Being born in the desert has its set of obvious challenges. The heat will dare the epidermis to tear off any instant. And while cool nights and zero humidity are offered as a solace, nothing can make up for the hot sun the way desert music, imbued with the unique flavour of loose sand, can. And if two such distinct music traditions, from the two different yet equally beautiful deserts of the Thar and Sahara, come together, then the result has to be magical. And that’s the sorcery that the Desert Festival, to be held in Delhi on November 26-27, promises.
Organised by the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts, the people behind the spellbinding Manganiyar Seduction concert held in the Capital last year (and presented by HT Brunch), this festival brings back the Manganiyars – but this time with musicians from Mali. Indian audiences will get to see the electrifying singer-guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (son of legendary performer Ali Farka Touré) and Mamadou Diabate, a 71st generation kora player from Mali, one of the finest exponents of this versatile and melodious Malian instrument.
Last year’s Manganiyar Seduction was directed by contemporary Indian theatre director Roysten Abel, and featured over 40 Rajasthani folk musicians. But this year is going to be different. "That was a Sufi musical. This year, the focus will be on individual performances and fusion of traditional music from Mali and India," says Ankur Malhotra, one of the founders of Amarrass.
And one of the most delicious possibilities is that the two sets of musicians will jam with each other to create live fusion on stage. Adding the cherry to the cake is the fact that they won’t even meet before the performance!
Vieux Farka Touré, often dubbed as the Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara (he gave a successful performance at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa last year), is especially delighted by that. "This is how I like it! I love music that is totally spontaneous – totally improvised. There is a unique magic in that. It will be music that can only be created in one place at one time, never to be recreated. That is genius!" he told us in an email interview.
Loosely categorised into the heavily flourishing genre of World Music, which is characterised by its raw, untamed sound, Vieux plays a style of jazz-inspired Malian blues with influences of rock. It is an improvisation of the sound which was perfected by his Grammy-award winning father, the late Ali Farka Touré.
Born in a family of soldiers in a small town, Niafunké, Vieux’s father – surprisingly – never wanted him to follow in his footsteps. But for the young Touré, that was not to be. "Music has always been in my heart. I do not know who I am without my music. So there was no denying my destiny for me. With my father’s approval or without it, music would always be my path. I am glad though that he recognised this and gave me his blessings before he passed away. It gives me assurance and a pure heart in pursuing my destiny," he wrote.
The recent release of his third album The Secret has Vieux collaborating with the rock group Dave Matthews Band for a track titled All the Same with a distinct sitar sound. "I used a sitar-guitar on the track. I really like the sound of that instrument. While in India, I would like to learn more about it," said Vieux in an interview to the Indian edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Though, with us, he was candid enough to admit that he wasn’t too familiar with the Manganiyar folk tradition. "I have heard music from India – many different kinds – but I have not been educated about what kind of music is from where in India. I know India and its cultures are very vast. I am really looking forward to discovering more about them."
Same but Different
The sense of similarity between Indian and Malian cultures is hard to miss, especially when Ashutosh Sharma, one of the co-founders of Amarrass, points it out to us. "Feudal structures in the Sahara and the Thar had a role to play in nurturing the musical tradition. Mali’s most celebrated king, Mansa Musa, never travelled anywhere without his musicians. In Rajasthan, Rajput princes and patrons couldn’t do without the Manganiyars or the Langas for their ceremonies and celebrations."
After the Manganiyar Seduction last year, the Amarrass team spent time doing live recordings all over Rajasthan. Recording artists such as the national award-winning Sindhi sarangi maestro, Lakha Khan, Nihal Khan – a blind and powerfully talented singer – and the late Rukma Bai, one of the few female Manganiyar singers, they are now ready with two new albums: Mitha Bol (sweet verse) and Banko Ghodo (brave horse). It was during these recordings that they came up with the idea of bringing musicians from the Thar and Sahara together.
"Desert music from Africa and India have a lot in common. They are both born out of rich and vibrant traditions that are experiencing a modern revival through the talent of dedicated musicians," says Ravneet Kler, one of the founders of Amarrass. "So we thought, why not hear them together? After months of planning, many phone calls and exchanges of emails, we are ready with the festival," he adds.
All for home
Still thriving as a society of musicians, though other jobs like hired driving, are being explored, the Manganiyars have a deep sense of community and want nothing more than their music to benefit everyone. Dara Khan, son of the legendary Lakha Khan, tells us over a dim line from Jodhpur district in Rajashtan that things have started turning around in the past few years. "People are coming back to music. Even other communities notice this and respect us more. It’s a positive sign for everyone," he says.
And Vieux Farka Touré thinks the same about his home town. "I always carry Niafunké in my heart when I am travelling and playing music. I want for my success to also be the success of Niafunké, and when I have resources, I am keen to share them with the people of Niafunké. If the Manganiyars share this sentiment for their people, then we will connect very easily," he said. Explaining the unique sounds of the desert he wrote. "Desert music is music of a vast expanse, of open spaces. The music is meant to diffuse out far and wide and to float on the open air and across the sand dunes. So it must be very open and cyclical to be in tune with the pulse of the desert."
And lastly when we couldn’t resist but ask his expectations from the concert in Delhi, he jibed. "I expect to take the Indian audience to the moon! Ha ha.(sic) Seriously, I do not know what to expect, and that is what makes it so fun. That is what makes live music so special and irreplaceable. One never knows!"
Hendrix of The Sahara
Son of the legendary, Grammy-winning guitar player Ali Farka Touré, Vieux Farka Touré easily slipped into his late father’s shoes even as he created a sound that was distinctly his own. A celebrated guitarist from Africa, this Malian performer also earned accolades for his performance at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa last year. He is now coming to India on his maiden tour and will be headlining the Amarrass Desert Festival in Delhi.
Traditionally, a community of Muslim court musicians from Rajasthan, their powerful renditions of Sufi and Hindustani classical music have been heard everywhere, from Persia to Punjab, for centuries.
Grab The Sand Here
What: The Amarrass Desert Music Festival When: 26-27 November 2011, 5 pm
Where: Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi
How: Donor invites available at all Fabindia outlets in Delhi and NCR.
Contact: www.amarrass.com. Or call 011-46661200
Vieux Farka Touré will also be performing at Blue Frog, Mumbai, on November 29.
From HT Brunch, November 13
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