To hear folk tunes from the desert this month, you needn’t endure sand in your toes or a chilly camel ride back to your tent.
The Asin Khan Ensemble will play its first-ever concert in Mumbai at G5A on February 20, blending the sounds of the Sindhi sarangi with age-old songs of love, loss, birth, marriage and celebration. They’ll also set the soulful poems of Kabir, Mirabai and Shah Latif to music.
Even among sarangi players, the Sindhi variation is rare. The fiddle is crafted from sheesham wood, with strings made from gut and wire. A bow made of horse hair coaxes out a fine sound that is at once haunting and plaintive. Its music is kept alive by the Langa community, originally from Sind but resettled in Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Barmer in Rajasthan.
“It’s a very special music,” says Asin Khan Langa from Barmer, who picked up the instrument at age 10, learning from his father, Muse Khan, and also studying under the master player Lakha Khan.
Now 29, he’s played at festivals across India, Europe, Russia, China and the US and still squeezes in two to four hours of practice almost every day.
Khan collaborates with Sadik Langa on the dholak and Bhungar Manganiyar on the khartal, a handheld instrument that creates music from wood and cymbals. They’re happiest playing in India. “Abroad, audiences are mesmerised, but can only respond to the mood. In India, they understand the words too and can appreciate the music better,” Khan says.
Mumbai has few opportunities for this kind of appreciation, a problem that G5A is looking to address. “The concert kicks off Sounds of the Soil, a bi-monthly folk-music series that showcases little-known Indian music and independent artistes so we can learn from them,” says Anuradha Parikh, G5A’s founding director.
Divya Bhatia, who organises the Jodhpur RIFF festival, where Khan and his collaborators have performed, says their music is not populist, Bollywood-influenced work packaged for city ears.
“Some folk artistes end up singing ‘Mast kalandar’ because it’s what they think cities want,” he adds. “Asin’s music comes from a time and place when there was no other entertainment, no cinema halls. These are old songs without modern trappings, and yet are still relevant and extremely enjoyable.”