Two men are trying to save Indian folk music, one haunting song at a time. Andrew Buncombe joins them as they haul their microphones to the farthest reaches of the Thar desert.
A father and his sons sit in the desert, barely looking at one another as their hardened fingers press on the dark teak necks of their instruments.
As they draw horse-hair bows across steel strings, the pulsating energy summons the sound of a train accelerating. Suddenly, the pace eases: the musicians pause, preparing themselves before all at once they move the drawn bows staccato-like across the strings: the train, the performance suggests, rapidly approaches, puffing away until the piece is brought to crescendo. The “train” has arrived. And quiet descends upon this desert scene once more.
Ashu Sharma and Ankur Malhotra spring to their feet. They have been recording and filming this entire musical session but had not realised they would hear such an impassioned performance. They grin at one another. “That is the thing with recording in the field,” says Malhotra. “You never know what you are going to get. This project could be endless. Every time you go out, you discover more.”
For more than two years now, the two schoolfriends have been filling every spare moment travelling to remote villages in the north of India with their video camera and microphones and recording traditional music they fear is at risk of forever being lost.
Inspired by the folk historian Cecil Sharp, who toured the British countryside by bicycle in the early 1900s, and Alan Lomax, who recorded country, blues and folk musicians in America during the 1930s and 1940s, the pair’s dream is to create an archive of recordings not just from Rajasthan and Gujarat, but from across the country.
The two blues fans, who went to school in Delhi, also want to ensure the musicians they are recording benefit directly from their work. Already, the pair have produced three albums of traditional songs and arranged several concerts. They say that half of all profits go directly to the artists. They have also uploaded more than 50 videos on to their website, which anyone can access. Their record company is called Amarrass, “Eternal Essence”, and they stress the need to publish authentic tunes, rather than some impresario’s assumed idea of what the outside world expects Indian folk music to be.
They are hoping the project will one day at least break even, but for now they are driven by their ferocious love of the music and the friendships they have developed with the musicians of the desert. The project is financially supported largely by the travel agency Sharma set up in Delhi when he was 19 and embarking on a different career.
Amarrass Records website: http://www.amarrass.com/