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‘The word commercialisation can never be attached to music’: Folk singer Mame Khan

"People interpret music in infinite ways based on their connection to the song/note. Therefore, the era we live in today has only helped singers and artists to create an impression that gets imprinted in people’s lives for years," he said

mame khan, mame khan music, folk musicHaving sung in a slew of films such as Luck by Chance, No One Killed Jessica, Mirzya, Sonchiriya and Dasvi, Mame Khan went solo a few years ago and has collaborated with different musicians. (Photo: PR handout)

Folk singer Mame Khan’s Instagram bio describes him as the ‘Voice of Rajasthan’, and rightly so as the the celebrated singer has been single-handedly carrying forward the legacy of his family — Manganiyar folk music. With songs like Kesariya Balam, Doli Re Doli, Baware, Nakhralo, Chaudhary, and many others, the singer, who has a distinctively powerful voice, has unmatched fandom and repertoire.

However, while he may have experimented with music over the years, he remains true to his style, Rajasthani folk, which he says always forms the root of his melodies. In an exclusive interaction with indianexpress.com, the playback singer talks about his journey, giving up his love for the dholak to pursue singing, creating music, and why commercialisation and music do no not hand-in-hand. Edited excerpts below:

You are one of the most popular names in the folk-music circuit, how do you describe your journey of all these years?

I belong to a family of master singers who have been performing a unique, oral tradition of music for over 15 generations. I owe my energy and vocal skills to the influence of my father and tutor, the late Shri Rana Khan. My musical career started in a small, almost medieval village named Satto near Jaisalmer, where I used to sing Manganiyar folk music. The city of Jaisalmer and its surrounding villages are famed for their rich history of kings and poets, and also known to be a place where Muslim and Hindu mystical traditions come together, beyond borders. The special style of the Manganiyar folk music, called Jangra, includes a universe of songs for all occasions in life — from traditional wedding songs to welcome songs for a newborn child and other happy occasions.

I have also sung and performed songs from Sufi poets of Sindh and Rajasthan, including Mira Bai, Kabir, Lal Shahbâz Qalandar, Bulleh Shah and Baba Ghulam Farid with élan and joy. I began my journey specialising in Rajasthani folk music and soon started earning respect amongst the folk music circuits of Rajasthan. Today, I sing a wide repertoire of traditional folk and sufi songs. My musical journey is an inspiration of sounds and music from the golden Thar Desert.

How challenging is it to carry your family’s legacy forward considering the ever-evolving nature of music?

I have been trained under my father Rana Khan who, to me, is not only my guru but also an inspiration who has motivated me to present Rajasthani folk music to the contemporary world. I don’t consider it a challenge or burden to carry forward our legacy, but an opportunity bestowed upon me to introduce and familiarise the world with India’s rich and traditional folk music. My family has been my support pillar throughout my musical journey and that has certainly helped me in achieving my vision of connecting listeners to the roots of their country through music.

You have also sung in Bollywood films and performed abroad at concerts. How do you ensure to keep the identity of your music intact, while also catering to the contemporary audience?

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The most noteworthy thing about our kind of Rajasthani folk music is that it effortlessly lends itself easily to fusion, and can also mix with anything because we don’t have rules. My debut album — Mame Khan’s Desert Sessions (2015) — is a testimony to this fusion as it features the saxophone alongside the primary instruments of my community – the stringed kamaicha, the khartaal, and the dholak. I have always believed that if you master your own art well, you can collaborate with anyone. I, too, work with jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco artists, Romanian gypsies, opera singers. Therefore, while my music uses forms of contemporary style, the origin has always been Rajasthani folk that identifies with me.

You have often said how singing was not your first love. But are you glad to have made the switch, following the advice of your father way back in 1999 — in what ways?

My first love was playing the dholak. I would buy all the cassettes of Zakir Hussain saab and replicate his work on the tabla or on my dholak. I first played the dholak outside of Rajasthan at the age of 12 on the occasion of Independence Day to a crowd that included Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1999, after a seven month-long tour of Brussels, I returned to India without my precious dholak. I had assumed that I would return to the Belgian capital to retrieve the percussion instrument, but life had something else written for me. Soon, my father’s advice to switch to singing came as a blessing in disguise. This blessing has resulted in me performing in close to 60 countries and at prestigious venues such as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and the Sydney Opera House.

The pandemic affected the music industry in a huge way, but you ensured to stay connected with your audience through virtual concerts. How was the experience?

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The lockdown measures did not prevent me from connecting with my fanbase and listeners. The time when going digital became the new normal, I considered it as a bliss as it provided me with a platform to stay connected with my listeners. I strongly believe that the home is where my bag is. I have been in Mumbai since day one of the lockdown, performing for my fans, ensuring they don’t feel low, and stay home. While my online concerts, where I am often seen performing with just my harmonium, are vastly different from my stage events, they have certainly helped in motivating my listeners to come out of the pandemic, together, one step at a time.

There are many platforms that promote Indian folk music. Do you feel it has been given its due recognition?

When people use to tell me folk music was dying, I’d get angry; and that’s when I promised myself that I would never let people say this again — something even my journey reflects. While I certainly feel such platforms have helped amplify the reach of Indian folk music, there is still a long way to go. While platforms serve as mediums to popularise folk music, audiences and listeners play the role of enablers that can elevate the music to another level. India has always been known for its rich heritage and culture, and its diverse and layered music. Therefore, I welcome and support all initiatives and platforms that come with an objective to showcase the enriched folk music to the world.

Bollywood music is very different from Manganiyaar music — do you think the former does justice to the latter when mixed and merged together?

Bollywood music has been born and nurtured in India, much like folk music. As mentioned earlier, the beauty of Manganiyaar music blends with all genres. We have always identified music to be the language of love and expression; therefore, it needs to be packaged in a way that comes from the heart and touches the listeners’ heart. The success formula lies in how we merge the two forms and present it in a way that resonates with the soul of the listeners.

Music has been commercialised to a huge extent. Has this affected your art form in any way?

The word ‘commercialisation’ can never be attached to music. People interpret music in infinite ways based on their connection to the song/note. The way music is welcomed and amplified today across industries, has certainly helped in building niche recognition for Manganiyaar music. Today, people are familiar with Manganiyaar music and appreciate it. Therefore, the era we live in today has only helped singers and artists like me to create an impression that gets imprinted in people’s lives for years.

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You were a part of the Me For My City 4.0 campaign; what qualities do you think a good singer should have?

Me For My City 4.0 – Meri City Mera Music organised by Canara HSBC OBC Life Insurance is an important campaign and initiative that is providing an opportunity and platform to young talents of the country to showcase their folk music. It was an honour and privilege to get associated with such an initiative and witness emerging folk talents of the country. As a jury member of the two month long campaign, I just did not get a chance to judge their singing potential and knowledge but also understand if they were able to connect with me on the right chord. Such campaigns  need to be proactively engaged as this will keep our traditional roots intact and going. We believe the top 4 singers from each zone are just phenomenal and if their music is nurtured in the same way they will surely reach greater heights. It is important for them to understand that while singing with the right skill set is important, music that comes from the heart connects with the audience better.

One composer you wish to collaborate with, and why? And your most favourite song of yourself until now.

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A dream come true collaboration would be for me to work with A R Rahman sir. I am a huge fan of his work and it would be truly amazing to sing one of his compositions. I have many songs which are close to my heart, but one song is very special for me, Sanu Ik Pal Chain Na Aave by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song is filled with many dear memories for me, in fact I love the song so much that I created my own version of it with a Rajasthani twist to it.

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First published on: 20-04-2022 at 12:30:39 pm
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