“I went to a shopping mall in Saket yesterday and there was a massive statue of a soldier with an assault weapon and an army helmet made out of machine gun bullets,” said Stefan Kaye, the keyboardist of The Ska Vengers. “Apart from the fact that it was visually gross, concept-wise it was quite disturbing. It was erected in tribute to the ‘braveheart soldiers’ in Kashmir, and there was a man asking people to write letters and messages of support to them. Why would I lend support to a State that wants to oppress a large section of the society and disenfranchise them? This kind of State-sanctioned propaganda in shopping malls aimed towards the middle class is most worrying.”
As you listen to Kaye, it becomes abundantly clear that The Ska Vengers are unlike most bands in India today. Their unabashedly liberal political view is one thing that makes them an exciting musical act on the Indian independent scene. The other is their music, a blend of ska’s Jamaican roots, dance, reggae, pop, jazz and psychedelia with lyrics reflective of contemporary times.
Comprising of Kaye on keys, vocalists Samara ‘Begum X’ C and Taru ‘Delhi Sultanate’ Dalmia, ‘The Late’ Nikhil Vasudevan on drums, Chaz Bhalla and Tony Gurnard on guitar and bass, the band is as eccentric as they come. You can see a reflection of everything that’s unique to it in their latest album released last month – the defiant XX.
With the ska sound as framework, the band has chosen to explore harmonies and melodies reflective of various genres in XX, resulting in an eclectic offering. The album, that has been in the works for over three years, has songs that are as heterogeneous as they are assertive. It shows the band at their experimental best.
“There’s a lot more experimentation going into this album,” said Kaye. “There are a couple of pop songs in there – like Shut Your Mouth and Frank Brazil, which have a lot more accessible sound. Afro Fantasy though, for example, is a 10-minute Latin jazz psychedelic odyssey. We got in and incorporated these European string players from an operatic production that I poached for the recording session. We got a Punjabi folk musician named Maddy Bhatt playing dhol and dholak in Frank Brazil. It was worth spending a bit of time on.”
The Ska Vengers are also not the unapologetic newbies they seemed when they entered the scene. Kaye attributes the growth in sound to the band’s maturescence. “When we started recording XX, we wanted it to have a different feel,” he said. “It’s less polished in a way than our debut album and perhaps less easier to digest in a single sitting. Plus, it’s a lot more than ska. If we had remained just a ska band, then there was a danger of being termed revivalists of the genre. We’ve evolved a lot more as a band. We didn’t have to prove anything now and chose not to operate within a predetermined musical style. We had more time in the studio, so we could pay more attention to the detail and sound production.”
The songs on XX are rebellious. Frank Brazil chronicles the show of resistance by martyr Udham Singh, and was originally released as a single last year on the 75th anniversary of his execution. Jail Mein is a representation of the life of convicts inside the Tihar Jail. It is a song deeply personal to Kaye who spent some time behind bars due to visa violation charges. The song Kick Up A Rumpus is a youth rebellion anthem, whereas 011 is a delectable look at government surveillance. The influences on the album range from RD Burman to western classical.
In a way, The Ska Vengers are consistently questioning systems around them. Back in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was all set to come to power at the Centre, the band minced no words in their song Modi, A Message For You. Ask them if they’re anti-establishment and pat comes Kaye’s disagreement.
“Anti-establishment in general? No,” he said. “Anti-establishment in this country given how things are at the moment? Probably. There are many facets of the establishment that are certainly worth questioning. But I wouldn’t call the band an anti-establishment band. Period. The band is not afraid to bring matters to people’s attention – matters which need to be addressed. I think anti-establishment has a negative connotation and what we’re doing is not wholly negative. We’re not some middle class rich kids who’re singing about matters of which we have little understanding or direct experience.”
This show of defiance has come at a cost. Back in 2012, the band struggled to keep a record label that would be comfortable with the themes they addressed in the first album. “This major record label – I won’t mention names – wanted to be our record label for the first album. They gave us a one-sided contract that gave them rights to everything. But we were supposed to be grateful for being signed on to the world’s largest record label. In addition to that, they wanted us to bleep out words such as Naxalite, CRPF and named individuals. They spun a yarn about public litigation, and asked us if we wanted their managing director to go to jail. We wanted to retain artistic control entirely so when we stepped out, it got very unpleasant. So with this one, we decided to do it all by ourselves. We were doing it all anyway, so why should we surrender our freedom and for what? So this album is entirely self-financed. It’s an independent release in the truest sense of the word. There was no value for us at all in getting a record label on board.”
The incident is telling of the independent music scene in India, where unconventionality is rare. “Record labels will only invest in what is familiar and tried and tested. There’s very little niche broadcasting. There is an English language radio station, which very rarely plays music produced in this country. VH1 has mostly utter garbage on it. And even MTV Indies – there aren’t many bands in India that can afford videos – so they end up rotating the same videos ad infinitum. Their definition of indie music isn’t really indie. When Honey Singh wins the best independent act award at some MTV award function, it’s troubling. But this is how the industry functions. There is a fear of taking chances, of taking risks. It’s largely advertising and marketing executives who determine people’s listening tastes since music which gets featured or invested in has to now more than ever tie in with a brand image. Any notion of credibility is a hugely contrived one and does nothing to question the established order.”
Content and sound aside, what makes The Ska Vengers unique is their presentation. The band has a flair for on-stage theatricality. Dressed in sharp suits, and singing about anti-political resistance movements, the band is a visual paradox. So when they performed on the stage at the Tihar Jail for its inmates, they were bound to be spoken about. But there is always the nagging thought that the band’s content does not permeate as many layers as one would want it to. Does Kaye worry about the meaning that’s lost?
“The band’s music can be consumed and appreciated on more than one level,” he argued. “We had some criticism – as to how can convicts connect to a bunch of middle class kids in suits singing in English. It’s a legitimate criticism. Probably they can’t relate to some of the themes but they’re getting live entertainment to release the drudgery and the monotony of their jail terms.”
But because of their far-reaching influences, the band can rarely ever be considered at place anywhere. Currently on a tour in London, the band is all set to perform at the famed British music festival Bestival. “We didn’t have a problem landing festivals,” Kaye said. “Nobody imagines a band like this to come from India, most of them assume the music here to be of the Asian Underground kind. People don’t know that there are bands like this, or indeed rock music or indie music. Hopefully we’ll shatter a few stereotypes and turn the spotlight onto other artists who deserve the space and recognition.”