Annie Paul | Reggae inna India
With all the angst about two Japanese performers supposedly taking over the Jamaican music scene by entering local competitions and dominating them (Japanese sound system Yard Beat beating Jamaica's Bass Odyssey in the Boom Sound Clash finals, and Japanese reggae-dancehall artiste Rankin Pumpkin nearly winning Magnum Kings and Queens), I thought I might highlight a happier story about the export of Jamaican music and culture.
Last month, Al Jazeera aired a half-hour documentary called India's Reggae Resistance: Defending Dissent Under Modi. The film featured a musician named Taru Dalmia, aka Delhi Sultanate, and his partner, singer Samara Chopra, aka Begum X. Principals in a band named the Ska Vengers, bringing classic reggae to the masses of India is their mission.
After current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was elected, the Ska Vengers produced a confrontational video called A Message to You, Modi, with lyrics that went: "Stop your fooling around / Messing up our future / Time to straighten right out / You should have wound up in jail." Like many other artists, writers and musicians, they were worried about what the new regime might mean for freedom of speech. The bold song earned the band a lot of attention, attracting filmmaker Vikram Singh, who made the Al Jazeera documentary.
I met Delhi Sultanate and Begum X about three years ago when they visited Jamaica. For them, it was a pilgrimage. For Taru, in particular, the trip was like living a dream because of the close emotional and psychic connection he feels with Jamaican music. He first encountered reggae as a young teenager living in Germany where his mother taught Hindi. The bond was immediate and his love for the music followed him to Berkeley in California, where his family moved next.
In California, Taru hung out with youngsters whose parents had been members of the Black Panthers and continued to nourish his radical roots with reggae. Fast-forward to today and Delhi, where he now lives. The documentary showed Taru and Samara in the process of getting a large sound system built called Bass Foundations Roots - BFR Sound System. Their plan is to tour the country with it, visiting sites of environmental and human rights protests bringing reggae, which they see as quintessential protest music, to protesters.
An earlier project called World Sound Power, tried to meld Indian folk resistance music with Jamaican sounds, with lyrics focusing on caste violence, state abuse of power and crony capitalism. With the BFR sound systems, their intention is quite simple and revolutionary. As Taru explained in an interview on criticallegalthinking.com:
"We can make people dance. Our sound system is powerful and can create a sense of physical well-being and connectedness in listeners. At present, this is one thing that we can contribute to political spaces and gatherings. There is a time for speeches, for critical discourse for discussion, for slogans, but dancing and singing together is also very important. We will only get through these times if we find joy in each other and build strong relationships of trust and care, with each other as well as with the larger community. It's the only way I find myself being able to not get depressed and to despair."
Begum X, who has a yoga therapy show on TV, also sings over the sound. She's a small woman with a big voice; when you hear her, you look around expecting to see someone like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, only to see a petite pixie-like figure dancing Jamaican stylee in between belting out lyrics. She designs all the graphics and organises the shows.
Both Taru and Samara sing in Patwa, which the former fluently raps and DJs in, something people are surprised by.
In the criticallegalthinking.com interview, Taru elaborated on his unusual identity formation: "I consider the heritage that made reggae to be part of my heritage, and my work aims to bring this into the Indian context.
So what do you say? Are Delhi Sultanate and Begum X not the most unlikely but inspiring reggae ambassadors ever? So what if the Japanese are invading Jamaican culture? The groundwork is being laid for access to the second-largest market in the world. Run wid it, producers!
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.