Mame Khan Manganiyar greets us in broken English, his voice husky, typical of a folk singer. He hands over a business card — a photograph of the sun setting over dunes in Rajasthan forms the background. It has the usual information — his name and cell phone number, his address in Rajasthan, and his personal website and email id. Though this is commonplace for any other musician, for a Manganiyar to be this savvy with promotion is unusual. “We have been singing for centuries, but it is only in the last 15 years that we have started to learn the workings of the music industry,” says Khan, who recently performed at a fusion concert with Shibani Kashyap at a music festival held in Lavasa near Pune.
The set-up is unconventional. Khan has managed to ride through the false notes of his inept backing musicians and the crowd is enraptured. “The combination of his musicality with the knowledge of his own folk art is fantastic. Every time, we work together, he gives us these private performances of traditional folk songs after recording and we look forward to record with him again,” says Shankar Mahadevan. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy recently recorded with Khan for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirza Sahiba.
Khan, like other Manganiyars has been experimenting with form, keeping the genre relevant and bringing “modern” touches to known Sufi folk songs. This has helped him bag a number of interesting projects, including the one with Kashyap. Khan has in the past worked with several popular Hindi film composers, including Amit Trivedi — Bangur from I Am, Baawre from Luck By Chance and Aitbaar from No One Killed Jessica among others. But the most popular is Trivedi’s Chaudhary on MTV@Coke Studio Season 2. “There are so many songs in my repertoire. I want to present them in my own new way,” he says.
In accordance to the Manganiyar tradition, the 34-year-old musician inherited music from his father, Ustad Rana Khan. “Hum kaano ke bade chor hai (we learn music by listening),” he says. Every Manganiyar child wakes up to the voice of their father in riyaaz. “I kind of grew up knowing that one day, I will also go abroad and perform, like my father,” says Khan.
Khan remembers the nervousness he felt when he took the stage in November 2012 at NH7, Pune, as the lead singer of The Manganiyar Seduction. With a host of big indie names and a young, urban crowd, the setting was intimidating. Yet, when Khan and his fellow folk singers performed, in a theatre-meets-music show, they earned new fans. “The reaction was an assurance that young audience can appreciate good music,” he says.
Breaking out of the Manganiyar mould also means collaborating with musicians who might not be as competent. “Earlier, I would lose my cool on stage. Now I smile and tell them what went wrong,” says Khan, who has played in nearly 60 countries over his 20-year career.
Learning to navigate the mainstream has not been smooth throughout. Khan was not credited for two film songs he collaborated on, including Baawre where he can be heard as much as other singer on the song, Mahadevan. “It was not the composers’ fault. Shankar later explained how radio channels and music labels cause these blunders. Since then, I am particular about getting my credit,” says he.