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- Posted on Aug 24th 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
That was as incongruous as, oh, the notion of Rajasthani reggae.
Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, 'Rajasthani Reggae'
Yes, the same people are behind both of these. At the Forde Festival, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan showed themselves as willing to do just about anything to entertain: the fire-breathing fakir, the acrobatic dancer who did backbends to pick up rings off the floor with her eyelids and, of course, a vibrant range of music rooted in the traditions of the troupe's home in the colorful Indian region.
"This is part of our culture," says Rahis Bharti, the 28-year-old founder and artistic director of the Dhoad ensemble – mostly made up of his siblings and cousins, the seventh generation of this particular family business. "Our forefathers played for the maharajas, the kings. We were the musicians of the courts of Rajasthan. What you find is the Dhoad Gypsies have very good relationship with the public, entertaining the public. They are really open and share their feeling with the public – very energetic! The voices, the fakir eating the fire, snake charming, the dancer. This is a real show of dance and music!"
But reggae? That's not part of the culture, is it? Even as ubiquitous as it seems in global music?
"Not really," he says, on the phone from Paris, where he's lived and overseen the group's intense touring schedule for the past seven years. "The problem with Rajasthani musicians is they always live in their community and they don't go for outside music. They are not open to listening to other music."
And yet, there is the track that is in fact titled 'Rajasthani Reggae' – arguably just the most dramatic of several multicultural streams followed on the group's new album, 'Roots Travellers,' which is being released in Europe in October with a US issue to follow in November, with a bonus DVD of performance and behind-the-scenes footage. There's everything from Spanish flamenco influences to Moroccan gnawa to Pakistani qawwali to Balkan and Eastern European strains for the discerning ear.
It's a marked contrast not just from their Rajasthani gypsy music peers but also from their own debut album of just five years ago, even considering the innate range that come from having both Muslim and Hindu members in the group. What brought this about?
"In the last six years, we did 600 concerts in 40 countries," Bharti says. "And that makes you more open. We played in the most important world music festivals in Chicago and France. We played in the Greece Olympics opening ceremonies. We played with the Queen of Macedonian music, Esma Redzepova. We played with gnawa musicians. We played with flamenco musicians in Spain. When we were in Rajasthan, we did not know these things. But traveling we got all the influences and met with different people, and that made us more rich in our culture."
He cites another song on the album, 'Experience of Colours,' as drawing on a lot of that.
"This song, when we prepared that we talked about Mali, gnawa music, flamenco," he says. "You will find this in that music. It is something really new. It is only us playing but the influence of different music."
That was a lot of catching up to do. Bharti confesses to having had little exposure to this outside music himself before then. By way of illustration, he names Michael Jackson as one of his biggest obsessions of recent years but doesn't recall hearing his music until moving to Paris. (If that sounds hard to believe, check the similar tale told to Around the World by Bollywood music star, and fellow Rajasthani Kailash Kher here.) And when two years ago the Dhoad Gypsies were hired to play a private concert for Mick Jagger on his birthday, Bharti had to familiarize himself with what exactly the Mickster did.
"When we were supposed to go, I listened to his music," he says. "I like it. It's different."
Now, don't think he's gone all pop on us. The roots part of the album title is on display in the new music alongside the travelers part.
"You will find variations in our CD," he says of the traditional music. "The song 'Shiv Ji' is a spiritual song. We are talking about the god Shiva. But we have rearranged it in our own style. The words are Rajasthani, but we made it with our own style and presence, something new in Rajasthani music."
Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, 'Shiv Ji'
Asked if there were any artists he'd recommend for hearing the pure Rajasthani roots, he basically said skip iTunes and head straight to Orbitz.
"If you want to really listen, there is not really someone I can suggest, but go to the villages of Rajasthan," he says. "The real tradition is in the small villages. The normal life of people there is where you find the pure music. What you will find on our first album – some of that is really traditional, songs of marriages, where the woman is happy, going to see her husband, but at the same time the family is sad because she is leaving."
Or if you put off your trip until next year, you can first stop at a new cultural center being built in Jodhpur. Being built by Bharti and his family, that is.
"We want the people that know us touring and the people who meet us around the world to know they can come to Jodhpur and stay there," he says of the in-construction Dhoad Cultural Centre. "There's a place to eat, to learn music, meet with local musicians and learn of the Rajasthani culture. It will be ready in one year's time. The mission is to welcome people from all around the world."
And, it would seem, to welcome their music, too.