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.”
Amarrass’ first release was an album of The Manganiyar Seduction, and it remains the label’s top seller to date. Like the stage production, Amarrass has tried to draw a balance between the traditional and the modern, something musicians like the Manganiyar are trying to come to terms with. Roysten Abel had to convince the Manganiyars that they needed to adapt to the times and it took three years to bring the show to the stage. In his production notes, Abel deliberates on the challenges he faced when he finally decided on the concept of The Manganiyar Seduction, where the 43 musicians were made to sit in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows, one on top of the other.
“The Manganiyars were not used to a system of rehearsals and I was trying to translate an experience that was not even clear to me into a piece of theatre through them,” Abel writes in the notes. “Since I was not a music director and they were not from ‘theatre’, all we could do was be open and let the ephemeral take form.”
Mame Khan tells me adapting was not easy for the Manganiyars; theirs is a tradition of improvisation. “We tried a lot of combinations and figured out that some didn’t work before we came to the final format. But the most difficult for us was the lack of eye contact. We Manganiyars give in to the music totally and often improvise during the performance just by eye contact. Imagine our reaction when we were told that we would be sitting on top of each other! But Roy insisted and we decided to trust his vision.”
To seek out and discover music for their label, Sharma & co. visit various rural Rajasthani villages and record local musicians in their natural surroundings. Aside from CDs, Amarrass-produced music is also available as MP3s on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody and Spotify. For the purists and the collectors, they even released The Manganiyar Seduction as a 180-gram double-LP, and there will be more Amarrass vinyl coming in 2013.
But the minds behind Amarrass are not anthropologists, they have taken folk artists willing to experiment and shown them an urban outlet in which they can collaborate with musicians they wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to work with. Mame Khan is one such artist, and the Rabbit Hole sessions are one such outlet.
All this is part of their unique approach to attempt to popularise folk music – to package it well and bring it to more mainstream audiences. Quite simply, they think this kind of music is cool.
Turquoise Cottage closes, it’s just after midnight, and the place is empty but for a handful of regulars who sit by the bar, chatting with Mame Khan. The owner smiles indulgently and joins them, waving away the waiters. Khan sings in Rajasthani, and translates the lyrics into Hindi when English fails him. Sharma, sitting next to him, pitches in when Khan struggles for a word. And whenever he pauses, the questions start: “Is it always about love?” (“No.”) “Why do Manganiyars, who are Muslims, sing about Hindu gods?” (“Because we were patronised by Hindu Rajputs.”) ...
The remaining regulars egg Mame Khan on to sing “pure” folk songs, songs that define the Manganiyar community, songs that have been passed on orally from generation to generation. Mame Khan is happy to indulge them, and as he launches into his next song, without a backup rock band, Axl Rose observes silently from a framed Rolling Stone cover on the wall above Khan’s head.
Impromptu jam sessions are one thing, but there’s also the Amarrass Desert Music Festival, first put on in Delhi in November, 2011. The Siri Fort Auditorium, with a seating capacity of nearly 2 500, didn’t exactly fill out, but given that it was the first staging, no one was going to call it a failure. In fact, it took the festival to convince Ankur Malhotra, a mechanical engineer by trade, that Amarrass deserved his full attention. Until the 2011 Siri Fort performance, Malhotra shuffled between jobs in the United States, DJing on the side and managing an events-based website he co-founded, Madison Music Review. He now spends half his time in India, travelling and recording artists for Amarrass.
“I was apprehensive initially, but decided to give it a shot,” he says. “We have something great going on here, I can feel it.”
The second Desert Music Festival is set for another Delhi run on December 1-2.
Amarrass Records is not the first Indian indie-label to venture into folk music. Almost 12 years ago, Shefali Bhushan, a trained musician, filmmaker and actor, started Beat of India, based in Delhi, an online resource for folk music. Like Amarrass, she and her team went in search of music to document in its original context. Their efforts resulted in a collection of over 5 000 songs, which Bhushan eventually released as various albums under the Beat of India label.
“We, in fact, stayed away from the Manganiyars and the Bauls as they have already carved a place for themselves in the public imagination,” says Bhushan. “Instead, we decided to seek out the unknown but excellent artists.”
While the intent is similar, the approach of the two labels are not. Beat of India believes that content in its pure form – as Bhushan puts it, “unpolished vignettes of folk music” – will attract an audience on its own merit, whereas Amarrass is a bit more slick, wrapping the music in design-savvy packaging. And unlike Beat of India, which offers artists a ten percent royalty, Amarrass works on a fifty-fifty partnership with the musicians.
