Sometime in 1988, Hayat Mohammad Langa, a traditional folk musician from Rajasthan travelled to Japan to perform there. He still remembers the Japanese songs he learned during the tour while collaborating with Japenese artists. But Langa took a vow not to sing, or even hum any of those numbers after returning to India. “That would have influenced my craft. I want it to remain pure and rooted,” said Hayat, one of the 250 performers at the Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) held from October 23 to 27. In its ninth year, the festival continues to encourage collaborations between traditional folk and international artistes. Some, like Hayat Mohammad, attempt to preserve the pristine nature of their traditional music even as they perform enthusiastically with international musicians. “We have to unlearn a lot of what we learn while performing with artists from different countries,” he said.
This year, the line-up of international acts who collaborated with Rajasthani folk musicians included Scottish band Shooglenifty, American Brazilian musician Maga Bo, South African flautist and composer Wouter Kellerman, and Israeli bassist Yusso Fine.
For most artistes, local and international, it’s all about finding the commonality between trans-national tunes. Sometimes cultural wires did get incomprehensibly entangled: during rehearsals for a collaboration with the Manganiyars, traditional musicians from Rajasthan, Israeli bassist and producer Yossi Fine, only heard them play without giving any feedback or input. This went on for two days and the Manganiyars grew anxious believing that Fine, a Grammy nominee, did not like what he heard. Others wondered how the show would come together as the musicians had already spent two out of the three days that had been set aside for preparation. But Fine, who was on his first trip to India, said he was absorbing it all as he was not familiar with the sounds. “This is how I operate. I listen to their music for the maximum time allowed during preparation to know what I can add to it without changing it,” he said. Fine does not rule out a project with Rajasthani folk artists in the near future. “Now, when I have performed with them, I have identified the common notes required for collaboration. I am positive about coming back for a long term project,” he said.
South African flautist and composer Wouter Kellerman, who received the Grammy in 2014 for his album Winds of Samsara in collaboration with Indian composer and producer Ricky Kej, performed at the Jodhpur RIFF with Rajasthani musicians and put also put up an impromptu gig with Carnatic singer Mahesh Vinayakram - incidentally, one of the best experiences at the Festival. Kellerman said that he believed in ‘feeling’ the music during collaboration rather than ‘intellectualising’ it. “You have to adapt to what they do and start to feel the music from the first moment,” he said, adding that working with musicians from various genres helped him grow as an artist. His latest album Love Language has drawn influences from Spain, Cuba, India, Greece and the United States.
As a classical musician, Vinayakram, who has collaborated with British, American and Austrian artists, has a methodical approach and initially learns about a musician’s work through various platforms including social media. “If you know the grammar of music and are technically sound, you can work with any genre,” he said. “Artists from varied backgrounds coming together does not always create great sound. The right current has to come together for it to be successful,” he added. When that happens, it influences everyone who participates positively.
It also opens artistes to new ways of playing, thinking and being. “Our range can vary depending on how much energy one wants to put in the performance. But international artists are disciplined. I believe they end up learning more from such collaborations than we do,” said Rajasthani singer Sumitra Das Goswami.
(The writer was hosted by Jodhpur RIFF.)