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Indian band's journey transcends boundaries

Published:Sunday | August 3, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Sharp as a katana blade: Begum X (left) and Delhi Sultanate.-Contributed PHOTOS
From left: Ska Vengers Raghav 'Diggy' Dang; Stefan Flexi K, Tony Bass, Begum X, 'The Late' Nikhil Vasuedan, and Delhi Sultanate.
The universal language: Delhi Sultanate (left) and Begum X live at High Spirits in the western Indian city of Pune.

Think music and India - the image of damsels in their ethnic chic finery gyrating to the beat of percussions flashes in mind. But the home of Bollywood and the lip-smacking curry is whipping the tunes of ska.

Begum X and Delhi Sultanate, lead singers of Ska Vengers, the new kids on the ska block from the heart of India's capital, breezed through Jamaica recently.

"This trip is about absorbing the culture and the vibe from the birthplace of reggae and ska," exuded Begum X.

The couple had their share of mystic, divine and serene eastern vibes to share as they sought to create a confluence of music in divergent cultures.

"Music has the ability to bring people from different backgrounds together," said Delhi Sultanate. "So what I would really like to see is more alternative venues, more street dances etc."

Their tryst with ska began in varied circumstances. Taru Dalmia (Delhi Sultanate) delved into the genre while living in Europe in a culture disconnected from India. Samara Chopra (Begum X) is a recent convert.

Sound system culture

"I was living in Germany at the time where my mother was teaching Hindustani literature. I learnt Patois from listening to artistes like Buccaneer, Terry Ganzie and Bounty Killer, and later, I started a sound system with some friends and used to DJ on the b-sides of 45's," Dalmia said.

Chopra, a trained actress and a yoga teacher, who hosted a successful yoga show on one of India's top channels for years, transitioned from that metaphysical form of self-equilibrium to musical self-realisation.

She acquired the stage name Begum X (Begum means Queen, and X is a tribute to Malcolm X). "My education in ska, dub, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, and drum & bass began in 2009, though I had an appreciation for it prior to that.

Stefan (pianist and musical composer of Ska Vengers) and Delhi Sultanate played a big part in deepening my understanding and appreciation for these genres, both musically and historically," said Chopra.

"There aren't really any women ska singers, and I think that the style that I have comes from my love for the strength and vulnerability of women like Ella, Aretha and Billy Holiday."

Their musical journey had begun the quest to explore virgin frontiers through music, give a voice to those who had been muted, and spread love and positive energies.

"A few years ago, we performed in Asia's largest prison (Tihar in New Delhi, India) with the entire band, and early this year, Begum X and I went to Afghanistan to work on a project with local musicians for Afghan television," Delhi Sultanate said. This must have been the first time reggae music was ever played in those parts of the world. In Afghanistan, they performed their version of Jah Cure's Divide and Rule; played with the bassist and drummer of the Ska Vengers and all Afghan musicians.

"I'm proud of how it came out," Delhi Sultanate said. "The first part is in English and Patois and the second one is in Hindustani (another name for Hindi language) and Persian."

Universal language

It is said music is a universal language, transcending race, religion, caste, creed and colour, and this is a quest the duo says they have embarked on.

The lyrics of their songs are unabashed - whether taking on the current Indian Prime Minister in A message to Modi, or going in between covers in Rough and Mean, highlighting sexuality and masochism.

They feel that collaborations between Hindi (one of the major Indian language, spoken in northern states of the country) and Patois is an excellent way to strengthen the bonds between people of India and Jamaica.

"I like the expressiveness of Patois and I always liked the idea of representing this in India," Delhi Sultanate says. "I respect the power of Patois as a cultural export."

Already, according to them, this convergence is gaining popularity in India.

"In the last four years since we started the band, there has been a massive increase in the popularity of Caribbean music in India," Begum X said. "We have played shows to very diverse audiences - young old, rich poor ... sometimes to people who do not speak any English, and we found that people universally related to the charisma and energy of the music."

And their love affair with Jamaica is not new. "Last year, we did a collaboration featuring Sizzla Kalonji, Bant Singh (a revolutionary Indian poet) and myself from India," Delhi Sultanate informed.

He said through their trust, Word Sound Power - where they work with revolutionary Indian artistes and make music and films documenting their struggle - they would like to get more Jamaican artistes involved.

Fulfilling visit

This short sojourn to Jamaica, they said, was the exhilarating, rewarding and replete with new and emerging opportunities.

"Rory from Stone Love invited us to stay with him," Delhi Sultanate said. "I grew up listening to Stone Love tapes, so to stay at his house 20 years later was incredible."

The duo said they would not only take back fond memories to India but to return with the Ska Vengers, and give their Jamaican brothers and sisters a taste of India that they would savour.

"We are not saying goodbye at all," said Begum X, sitting in a perfect Padmasana, the Lotus pose; in yoga; reminiscent of the balance and confluence of their music transposed in their lifestyle. "We will be back soon."