Sneha Khanwalkar’s cross-country musical expedition for MTV, Sound Trippin, is a remarkable experiment for a number of reasons. I had written here about the first of the songs aired, ‘Tung tung’. The recent publication of a set of 10 songs gives us a reason to listen more closely.
Khanwalkar and her team descend upon musical hotspots for three days. The challenge is to sample everyday sounds from the region, listen to local musicians of various traditions, write a song, record the musicians, and then mash up the samples on laptops to produce a song that’s a sort of unique musical badge for the region. And all of it is to be done in three days.
It’s the stuff of wet dreams for reality TV producers. But as would happen with their products, there are some artery-clogging substances in the juice. By going for established musical traditions, they stand the risk of reinforcing clichés. This can get worse when they land up in Kolkata or Goa, musical destinations that have been overdone over the years at the cost of others.
Predictability is also bound to creep into the blends Khanwalkar cooks up. For example, by now we know that she loves to the level of imitation the sounds of Imogen Heap, Björk and dubstep.
But all these worries have been mitigated to various degrees by the sheer brilliance of Khanwalkar’s work. One, she has worked not with the typical musicians documentarywallas usually flock to. Two, even though she has been to Kolkata and Goa, she has also landed up in Yellapur, Majuli and Dharavi. And finally, because she seems to passionately love such a variety of music, her mash-ups remain interesting. Above all, she presents ways of listening to the regional sounds that we would not have come across as regular music lovers.
If there is a weakness that remains less addressed, it’s the lyrics. Some of the playfulness works (as in ‘Tung tung’ in the sports-loving Kila Raipur or ‘Phinger’ in the nautanki-loving Kanpur), as does some of the thoughtfulness (‘Jiyai rakha’ to the Brahmaputra in Majuli and ‘Yere’, or Come, to the raingod in Yellapur). But the rest mostly trudges on well-ploughed muddy tracks.
Some of the musical connections Khanwalkar makes are rare. She teams up, among a galaxy of musicians, with Mithun, a didgeridoo player in Benares, Carlton Kitto, a jazz guitarist in Kolkata whose music speaks of a rarely-celebrated era, and Gulabi Rama from the Afro-Indian community of Siddhis in north Karnataka. There is also Abhijit Jejurikar’s band Dharavi Rocks, made up of kids from the slum who play on scrapped stuff. If not for the eclecticism, listen to the album for the refreshing wash of its trippy music.
Past forward in Bhojpur
There is more to Bhojpuri music than double entendres. This is not my assertion; it’s a desperate attempt to break out of the regional cliché by Kalpana Patowary, an Assamese singer who has been more successful in Bhojpuri. As proof, she has come out with an album of songs by Bhikhari Thakur, the bard of Bhojpur. Thanks to the album’s recent national distribution, many like me got to know of the cultural icon.
Thakur was born in 1887 in the Saran district of Bihar (also known by its biggest town, Chhapra — the C of Bhojpur’s ABC, the other two being Ara and Ballia). Folk theatre inspired the songs and plays Thakur wrote highlighting the plight of ostracised and abandoned women. His most popular creations is Bidesiya, a lament in the form of a tamasha for those gone abroad, particularly as labourers on ships like Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis. No wonder Thakur’s works find resonance as far as Mauritius, Trinidad and Suriname.
Most of the songs are for women, though men used to play the parts in Thakur’s time. Kalpana has chosen songs on child marriage (‘Babuji’), on Ramlila, on alcoholism (‘Kalyug prem’), and on the separation pangs of newlyweds (‘Bidhata’). The tunes are traditional, accompanied by dholaks and sarangi. The songs are introduced by an unnamed but helpful baritone.
One hopes more such albums will come into the mainstream as we search for music beyond Bollywood.