The Desert Sessions
The men behind amarrass records aren't anthropologists, they want to make traditional folk music cool enough for india's urbane.
Most nights, Turquoise Cottage functions as a fairly typical Delhi pub, but on Wednesday evenings, both professional and amateur musicians come with their drums, guitars and other instruments, and take over a corner of the Vasant Vihar space, belting out covers and occasional originals as part of the Rabbit Hole series of jam sessions.
Tonight is Mame Khan’s second journey down the Rabbit Hole. He stands still in front of the assembled band, his eyes closed, listening. It takes him a minute to feel his way into the song, and then his voice rings out in a series of alaap improvisations, perfectly in tune with the band’s rock riffs.
Ashutosh Sharma, 37, Khan’s manager of sorts, looks over at me and cocks his eyebrow, as if to say ‘I told you so’. I get the feeling he could also be seeking affirmation for why he keeps bringing musicians like Khan to venues so removed from their usual context: folk music.
“We needed to convince the musicians initially,” says Sharma. “But now they love coming here. And when they are here, everyone wants to jam with them.”
Mame Khan, 34, comes from the Manganiyar community, Rajasthani Muslims that settled predominantly in Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jodhpur. They have traditionally performed for Rajput royalty, and later, other wealthy patrons. Their repertoire ranges from ballads about kings to Sufi poetry as well as songs for various occasions like births, marriages and feasts. Khan is no stranger to being on stage, but these cross-genre jam sessions in Delhi are something new for him.
“The music is so different, but the feeling is the same,” says Khan. “It is like we speak different languages, but we understand each other perfectly.”
Sharma is Mame Khan’s manager “of sorts” because he’s also a co-founder of Khan’s label, Amarrass Records, which Sharma set up with three friends in 2010. Sharma’s entrepreneurial streak began by opening a travel agency at age 19; US-based Ankur Malhotra has his technology and DJing background; Avirook Sen works as a journalist and Ravneet Kler is a partner of Sharma’s travel agency.
“It was because of Ravneet’s interest in theatre that Amarrass Records fell into place,” says Sharma. “Although a music label was something that we had been contemplating since 2008, it was while helping with the logistics of putting up the show, The Manganiyar Seduction, directed by Roysten Abel [a friend of Kler], at Purana Qila in Delhi in 2010, that it occurred to us that Amarrass Records could be a viable project.”