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Protest Music
The Record tracks the alternative scene world-over zooming in on India which is pushing the musical limits to counter the existing mainstream and giving music lovers a taste for something new.

Watch indie/alternative artiste Natasha Khan giving a live performance, feathers tucked in her hair, hopping to the mad music that she plays. This Brighton based musician swings like a gypsy on stage; her videos, equally wacky, are loaded with shades of dark, dream-like visuals influenced by her early childhood. The ‘sexual ghost sound’ that her songs capture is another expression asserting her free-spirited lifestyle. Ditto for psych-folk-rock artiste Devendra Banhart; if anybody were to see him doing his semi-naked jig on the stage or watch his surreal videos, they would surely be transported to a different world. He lives like a nomad and preaches a life one can only dream of. These musicians have a striking resemblance to the 70’s philosophy of ‘make love, not war’ (the Summer of Love generation).

Is it back in vogue? Ignoring the bustling mainstream musicians and the billboards and the record sales, there is a huge movement around the globe that is touting the simple life and music for the soul.

What’s there to protest?
These are musicians who have similar beliefs. The protest might not be against a government or an injustice or a particular external problem. Their issues have more to do with creative differences; it’s abstract, but the movement is quite strong. Most of these musicians are travelling all through the year, leading a nomadic lifestyle. If you look at folk, using simple instruments and simple language, the music tries to engage the listener; and same is the case with electronica. It is digital, but at various levels it can be compared to folk because you can find fragmented, and sometimes a complete lack of, speech in the music. At some point, artistes that belong to either or both genres, talk of the same philosophy. None of the festivals that support the bands do it for the money; it’s always a gathering of like minded people. The basic system and the approach of mainstream music towards the art of creating music is what irks them. If you look at a Devendra, or even many of the bands that have been mentioned, they are all people who advocate simple living; getting to the core of the art of music.

Drawing parallels to India, one can easily see that a movement is beginning, countering the mainstream, an answer back. With a string of underground music festivals all over, a lot of them in India itself, electronic and folk based music being churned out by musicians is fast adopting the ‘going back to the roots’ mantra and strongly brushing aside the larger than life mainstream scene.

Tribal instruments, flowing ragas and rhythms from folk, classical and other genres merge to counter mainstream. The main problem most of these artistes have is that mainstream music is addressing the art on the surface, and people need to grow beyond that. Therefore, experimenting with Indian music and other rich traditions from various countries by keeping the essence, but at the same time building a contemporary lifestyle and thought process through what they make.

It’s interesting to track the growth of this subtle protest attitude that has evolved amongst the new generation. “I wouldn’t care if my music got commercial popularity or not. I wouldn’t mind it if a dragon made me a pizza either,” jokes Devendra Banhart, whose parents followed an Indian spiritual guru who gave Devendra his name. His songs often throw open interpretations connected to Indian philosophy like the karma system.

“Karma, to me, is simply the law of cause and effect; what you put into something is what you get out of it. Also, I believe in the cyclical nature of everything, all those actions ~ energy, good or bad ~ will eventually bounce back at you,” he says. Devendra’s music is highly influenced by the kind of life he leads and since his parents have been hippies, he feeds his music by living a nomadic life. Deep philosophical thoughts run through his songs, which is a result of the kind of life he leads. The musician stands against anything commercial; the music he plays is underlined with his peculiar take on life and stresses on the ‘going back to the roots’ ideology.

His contemporaries might be pushing the so called underground music, but they are all the hottest things at fashion shows. Devendra, for example, scores for international fashion shows, but leads a nomadic existence. How does he balance the two? “Wine,” he quips.

Indian awakening
I caught up with the eclectic band Tatva Kundalini, who were in town and who vehemently refused to believe that there is no market in India for chill-out/ progressive/trance/folk/psychedelic music. “I think we are starting a whole new movement with a number of electronic acts now coming into the limelight and actually being appreciated by music lovers,” says Aditya Anand of the band, who thinks money will follow good music. “I think it’s a sort of protest, and money does not matter,” he adds.

Duo Shaai’r + Func, who are currently touring abroad, agree to the new change in people’s attitude. According to them, the change was evident all through their shows here in India. “I’ve noticed that people are much more open to new things than I thought. In fact, people crave something new. I’ve also noticed that there’s a huge need for music that reminds us of good things. What’s happening in the world from a political stand point is scary, but there’s also scope for really good things to happen and I think people want music and culture that reflects that change and offers that hope.

“We had this amazing gig at the legendary Knitting Factory NYC on their mainstage, and it turned into an impromptu, metaphorical ~ built up and broken down simultaneously ~ jam session, where the entire crowd was chanting ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Oh man, I was so inspired; I was filled with so much faith. It’s great to know that in one night you can get people fired up about their own capacity for change and know that they will take that with them,” says Monica Dogra aka Shaai’r.

The two also toured with other electronic/alternative artistes, including Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale, performing at Glastonbury. According to Salim Merchant, who is part of the same gang, these festivals truly highlight the trends that are going on and give a clearer picture of what people want, unlike studio recordings. He did some trend spotting while on tour and says, “It’s all going back to the 70s rock ‘n’ roll culture, I feel. We see a lot of 70s bands regrouping as well. I think that’s the trend right now.”

The whole electronica movement in India is at a parallel level, growing and becoming something of a revolution in itself. Delhi seems to be the hub of these folk-ethno-electric infused sounds. Festivals such as Moondust, Pushkar and the like draw huge crowds that represent the free-thinkers. Says Arjun G of Jalebee Cartel (an electronic outfit), “I think it’s a whole process that started in the 70s that is now coming back. For example, when the Big Chill Festival happened in Goa this year, it was more advertised, more spoken about and people really wanted to go for it. I think the 70s never went out of fashion.”

Shifting focus from rock to electronica
While a decade or so ago, rock music from India was considered the angst-y and offbeat route, the individual’s answer to the mainstream, the new evolving genre of music that many rock musicians are turning to and hogging attention like never before is electronica and folk. With the strong Indian undercurrent that many of them adopt, these seem to be the flavour and the new avatar of the protest against mainstream. “Most of the electronic acts give Indian sounds and are perfect for Buddha Bar and chill-out lounge genres, because of which they pick up quickly at a global level. Yes, rock music was an attempt to push away the mainstream at both Indian and international levels but at the international level, nobody would appreciate an Indian band playing rock music because at the end of the day there’s no Indian element to it, and be it punk rock or metal, it’s all rock, which is why I think it’s taking so long and still going too slow to break through,” says Arjun G of the band Jalebee Cartel, which is the latest hype in the electronic scene in India.


You can read the rest of our special feature Protest Music in the November 2007 issue of The Record Music Magazine available at your local newsagent.

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