At the moment, Amarrass is barely covering costs, and Beat of India’s Bhushan agrees that things are financially tight if you’re in the business of folk music. Beat of India has artists whose royalties to date total a mere Rs 300.
Amarrass estimates their total album sales since November 27, 2010 at approximately 2 400 – including digital downloads – the bulk of which is 1 500 units of The Manganiyar Seduction, which in its incarnation as a live concert is still playing to packed houses around the globe. Their last performance was in August at WOMAD, a world music festival in the UK.
Both Sharma and Bhushan say that the surest way to reach people – and make money – are live concerts. That Amarrass strives hard to organise live events could explain its relative success vis-à-vis Beat of India, which finds the prospect of organising live shows too troublesome.
Another aspect of the Amarrass strategy is to communicate their creative process through their website and Facebook page. Before cutting an album, they post videos of the live recordings they made during their field trips and blog about them, encouraging people to leave comments.
“Of course, all this is still very much in the ‘create an awareness’ phase. But for what it’s worth, we are getting close to 1 000 likes on Facebook,” says Malhotra. They’ve also helped their artists set up their own Facebook accounts. “It’s again early days as yet to see how well it works for the artists. But it certainly is fun to watch them interact with people through Facebook.
The Amarrass team also encouraged Rais Khan, one of the more adventurous artists on the label, who is also a member of the Barmer Boys, to experiment with sounds. “Carrying forward the tradition,” as Malhotra puts it, the Barmer Boys are an experiment within their regional, centuries-old traditional format. The band of four Manganiyar musicians was formed after being encouraged by Amarrass, who also helped coin the band’s name.
For the past two years, Rais Khan has been learning beat-boxing from UK-based electronic music producer Jason Singh. Khan often mixes morchang – a small, Jew’s harp-like instrument held in the mouth – with beat-box, record scratches, loops and bass effects, adding new layers to the traditional sounds of Manganiyar when he is playing for the Barmer Boys. “We had a concert recently at Zorba in Delhi, where the Barmer Boys jammed with me,” says Malhotra, who spins electronica under the stage name DJ Spincycle.
“Just being a label is not going to cut it.”
It’s not difficult to find 301 Skipper Corner in Nehru Place. The bright blue door, just as Sharma described, greets you as you step out of the lift. Inside, Sharma has painted his tiny office a sunny shade of orange. The wall is covered with posters for the Desert Music Festival and Amarrass albums, along with images of picturesque locales from around the world – Amarrass Records shares the space with Sharma’s travel agency, Sadhana Travels.
Today, the travelling will be done by a couple of kamanchas, packed for the United States, to be sent to Malhotra.
The Amarrass Society for Performing Arts, an off- shoot of the music label, acts as a platform through which musicians can sell instruments that they produce. Sharma says that when he discovered that some of the finest sarangi makers of Rajasthan were in Mumbai making furniture instead of musical instruments, he and his Amarrass partners decided to diversify. First, they helped the sarangi makers in Rajasthan to get orders from across the globe, although not yet enough to keep the artisans from having to work in Mumbai. And given that the “parent” company is a travel agency, Amarrass also came up with the idea of offering the buyers a chance to learn to play their new instrument from the maestros themselves. So far, a musician from Wisconsin has been the only one to take up the offer.
“We have managed to sell three kamanchas, several morchangs, a sarangi and a few pairs of algozas and khar- tals,” says Sharma. “Sure, it’s a slow start, but we aren’t in a hurry.”
Since the label was officially launched in November 2010, apart from The Manganiyar Seduction, there have been just two other Amarrass albums, the compilations Mitha Bol and Banko Ghodo. In July this year, the release of Madou Sidiki Diabate Live in Concert was announced. Diabate, the acclaimed musician from Mali, had performed at the Amarrass Desert Music Festival in 2011. There is also the Barmer Boys debut album scheduled for release soon.
In May this year, the founders of Amarrass went to Bhuj, in Gujarat, in search of a musician community supposedly originated from Sudan. “The idea came after we watched a brief episode about them on MTV some time ago,” says Malhotra. The result of their trip is on YouTube.
“What we did there was, of course, not enough,” says Sharma. “We had only a day and a half there. We just wanted to check out the scene. We are aware that our label is being associated with Rajasthani folk music. But we want to cut across not only the regional divides, but the global as well. We will get there."