Musical Notes

The golden voice of Kashmir’s indie musicians echoes with politics and folklore

Kashmiri musicians are creating renditions of Kashmiri folk tales and poems blended with Western percussion instruments.

“The more you absorb music, the more you express,” said Mohammad Muneem, lead vocalist and songwriter of the Pune-based band Alif. Muneem’s songs defy genre. From blues to soft rock, each song is a unique blend of Kashmiri and Western genres, merging together to create an unusual range, one which even fans of traditional Kashmiri music are surprised by. “We have a large bandwidth – call it our strength or disadvantage,” he said. “We are a little loud, rough. We are out there. We are extrovert but the lyrics are introverted.”

Muneem’s compositions evolved over time, with his understanding and awareness of his surroundings. From covering songs by Guns N’ Roses, System Of A Down and Pink Floyd, the 34-year-old finally decided to make Kashmiri music.

An engineering graduate with a degree in business administration, Muneem quit his job to take up a permanent career in music. In 2008, he joined other artists to form the band Highway 61, before rechristening it Alif. Muneem’s fusion of Kashmiri and contemporary instruments have been featured on Coke Studio, Kappa TV and several festivals across the country.

Naturally, the music of the Srinagar native is influenced by the events around him and reflect the spectrum of life in Kashmir. He witnessed violence as a child, and then again in 2003, when a hate crime left him with stitches on his wrist and on the back of his head. The thought that humans were ready to kill one another drove Muneem to listen to music with deeper messages.

“I started listening to U2 to absorb what Bono wants to say in Where the Streets Have No Name,” Muneem said. “I liked listening to Pink Floyd’s words on society, time, money, and politics. Being a Kashmiri, political awareness comes with birth. I started reading about Kashmir, understanding the nuances and how people have been so resilient. Every song that I’ve written, every poem has come at the right time.”

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Muneem sings about Kashmiri folklore, political churnings and the trail of destruction the two decade-long conflict has left on the state. One of his songs, Ikebana, named after the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is dedicated to those whose loved ones were forcibly made to “disappear”.

During his live performances, Muneem is known to abruptly halt his song midway to ask the audience if the song felt incomplete. That, he will say, is to give people a sense of the sudden emptiness the half-widows and mothers of the missing children and men feel in Kashmir. Some of Muneem’s compositions are rearranged folk songs. After initial criticism and taunts online, Alif’s listener base has grown. One such folk song, Cheerith, composed by Bashir Dada, is about heartbreak. Muneem, however, turned it into a song of celebration.

“I celebrated heartbreak,” he said. “Some despised it, made fun of it, but in the process started liking it.”

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While both traditional and popular Kashmiri music can be heard in the Valley, Bollywood music is still the loudest and the most easily available. To get around this, Kashmiri artists have begun to use the internet and social media to draw larger audiences.

In the past decade alone, Kashmiri musicians have created renditions of Kashmiri folk tales and poems blended with Western percussion instruments. Parvaaz, a Bengaluru-based band with a lead vocalist from the Valley, has produced songs that struck a chord with audiences all over the country. The band’s first extended play, Behosh, featured a song in Kashmiri. Lead vocalist Khalid Ahamed said the intention to sing in Kashmiri was a happy coincidence which occurred when guitarist Kashif Iqbal, a fellow Kashmiri, played a folk tune on his guitar.

“It stuck with us, we did three songs in Kashmiri,” said Ahamed. “It was never intentional that we wanted to do Kashmiri. It just came to us naturally.”

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Ahamed’s fascination with music began in his childhood, when he listened to his father play songs on a tape recorder. In 2010, Ahamed got together with Iqbal in Bengaluru to set up Parvaaz. Both musicians are self-taught. Since then the band has performed at major festivals across India and are becoming an important part of the nation’s live music scene. Parvaaz has also produced two albums.

Like Alif, their music doesn’t stick to a single pace or genre. The band produces progressive music in a mix of folk, blues, and rock.

The band’s rendition of Kashmiri poet Mahjoor’s Gul Gulshan Gulfam, a poem which describes love, longing, and hope, blends the verses with progressive rock. Another song, Roz Roz, came about when the band experimented with the guitar, playing it the way the traditional stringed instrument rabaab is played. The melody, Ahamed said, came before the lyrics sometimes.

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The fact that a majority of Parvaaz’s audience are non-Kashmiri speaks of the acceptance of Kashmiri music and art. Both Alif and Parvaaz depend on live gigs more than album sales. Producing original music, they said, is a slow but steady process.

While Alif recently released its new album Sufayed, Parvaaz is recording music for an upcoming movie, Vodka Diaries.

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There are several other Kashmiri musicians captivating audiences with their music. Mumbai-based music director and singer Jaan Nissar Lone’s song Jugni is a rendition of the poetry of Mahjoor. Mehmeet Syed, one of the few female singers from the Valley, has won many awards and gigs at home and abroad. Touring abroad with two other Valley-based musicians, Irfan and Bilal, the trio have played renditions of lullabies and traditional songs to foreign and diaspora audiences.

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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.