the-south-asian.com DECEMBER 2001
DECEMBER 2001 Contents
by Arnaud Azzouz
Sufi Desert Trance Music by Elegant Gypsy Wizards from Rajasthan
Maharaja, formerly known as Musafir, is a group of musicians from the leading tribal castes with a rich heritage of folk music of Rajasthan, the desert state of India, and the land of warrior Kings. Outrageously elegant and beautiful, and majestic, these musicians, poets and shamans reflect their sumptuous surroundings in their music. They produce a music of ecstasy, a whirlwind of climaxes, punctuated by the gentle gesture of a breathtaking tune - a truly magical experience.
The ancestors of these musicians played an important role in spreading the teachings of the many sects of mystics, Sufi and Bhakti movements, through singing ballads and devotional songs. For the warriors, they were familiar figures on the battlefield where their praise of past heroes and their exploits through epic tales, plus their ridicule of the enemy would encourage bravery and boost morale. The Maharaja's music of pleasure and pain is highly communicative and captivating for worldwide audiences though it originates from the desert sands of India and IS the primitive (Jhangra) form of North Indian classical music. They have not only a rich and highly refined repertory of Folk, Devotional, Praise and Epic songs, music, dance and performance but also a dazzling cinematic appeal.
Simple villagers at heart, they live in the most remote area of the desert where the 21st century does not exist. The members of Maharaja are often described as the Gypsies of Rajasthan, which they are not, but the music they play today still represents what was played at the time of the great migration. In India they are called " Kalakar " (artistes) and the group is a mix of the best from three different castes - the Langas, Manganyars and the Kalbelias.
Some of the members of Maharaja belong to the Langa caste (Langa means " the song giver ") - a group of accomplished poets, singers, and musicians from Barmer district of Rajasthan. Langas are forever looking for the beauty of a tune. Playing and singing together, they echo each other to accentuate their common tune to a vertiginous transcending sound which is one of their magic practices through the music. They seem to have converted from Hinduism to Islam in the 17th century. Sufi influences prevented them from using percussion instruments.
However, the Langas are versatile players of the Sindhi Sarangi and the Algoza (double flute), which accompany and echo their formidable and magical voices. They perform at events like births, and weddings, exclusively for their patrons (yajman), who are cattle breeders, farmers, and landowners. The Langa musicians are regarded by their patrons as 'Kings'.
Langas are the guardians of the oral tradition of the family (king) they belong to. The major cast in Maharaja is represented by Langas, and their unique masters (Ustad) , certainly the best and unfortunately the last ones, who give Maharaja their unique refined sound.
Ustad Murad Khan Langa - Algoza
Ustad Noor Khan Langa - Sarangi . Vocals
Ustad Barkat Khan Langa - Sarangi . Vocals
Bachu Khan Langa - Vocals . Kartals
Another caste of fine musicians and singers, who mainly originate from Jaisalmer and Barmer districts. Manganiar means " one who begs " and indicates the low status of these superb artists. Converted to Islam at some time, they continue to sing for their Hindu " patrons ", the Rajputs and Megwals and are, like the Langas, the guardians of the oral tradition of the family they belong to.
At one time, they were musicians at the Rajput courts, accompanying their chiefs to war and providing them with entertainment before and after the battles and in the event of his death, they would keep performing at the ruler's " samadhi " day and night until the mourning was over. Despite their conversion to Islam, the Manganyars retain Hindus practices and often play in Hindus Temples.
Manganyar singers are spontaneous and uncontrollable with energetic rhythmic elements. Maharaja is proud to present Gewar Khan an incredibly creative and powerful percussionist of 22 from Jaisalmer, certainly the " Zakir Hussain " of the Dholak ! !
Gewar Khan Manganyar - Dholak
Zakab Khan Manganyar - Harmonium . Vocals
From the nomadic Jogi casts, who worship the Nag Deva (the Cobra), Kalbelias are devotees of Lord Shiva and followers of the Yoga system of philosophy. Men are traditional snake charmers. Women are dancers who perform a special symbolic dance, pretending to transform into a cobra whilst in a trance like state.
Sayari Sapera - Dance . Vocals
And from the Jaisalmer nightclubbing hails the one and only dancing Desert Drag Queen, performing a trance like whirling dance, cross dressing confusion emphasized by the warmest winks...An incredible performer ! Queen Harish Kumar - Dance
MAHARAJA is the new name for the Rajasthani group Musafir who achieved worldwide success and dazzled audiences from Tokyo to San Francisco. They are currently recording a new CD and present a new side project : MAHARAJA FLAMENCA featuring Flamenco wizards from Andalucia, a première presented at Womex 2000 in Berlin and reported as the Highlight of the Womex.
MAHARAJA is part of El Tiempo Gitanos tour in Europe and Gypsy Caravan tour in the US in 2001 and is on tour from April 2001 till November 2002.
Text, photos : Courtesy Arnaud Azzouz
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