Of the many foreign artistes who performed at the Rajasthan International Folk festival,popular as the Jodhpur RIFF,this year,Maya Kamaty wasnt there merely for music. A fifth generation Indian,based out of Reunion Islands a French island in the Indian Ocean Kamaty is here on a quest to find her roots,which she thinks are hidden in the multi-cultural potpourri of India.
Kamatys compelling set at the RIFF roamed freely from the profound and the soulful to the trance-inducing and the hypnotic. It affirmed the kinship between Indian music and her native Maloya (the melodies have an uncanny similarity with Indian ragas and scales). This may be because of the influence of blues on her music that,like a lot of Indian music,comes with a predominant,yet a different,pentatonic scale.
She began her performance after a session of Rajasthani maand (a more advanced folk style of Rajasthan). Soon enough,her deep contralto voice,imbued with memories of dance rituals and tales of poverty and slavery,permeated into the Zenana Courtyard of Jodhpurs Mehrangarh Fort. The 28-year-old singer jiggled a sugarcane rattle called the kayamb and sang field hollers and songs about nature,love and alcoholism followed by simple narrative ballads and chants. The cyclic musical form,its call-and-response style,being sung in native Creole,had those present,including Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger,swaying to every beat. A percussion-heavy session,with rouleur and djembe at the helm of the affair,ended up becoming one of the more well-orchestrated acts at RIFF.
Music can turn into a journey to finding so many things in life. Apart from the fact that Im very touched when I listen to Indian classical music,my dad just got his PIO cards in which we found a document of marriage of my great great great grandparents. It doesnt say where they were born so Im looking for that. But I am getting more confident everyday, says Kamaty,whose father is called Gilbert Pounia. I found that his last name is a famous Indian surname and I am sure that my roots are in Rajasthan, she says.
When Indians migrated to Reunion Islands,many years after the abolition of slavery in 1848,they came by boat from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. When they arrived,their names were found to be complicated. So the authorities there just cut it or changed it. Pounia was cut and changed an re-changed by the following generations. Thats why its not easy for me to find my ancestral roots, says Kamaty.
Maloya music has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO but,until 1981,it was banned by both the government and the church primarily because it was sung by slaves. We had a strict government and Maloya was considered as music that put you in a trance-like state,where you talk about problems of the society such as racism. The government didnt want to put that across, she says.
In 1979,Kamatys father,a famous Maloya musician,and her mother joined a group of poets and writers that was fighting for the language. They were talking about apartheid in South Africa,and singing in sugarcane fields because the government didnt want to put them on stage, says Kamaty,who plans to mash up her songs with Indian music. In the next few days,she will hit the roads to look for lost strands of her family. Visits to the library and folk musicians are on the cards as she searches the land her ancestors called home.