Musical Revival

Kabir meets Bob Marley: The Mumbai band singing poetry set to Jamaican beats

'We quit our jobs for Kabir.'

Kabir’s poetry is immune to boundaries, resonating across countries, religions and cultures. So it isn’t really surprising that the philosophy of the 15th century mystic has deeply influenced a bunch of young Mumbai rockers.

The sounds of Kabir Café reflect the universality of their namesake by resolutely resisting categorisation: it integrates the vibrancy of folk music from Malawi and the discipline of Carnatic music with the gritty energy of rock. But what sets them apart from other bands that have drawn on Kabir’s works to perform a song or two is the fact that Kabir Café only performs verses by the poet.

Fronted by rhythm guitarist Neeraj Arya, with Mukund Ramaswamy on the violin, Raman Iyer playing the mandolin, Viren Solanki on drums and Poubuanpou Britto KC on bass guitar, the band draws inspiration from folk singer Prahlad Tipaniya’s musical interpretations of Kabir. The indie-rock band, Indian Ocean and Jamiacan singer-songwriter Bob Marley have also influenced Kabir Café’s soundscape.

Guided by song

Kabir Café rose to prominence in 2014 when they featured on the television series The Dewarists, collaborating with singer and musician Vishal Dadlani to compose a song called Fakiri. Iyer believes that the show helped the band reach a wider audience.

“I was an absolutely confused kid,” Arya said. “The arrival of Kabir in my life helped me recognise myself.”

Before he formed Kabir Café, Arya was a protest singer involved in a wide range of social campaigns. It was while working on a musical workshop for children that he watched Shabnam Virmani’s Had-Anhad, a documentary which traces the cultural and religious legacy of Kabir’s words.

“When I watched the film, I thought I could sing the kind of music shown in it... I thought that I could at least try,” Arya said.

He believes that are there are parallels between Kabir’s unadorned approach to articulating acerbic social truths and contemporary protest singing. Arya met violinist Ramaswamy, while they were both working for the National Streets for Performing Arts, an organisation that brings art to public spaces. They began to perform Kabir’s songs together. This was when Iyer, the mandolin-player, heard them perform, and expressed a desire to join them and form a band.


Solanki, Kabir Café’s drummer, joined the trio after an impromptu jam session. “I never expected Neeraj to call me back.” he said. “But he did, we jammed together some more, and it all just worked out.”

Soon, the band added another member. They were accustomed to hiring bassists for larger gigs – which was how they had met Britto in Pune. Eventually, when Britto moved to Mumbai in search of a band he could play with, he joined Kabir Café too.

The five musicians in the band are products of vastly diverse musical and social backgrounds. Unlike Arya, Ramaswamy is a rigorously schooled Carnatic musician who performed his first solo recital when he was an 8-year-old. Iyer is a trained mandolin player, but he had never viewed music as anything more than a hobby until he met Arya. Solanki comes from a family of Kabirpanthis and has been raised on a steady diet of Kabir’s bhajans. Britto was a music teacher before he became part of the band.

Despite the fact that each of the members have been schooled in a different musical form, they were able to coalesce into a seamless unit.

“That’s because we all connected as individuals first,” Iyer said.

Inspired by the commitment to spreading Kabir’s message and buoyed by the success of their venture, Arya, Ramaswamy and Iyer have quit their regular jobs to play with the band full-time. “I’m incapable of doing two things at once,” said Arya. “If I decide to do one thing, I don’t mind staying hungry while I pursue it.”

Solanki also quit college, mid-way into his 12th grade to focus on music.

“We didn’t quit our jobs only for music,” Iyer explained. “We quit them for Kabir.”

Kabir meets the world

The band attempts to make Kabir’s words more accessible to their audiences, by incorporating a simple explanation of the lyrics in every performance. However, they do not expect listeners to immediately grasp the many nuances of Kabir’s poetry.

“We don’t attempt to ensure that everyone understands it. We just enjoy ourselves when we perform, and people connect to it,” said Arya.

After performing live shows in India, Singapore and Phuket, Kabir Café released their first album, titled Panchrang: Musical Echoes of Kabir in August. Since then, the band has taken their new sound to several venues, most recently, at the inaugural edition of the Kabira Festival in Varanasi on November 6. The 12 tracks on the album include Moh Ko Kahaan Dhoonde and Hoshiyaar Rehna, which the band has been performing ever since their inception, along with newer melodies like Tu Ka Tu.

The album has been co-produced, mixed and mastered by Nitin Joshi, who has in the past, been associated with popular Indian rock bands like Agnee and Indian Ocean. The band felt Joshi’s experience with live music would help Kabir Café retain its organic sound in the recorded tracks. Most of the instruments on the album have been played live. There are very few programmed elements in the songs of Panchrang.

While performing on stage is second nature to the band members, working on recorded tracks took special effort.

“It was different for everyone, but just looking at the mic scared me,said Arya. “There is no one inside the recording studio and I am used to having people around me when I sing.”

The band members believe that Joshi’s expertise was instrumental in putting them at ease through the recording.

The band ventures outside their comfort zone for the debut album. Solanki has experimented with a slew of percussion instruments ranging from the tabla and the daf to the timbale and the darbouka, while bassist Britto has played the acoustic guitar and keyboards.

“We have done a lot of stuff like double tracking the guitar, to make the songs sound fuller.” Britto said.

Kabir Café hopes to find new and musically engaging ways to spread the poet’s words. They are currently experimenting with reggae, and hope to produce an album that they describe will sound like “Bob Marley meets Kabir”.

While they look forward to achieving musical growth, the band remains steadfast in their ultimate goal. Iyer said: “The plan is to stick together and explore Kabir – it doesn’t matter if we are performing on the biggest stage in the world, or back again on Carter Road”, a stage on a seaside promenade in suburban Mumbai at which small concerts are sometimes held.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.