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.