India’s music scene is evolving at a speedy pace as youngsters, reared on a musical diet of jazz, rock and a hotchpotch of mainly western music, chart new directions. Often the result is ‘fusion’. And while much of it can be passed over, you might want to take note of Swarathma. Winner of numerous awards, this young Bangalore-based sextet is conjuring up a refreshingly different tune.
It took a wee while for this realisation to sink in at the Gibson Guitar Rooms, where they were embarking on a second mini-tour of the UK. On stage: six young men, one with a Venetian mask, another with overblown Afro-style hair, an assortment of guitars, an electric violin, a drum kit and tucked away on the right, a dholak.
Underpinned by twanging guitars, driven by strong percussive beats and laced by violin, the tracks presented a potpourri of folk, rock, ska and reggae riffs. Indian folk, popular and classical melodies infused several tracks. The Kannada and Hindi lyrics tackled India’s ever-present social conflicts. Interweaved were caricatures of political and religious oratory, elements of populist Indian street theatre, a dose of humour, audience call and response, and regular translation. This was music with a social conscience.
Yeshu Allah aur Krishna, presented to a bouncing rock-reggae beat, looked at the religious hypocrisy and contemporary India seen through the eyes of Kabir, a sixteenth-century mystic poet. Pyassi is a lament seen through the perspective of a river and inspired by a long running water dispute between two neighbouring Indian states. Another song saw the group donning ‘Nehru’-style caps satirising Indian politicians, promising much while lining their own pockets.
And to close, Vasu Dixit, the group’s front man, jumped into a stuffed wooden horse to present Pyaar ke rang, a catchy Rajasthani influenced love song with a strong dholak beat. This up-tempo song with a distinctly Indian sound saw Dixit hopping around on the stage, and off it among the audience, to end a short, varied and entertaining evening.
And just for the record, Swarathma practice what they preach by regularly performing concerts to raise money for, among other things, orphanages, health charities and groups raising awareness about climate change. If you want to know more, look up Swarathma on the web. Better still, see them live.