He walks the streets with a swagger, in sync with the beats of a one-stringed tumbi. With his eyes burning with single-minded pursuit, he keeps walking as the world around him changes — from India to Africa, America to England. We are in 1940. He is on a secret mission, to assassinate former British general Michael O’Dwyer. Nearly 21 years ago, O’Dwyer had killed his people in what the world knows as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the ultra-stylised animated music video of The Ska Vengers’ new single, Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh appears as a graphic novel hero. Titled Frank Brazil, after one of Singh’s aliases, the song will be out on July 31 to mark his 75th death anniversary.
“It’s essentially a murder ballad, as found in many folk traditions across cultures. It is inspired by a lot of blues and folk musicians who spoke about grim and macabre subjects in their songs,” says Stefan ‘Flexi’ Kaye, one of the band members. The song’s chorus is a riff on a song called Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair by Bessie Smith, a legendary Blues musician. The video is made by Kunal Sen and Tisha Deb Pillai.
The Ska Vengers has earned a reputation of making music that is socially relevant and even political. While Badda (2012) was a commentary on censorship and manipulation in Indian media, A Message to Modi presented a strong statement at the time of Narendra Modi’s coming to power in 2014. In 2012, the band had also performed for the inmates of Tihar jail. “In some of our songs, we attack the status quo. However, our approach is a little gentle as we like to question through humour,” says Kaye.
The band, whose line-up includes Begum X (vocals), Delhi Sultanate (vocals), Chaitanya Bhalla (guitar), Tony Bass (bass), The Late Nikhil Vasudevan (drums) and Kaye (organ/percussion), plans to release Frank Brazil in the UK, as they think it has a universal theme. “UK listeners will be able to find parallels with the conflict related to the British occupation of Northern Island. What the song is trying to say is that one country’s terrorist can be another’s martyr. At the time of the assassination, Singh was seen as a terrorist, a fanatic who murdered a high-ranking, distinguished British officer. But few seemed to have noted that the latter had ordered the shooting of unarmed Indian civilians who had assembled for a peaceful protest,” says Kaye, a UK citizen himself.
True to their Ska and reggae inspired sound, Frank Brazil’s surprise, however, is the addition of Punjabi folk instruments such as the tumbi, dhol and dholak. Scheduled to release in October, The Ska Vengers plans to market the album innovatively. They have a graphic novel on Singh in mind and may release it in the format of an LP.
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