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To the rhythm of life

Life along the rim of the Indian Ocean skipped a beat in December 2004. The tsunami wreaked devastation at a scale not known in living memory — tens of thousands died and millions of homes were flattened. But out of this rare calamity was born a thing of rare beauty — the Laya Project.

india Updated: May 28, 2010 23:37 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Life along the rim of the Indian Ocean skipped a beat in December 2004. The tsunami wreaked devastation at a scale not known in living memory — tens of thousands died and millions of homes were flattened. But out of this rare calamity was born a thing of rare beauty — the Laya Project.

It started out as a mission to record some traditional and contemporary music from habitations dotting the ocean’s rim. After six months of research and two years of recording in India, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the project resulted in a brilliant 68-minute film.

Though it went on to win awards at film festivals and was mothered by EarthSync, a Chennai-based production house, the film and its fantastic range of music remained mostly unknown to the Indian audience. Blame it on our obsession with film and devotional music. Or the fact that the price of Rs 1,299 (for a DVD and a CD) wasn’t friendly enough for mass circulation. But now the excuses are gone. A smaller DVD pack (Rs 800) is on the shelves. Last month EarthSync remixed and re-released the songs on the internet (at layaproject.com, for $0.89 a song or $12 for the whole album). And next month it will release a double-CD pack of the remixes, titled ‘A New Day’.

Laya does to the region’s music what Latcho Drom, the 1993 film by Tony Gatlif, did to gypsy music. By avoiding pre-eminent sessions musicians, both films bring freshness to their chosen fields. The visuals stay on the edgier side of the lush and the mushy. The sound recordings, often done under the sky on location, are impeccable. And by keeping the spoken word to the minimum, both the films reach out first with the universal language of music.

If Latcho Drom draws a line of musical familiarity from Rajasthan to Spain, Laya casts a wide net around the polyphonic traditions of the Indian Ocean region. Among the 23 songs of the main film and the DVD extras, there’s Didong, a mix of vocals and body percussion from Indonesia, Buddhist chanting from Myanmar, and Bandiyaa Jehun, in which the beat is kept on pots, from the Maldives. Unsurprisingly, you would have heard the basic melody of each of these diverse songs somewhere around India.

The clear and sure voice of Shaheema from the Maldives cuts through the soul like a sharp icicle through soft butter. The tune she sings is the same as that of ‘Ehsaan mere dilpe tumhara hai dosto’, the Shankar-Jaikishan song sung by Mohammad Rafi for the 1966 film Gaban. We do not know whether the melody travelled from Bihar to the Maldives, or from Male to Mumbai.

Some of the recordings can be called acts of resurrection. ‘Hai la sa’, an oarsman’s song from Nagapattinam, the Tamil Nadu district that was hit the hardest by the tsunami, is not sung anymore because the motorboats have overtaken the traditional dinghies. But it gets a new life in the studio when mixed with Paul Jacob’s electric bass and K.V. ‘Balu’ Balakrishnan’s drums.

From Perca village in the Andaman & Nicobar we have a traditional Nicobari song that the island’s young people laugh at because their ears are attuned to more “Indianised” fares.

Among the straight servings are ‘Ya Allah’ sung by Abdul Ghani and friends, Sufis from the Nagore shrine, and ‘Tapatam’, a frenzy of drums threaded together with nadheswaram, the horn.

It’s not that everything sounds close to our ears. The farthest it gets is a tune stutteringly strummed by a General of the Myanmarese junta on the saung, a bow-shaped harp that’s the earliest known instrument from the country.

With so much music, you tend to forget the sadness that inspired the project. There’s hardly any talk of the Big Wave. We mostly see small waves softly lapping the shores where life has overtaken grief. The Deep Blue forms the larger backdrop. In the foreground, small fleets of loosely moored boats sway gently in the waves.