River songs from Assam in pop avatar

March 22nd, 2008 - 11:12 am ICT by admin  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, March 22 (IANS) Indian folk music is changing rhythm to please the global village. Boatman’s songs and Bihu festival tunes from Assam are being reset to the beats of techno-pop and soft rock, courtesy the East India Company band. A folk-rock band from the northeastern state, it has taken the lead in changing the traditional sounds from the banks of the Brahmaputra to cater to an essentially young and uninitiated international audience.

“Traditional sounds from areas far-flung are finally coming out in what you can call a reverse retro beat. India is invading the world with its indigenous music, set to the new beat of western pop,” says 32-year-old Angaraag Mahanta, lead vocalist of the folk-rock band from Assam, East India Company.

Angaraag is being billed by the music industry as the voice to watch out for from the east, while the band with its heady repertoire of Assamese Bihu and folk songs and Sufi soul music is already is a hit in the live circuit.

Barely nine months old, the forte of East India Company, says vocalist Mahanta, is the blend of modern Sufi and old Bihu and Goalparia - river songs from Goalpara - folk music from its home state Assam, improvised electronically to fit into the genre of popular rock.

The quartet brought to life “unsung” music from the heart of Assam at a concert in Gurgaon.

Mahanta, son of noted Assamese Bihu singer Khagen Mahanta, has been born to traditional music.

“I have always heard Bihu and folk songs as a child, but only recently I have started travelling to villages in central, upper and lower Assam to cull from their music and rejig them our own way,” Mahanta told IANS.

During his trips, he usually meets old musicians and picks up old melodies from them. “It’s tough, they have to be coaxed into parting with their old songs,” smiles Mahanta, shaking his mane of curls.

“I have been accused of glamorising folk music, but all that I have tried to do is to put folk in today’s context,” Mahanta said.

The group composes its own music, besides writing some of its songs. It also remixes old numbers.

“I am aiming at a musical invasion. Just like the East India Company invaded our country, we want to turn the trend around and conquer the world with music and goodwill that Indian traditional sounds generate,” he said.

Mahanta says Assam has at least 16 kinds of folk music. “I sing almost all of them, including the Bihu, Goalparia or the river folk music, the Bagani (or garden folk), Tobari (from upper Assam) and Bodo folk (from the Bodo-dominated districts of central and lower Assam),” he explained.

The young vocalist, who was till recently an architect by profession, learnt music from his mother Archana, a classical musician and disciple of Assamese musical guru Animesh Dutta.

“But now, I have returned to pick up music from my dad consciously. The earlier influences were unconscious.”

Mahanta has two Assamese albums to his credit - a compilation of modern Assamese songs “Jonaki Raati” and one of the Bihu songs composed the traditional way with the “dhol (drums) and pepa (pipe)”.

The tradition of Assamese music can be divided into five categories - regional folk music, ethnic folk music, the Bihugeet of the Bihu festival, bhakti music and the allied styles. The regional folk, say experts, is the richest with its melodic Kamrupia folk, Goalparia Lok Geet and Ojapali, ranking only second to Bihu in terms of popularity.

The growth of Assamese music, laments Mahanta, has been arrested by the lack of exposure. “The invasion by Western folk, rock and blues have pushed Assamese music to a corner. People in the state cannot appreciate their own music, only when they come out of Assam do they realise how beautiful traditional Assamese music is. Once you are out, you can have a bird’s eye view of things,” Mahanta said.

Another barrier is Bollywood. “There is plenty of talent in Assam but the musicians are getting lost because of the influence of Bollywood and other popular Western sounds. I have to stick to my roots, for all roots are beautiful, especially in this age of globalisation and MacDonald’s,” Mahanta said.

Most of the signature tunes of the East India Company are the boatmen’s folk songs from Goalpara. The band is looking forward to its first round of world concerts mid-year.

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