“In Estonian myth, the greatest singers are like wizards, they are creators, they could call upon all forces with song,” said Anna Hints, a singer from Taartu, Estonia, as she explained the legacy of Estonian runic music.
Trained in the tradition from an early age, Hints got most of her cultural clues from her grandmothers and mother whom she calls her “foremothers”. “They always sang, especially when we went into the forest. Then it seemed like their songs came to life with everything around us.”
Hints is one half of NaadVõim, a musical collaboration between her and Trippy Sama, a 12-member ensemble of Indian classical musicians. Engaged to Tushar Prakash, the curator and producer of NaadVõim, Hints visits India twice a year for a few months, and during that time she plans, rehearses and performs with the band.
Genesis of idea
It was Prakash who brought Trippy Sama and Hints together in 2016 – “I was always obsessed with classical music, but I never trained in it. When I met Trippy Sama, they were so welcoming of me, and I thought about Anna and how they must meet.”
“At Trippy Sama, we were already playing together, living together, busking together — we already had made grounds for some sort of free play,” said Hemant Chakravarty, the band’s drummer. “Meeting Anna meant we could take that a step further, streamline what we had into her music.”
“It’s more than a band, it’s a theatre, it’s a play of all kinds of genres, instruments, and music combined into one,” said Prakash. “There’s so many instruments, outlooks involved, it’s difficult to lock them all in in a linear kind of format.”
NaadVõim’s members are Anna Hints, Armaan Alireza Dehlvi, Amulya Shastri, Azaan Khan, Kartikeya Vashist, Hemant Chakraborty, Jayant Paradhsar, Hemant Chakravarty, Azaan Khan, Vaishnavi Mannava and Tushar Prakash. Between them they play the flute, string instruments such as the guitar and sitar, and percussion such as drums, dholaks and the djamble. Vocals combine the runic, Dhrupad and Caranatic styles.
Choosing to play at diverse venues and drawing up concise plans for each performance, NaadVõim aims to bring people together and present different kinds of musical forms, creating music born out of rigour but devoid of clichés. Its members draw from music cultures of India, Estonia and even Indonesia, bringing hymns, ballads and chants together to form a memorable sound.
The band is also unique in featuring a dancer, bringing physicality to each performance they create. “When we began, I moved to their rhythms, I choreographed according to them” said Vaishnavi Mannava, the dancer. “Now I want to carve my own space in this scheme, use props, maybe take the lead on some parts of a composition.”
Beat of their own
Before they compose, the band holds meetings, in which they discuss what needs to be composed and played.
“It is exhilarating to collaborate with people who have been trained in such different ways,” said Azaan Khan, the band’s guitarist. “As classical musicians, we are taught to carry ourselves into everything we do. But at NaadVõim, we are taught to let the same things go.”
“One time, Armaan and I were singing impromptu and later we found we were singing about the same things, the same emotions,” said Hints. “It is these kinds of instances that make the music happen. You have to leave that little space in the middle for it to take form by itself.”
This incident, she explained, led to the composition of A Love Story, one of the band’s favourite performances. Based on Estonian runic songs, it begins with whistles, wind sounds made by the flute and Hints’ chanting of the runic myth it pays homage to. The music then progresses with the guitar, Dhrupad singing, percussion and the flute.
“A Love Story is a song about a man that goes for a walk in the forests and meets two sisters, between whom he tries to choose,” said Prakash. “In the end, he gets a sign from God that better things are in store, and he walks away. Our songs come from narratives like these – which we embody through various elements. Vaishnavi does a shadow dance in the beginning symbolising the forest, and there is a part with the flute, which symbolises the voice of god.”
“Each performance comes with lots of rehearsal, more than two or three weeks” said Hints.” But we also leave space for improvisation – that’s where the magic happens.”
In each of their compositions, NaadVõim builds on a movement of seemingly different sounds, which eventually come together harmonically. They are unafraid to experiment with instruments, but also use what they call “DIY sounds” – clapping and sounds mixed on a computer that are fused with others.
“In another song called The Swing Song, we use the Ragafone, an instrument made by a French musician,” said Chakraborty. “A new instrument for us means a new layer to our performance, which is very exciting.”
Even though they don’t perform often, the band talks about each performance fondly.
“Our first one was at OddBird, an independent theatre in Delhi with a clientele focused on the arts. So it was easy, people were open-minded and polite,” said Mannava. The real challenge, they say, is in performing for an audience that does not know what to expect.
“Once we played at a cancer research foundation in Delhi,” said Prakash. “It was a challenge, because the crowd wasn’t the usual liberal, open-minded, hip, city crowd. But when we were done, they loved it, and it made it even the more special.”
They don’t translate their lyrics from Estonian, or Sanskrit, or oversimplify their process. They want to focus on performing, rather than recording an album. “We want to record performances and put them online for people to stream,” said Prakash. “Use new technologies to our best potential.”
The band believes it is getting braver with each performance and sees the unique nature of its set-up going a long way with audiences. “I think I am finally making the music I want to be doing,” said Chakraborty. “Now all those styles can mix into one – I don’t have to choose that I want to be this or that, I can allow my training to take its own course.
Khan said their music was greater than the sum of the parts. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do. I think that’s it, that’s what it’s like with this band.”