a relatively unknown Psy becoming an overnight music star. Surprisingly, the song, which makes fun of opulent Koreans living in Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, never had its language come in the way of its global popularity.

Lawyer-turned-painter Manimanjari Sengupta validates that fact. The 28-year-old says certain songs are solely made to be enjoyed even though the language may be unfamiliar. “Some songs are not about the lyrics, especially the likes of Gangnam Style… because they are very catchy,” says Delhi-based Sengupta, who is quite enthralled by Nepali music to which she was introduced by a friend. Born and brought up in Kolkata, Sengupta says, she was always curious about that country’s culture. “In West Bengal, there is this whole Nepali culture that has been thriving for many years… I was also trying to learn the language and so felt that songs were a good way to do so. I listened to a lot of Nepali rap, modern Nepali songs, old traditional songs, etc,” says Sengupta, who enjoys listening to Nepali musicians such as Bipul Chettri, Yama Buddha and Aruna Lama.

French-Cuban hip-hop musician La Dame Blanche

In today’s hyper-connected world, with cultures crossing international and regional boundaries, it’s no surprise that music, too, is transcending barriers of language to win over hearts of connoisseurs across the globe. The worldwide popularity of K-pop songs and Middle Eastern music is proof of that. From Latin America’s Spanish guitar to Russia’s mandolin and Jamaica’s steel drums, music from different countries and regions is slowly finding its groove and place on the world stage.

Kashmiri singer Vibha Saraf

Closer home, regional music from India, too, is coming out of the shadows and becoming popular. From Marathi ballads and Tamil pop to Naga folk and Khasi beats, music from the farthest corners of India is now being loved and accepted by citizens across the country. And the people behind it are some ardent musicians who are working tirelessly to make it popular.

India’s regional affair

Indian regional music is finally getting its due. Take, for instance, the soundtrack of the 2016 Marathi film Sairat, which became a major box-office hit. The film’s music, for which composers Ajay-Atul collaborated with Symphony Orchestra of Hollywood, was one of its highlights. Then, of course, there is AR Rahman who has been belting out chartbuster numbers in south Indian languages for many years now, making audiences across India sit up and take notice. Even globally, he has been wowing audiences—his Hindi numbers such as Kun Faya Kun (Rockstar) have, in fact, been sung by the students and faculty of the Berklee College of Music, US. And who can forget actor Dhanush’s 2011 song Why This Kolaveri Di for the Tamil film 3? The Tamil-English mix of lyrics and catchy tune made the whole nation sing along, leading eventually to many imitations and parodies.

Meghalaya-based musician Rida Gatphoh

However, it’s not just about peppy lyrics or music. Many Indian regional musicians are also using their art for social awareness. Take, for instance, Tamil rapper Aviru who highlights hypocrisy in society by rapping about it. Similarly, Odisha-born and Delhi-based Dalit rapper Sumeet Samos sings in Odia, Hindi and English about the exploitation that marginalised communities like the Dalits, lower castes and tribals face in Koraput, Odisha. The 24-year-old raps about how land grabbers, miners and industrialists are adversely affecting tribals in the name of development. Then there is Kannada musician Siri Narayan, one of the few female rappers in the country, who sings about life and society. Narayan doesn’t find it difficult to perform for an audience that doesn’t know Kannada because she feels that “if your vibe and energy connect, language isn’t a barrier.”

A fact reiterated by Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters, a folk band devoted to the art and tradition of the vocal folk music of the state. Their music has many layers: they sing Naga folk in Chokri dialect (sung by the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland and native to their village Thüvopisü), Naga folk fusion, Naga electro folk, etc, to celebrate the rich music of the state. Their songs are about life in the Naga hills in the old days, people, nature, love, etc, as well as retellings of old songs. The folk band uses traditional instruments such as tati (a traditional one-stringed guitar), khrokhro (shakers) and bamhum (a wind instrument) alongwith modern instruments such as guitar, piano, cello, drums, etc. “Any barrier, if it exists, is in the mind. We have seen wonderful response from people who didn’t understand a word, but have come back to us, saying they love our music, its vibe, melody and mood. It’s a cliché, but sometimes, words don’t really matter. Music speaks a language of its own and that has worked very well for us,” says band member Alune Tetseo.

Mercy Tetseo of Nagaland-based music band Tetseo Sisters

Not only Nagaland, Meghalaya, too, is having its unique culture celebrated through musician Rida Gatphoh and her band Rida and The Musical Folks, which sings in Khasi and English. Music plays a vital role in Khasi life so it’s no wonder that each traditional instrument, beat or melody that the band uses adds more meaning to the song. Interestingly, they also regularly organise various activities to promote arts and culture in the state. “We strive to preserve traditional art forms by bringing local craftsmen and artisans together to bring about innovation in design and create sustainable products,” says Shillong-based Gatphoh. Most of the traditional folk instruments that they use, in fact, are handmade by the band members.

An international trend

In 2002, Spanish pop group Las Ketchup gained massive popularity with its song Aserejé (The Ketchup Song). There was even a choreographed dance in the song that people imitated. Though the lyrics were in Spanish, the song became an international hit because of its catchy tune.

