Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


AS of now, not many people may be aware of Arijit Dutta, music director of ‘Filmistaan’. While he has composed a few good tunes like ‘Uljhi uljhi’ and ‘Bebaak’ which go well with the movie, it is still early to talk of his future prospects. However, one was delighted to read his interview this morning, where he said he doesn’t want to be associated with the term ‘Sufi music’, because it’s just being used as a fad, and that people are actually misusing the term.

Dutta has clearly hit the nail on the head with his observations. ‘Sufi’ is one of the two terms that musicians and music industry folk across India are using without really knowing or understanding its meaning. The other term to become trendy over the past few years is ‘indie’, and one is tired of listening to people use it without really being able to define it.

Let’s try and look at both the terms in detail, and mention what exactly our grouse is against the way they are being used:

Sufi music: In its original sense, Sufi music is a traditional and devotional form associated with the group of mystics known as Sufis. The qawwali and kaafi are the most popular forms of Sufi music, and have been associated with great poets like Baba Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Amir Khusro, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Rumi and Hafez.

Among singers, one would associate Sufi music with Pakistani singers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers, Pathaney Khan and Abida Parveen, and Indian groups like Wadali Brothers and Nizami Brothers. There are also certain tribal groups in Rajasthan who blend Sufi and folk music well. Through their voices and by following a certain pattern of instrumentation, all these artistes have stuck to the true meaning and purity of Sufi music.

Sufi music has always had a restricted but devoted audience in India. To make it more accessible to the masses, attempts were made to modernise it by infusing it with pop sounds. This is where the problem began.

Soon, anybody using a few technical vocal patterns was named – or began naming himself – a Sufi artiste. By adding typical words like ‘Maula’ and ‘Khuda’, songs were dubbed Sufi. Even filmmakers and music directors insisted on using one or two such songs in every film, and music companies released compilations of Sufi music containing tunes that were anything but Sufi. ‘Sufi-rock’ became a fad too, though only a few bands like Junoon, Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon got the mix right.

To be fair, there have been a few instances when some good music has been created with a Sufi influence, especially by A R Rahman, Kailash Kher and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. But it would have been adequate to describe these songs as ones inspired by Sufi music instead of saying they were a full-blown part of Sufi music.

It’s been over a decade since people have misused the term Sufi music. Sadly, the trend still continues. As such, it was heartening to hear Dutta’s views on the subject, especially at a time when most well-known music directors claim to be producing Sufi music.

Indie music: Our problem with the term ‘indie music’ has more to do with the fact that there is no specific way to describe what it means, and yet one sees so many people who claim to be backing this form.

Yes, the term ‘indie music’ started in the west to describe music produced by artistes who were independent or partly dependent on the mainline record labels. They would pay for, record and produce music albums or songs on their own. In most cases they would sell directly in stores, or even online. However, at times they have approached the big labels for distribution.

Depending on the kind of music they produced, ‘indie’ groups in the west were clubbed in sub-genres like indie-rock, indie-metal and indie-pop (not to be confused with Indipop, or Indian pop music).

The same rules were initially applied in India, where ‘indie music’ was used to describe musicians who released their own albums. A lot of underground talent was discovered. Music awards ceremonies began giving separate awards for indie artistes, events like Nh7 Weekender were built up around the indie scene, radio stations had separate indie shows and even a channel called MTV Indies was floated to cater to this segment.

The audience too caught the indie bug. Ask many youngsters today about what music they like, and they will tell you they are fans of ‘indie’ music. But ask them to define it, and chances are that many of them won’t even relate it to the term ‘independent’.

In the Indian context, what exactly is ‘indie music’? If one looks at artistes associated with indie music in India, they include rock bands like Thermal and a Quarter, alternative groups Spud in the Box and Sky Rabbit, jazz artistes like Adil & Vasundhara and Shefali Alvares, fusion bands Indian Ocean and Agam, electronic outfits Dualist Inquiry and Shaa’ir & Funk, hip-hop/ drum ‘n’ bass band Bombay Bassment and the reggae-influenced Skavengers. Even veteran rock bands like Indus Creed and Parikrama are being called ‘indie’.

While most of the artistes mentioned are genuinely talented, the truth is that none of them have any connection with each other in terms of sound. How can all of them be clubbed under one type of music, when they are themselves so varied?

People have started using the term ‘indie’ for any kind of music which isn’t mainstream, which doesn’t belong to Hindi or regional films, which isn’t classical, which isn’t devotional, which isn’t ghazal or which doesn’t fit in any genre that can be specifically labelled. In short, just because it’s become fashionable to promote ‘indie music’, people are going all out to support it, even if there is no actual way of defining it.

Over the years, the music industry has been using various names to describe many genres and their numerous sub-genres. But there was some method to it. Today, a term like ‘Sufi music’ is being misused, whereas ‘indie’ is being used without being understood.

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