More recently, Despacito (Slowly), a 2017 song by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and rapper Daddy Yankee, took the world by storm, becoming the first video on YouTube to reach the milestones of three, four, five and six billion views. From Italy to Indonesia, the song’s appeal extended to places where Spanish isn’t the first or even second language. “It’s such a victory for the Latin world,” said Erika Ender, who co-wrote Despacito with Fonsi, at that time. “The whole world is singing and dancing in Spanish. That is something really amazing.”

A member of the Greek band Udopia which sings the traditional folk music of Greece

Clearly, not just in India, but worldwide, too, regional music is gaining a strong foothold, with musicians preferring to sing in their native languages. Take, for instance, Greek band Udopia, whose members sing the traditional folk music of Greece. Interestingly, the band, made up of musicians from diverse countries like New Zealand, Italy and Macedonia, also combines the many cultures of the Balkans, fusing them all seamlessly together in their music. So listeners can look forward to Balkan folk, Turkish, Arabian, Persian and even Indian influences. “It’s possible if you have an open mind. You play for God and love, not only for money. That’s why I am attracted to the (Indian instrument) tabla. It’s like mediation…” says Udopia drummer Kostas Anastasiadis, who studied Indian music for 25 years, about adopting the tabla in his music.

Folk music, experts say, is appealing because it entails exotic flavours, varied rhythms and tonalities. In some genres, such as Portuguese Fado, the listener is pulled into a musical vortex of emotional outpourings, which makes the experience novel and fascinating. And that’s exactly what Portuguese band Albaluna aims to do, but with a touch of Turkish, medieval Iberian and Spanish influences. The band also plays the tabla, sitar and Afghani rabab. “In our last album, we started with a song called Marmara, which is a sea near Istanbul, and the second song started with a tanpura,” says band member Ruben Monteiro. Most of their songs are about feelings and introspection. The band also sings about Portugal’s minorities—the gypsies. “We develop projects with them to integrate them (in mainstream society),” says Monteiro.

Talking about the importance of regional music, Monteiro says, “A language different from yours can be exotic too… It’s easy to sing in English… everybody understands it. But it’s really hard to put something like ‘I love you’ in a Portuguese song and make it sound good.”

Members of the Portuguese band Albaluna, which incorporates Turkish, medieval Iberian and Spanish influences in its music

There are other musicians, too, who think the same way. Musicians who would rather sing in the language they are comfortable in than English just to gain mass appeal. French-Cuban hip-hop musician La Dame Blanche aka Yaite Ramos Rodriguez is one of them. Rodriguez, who comes from a family of musicians and barely speaks English, sings in Spanish about life and stories that are “better told than hidden”.

Then there is half-Moroccan, half-Israeli musician Igal Gulaza Mizrahi of the band Gulaza, who sings about the Yemenite-Jewish women of Yemen in the Arabic language. “This kind of singing was never written… it was only orally transmitted from mother to daughter. I grew up in this culture and, hence, learnt it from old Yemenite women,” says Mizrahi, adding, “There is no such thing as a language barrier because music itself has so much power. It affects you even if you don’t understand it. It lets your mind imagine and makes your body feel.”

Challenges & hurdles

The choice to sing in one’s native language, however, does result in some challenges. Financial security is one of them. “We have to take up multiple jobs to sustain ourselves financially,” rues singer Avgerini Gatsi of the Greek band Udopia.

A predicament that regional musicians face in India too. “Things are changing for the better, but still organisers ask for a free gig in lieu of great ‘exposure’,” says Alune Tetseo of Tetseo Sisters. They are also advised to not charge a lot for their performances, as organisers feel that “folk/independent music is not commercially viable.” The folk band is also at times asked to sing Bollywood numbers at events. “We do perform our fusion covers, but sometimes it’s a funny situation. But most audiences now love our songs and are content to listen to what we have to share,” Tetseo says. “There is a lot of local/regional music happening… It’s just that people who are outside the north-east don’t really get to experience it, as it’s not very well organised and distributed.”

Other musicians concur. “Our will and drive are always confronted by fear, concern and negative thoughts, but how we choose to handle these and move past them is crucial. We need to keep learning and find solutions. But we have hope and will continue with our love for music,” says Meghalayan musician Gatphoh.

It’s no wonder then that some musicians and bands have given in to the demands of singing English and Bollywood songs, which more people across India can connect to. “If you don’t play Bollywood songs as a band, you already face challenges,” says vocalist Stephen Hnamte of Mizoram-based music band Avorra Records. That’s why, Hnamte says, his band, like many other north-eastern bands, “has not been brave enough to experiment with local music.”

Manipur’s Traffic Jam music band, which started in 2012, has a similar story. The band’s frontman and lead vocalist Jimmy Thang acknowledges that most north-eastern bands pursue rock music in English “because of the upbringing… but eventually, there should come a time when one should start appreciating their own traditional form of music and instruments,” he says.

Not just the north-east, the situation in strife-ridden Jammu & Kashmir is no less different when it comes to challenges faced by regional musicians. Playback singer Vibha Saraf, famous for singing Dilbaro in the film Raazi, admits that most Kashmiris don’t have the drive to take the state’s music outside Kashmir. “Sadly, Kashmir has not been associated with its positives. More and more people need to put it on the map as a musical reference,” she says.

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