The Thar meets the Sahara: A report from the Amarrass Desert Music Festival

We are still recovering from the fabulous performances at last year's Amarrass Desert Music Festival held at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium on November 26 and 27. The festival was a musical journey that spanned the deserts of Rajasthan to Mali in west Africa and brought together the Manganiyars from Rajasthan, with Vieux Farka Toure and Madou Diabate from Mali -- two musical traditions that had never shared a stage before. Over a dozen artists performed over the two days, with the shows culminating in all-star jams both nights.

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The evening began with Lakha Khan playing the Sorath on the folk or Sindhi sarangi. Sorath, a raga that belongs to the cold season and is performed in the first quarter of the night, set the mood for the evening and was followed with a devotional song in Raag Bhairavi on Meera, love and longing. Lakha Khan, an acclaimed sarangi musician and craftsman, from village Raneri in district Jodhpur, makes his own sarangis. Perhaps the last of the Manganiyar sindhi sarangi players, he is a magician with the Sarangi. There was pin-drop reverential, even contemplative, silence in the auditorium, as if a magic carpet had transported everyone to the desert dunes of Rajasthan. 

Next on stage was Mamadou (Madou) Diabate, a 71st generation kora player from Bamako, Mali. One of the finest exponents of the versatile and melodious Kora, a 21-string bridge-harp, his performance was perhaps a first for a kora player in Delhi. It was one man with one instrument on stage creating an orchestra of sound. As one of theaudience members put it "a surreal sound that at moments seemed as if twinkling stars were talking to each other". [Video: Madou and the kora]

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Dazzled by the 'strings of the desert', the next set of acts featured Nihal Khan, a blind Manganiyar singer who is affectionately called Surdas of the community, sang Kesariya Baalam, his voice reverberating across the huge hall. A popular traditional Rajasthani folk song, it is sung by, or on behalf of women to express their feelings of love, affections and respect for the man they love. (Note: kesariya means saffron, which symbolically means good health and beauty, and baalam is a reference to a husband or lover). Here's a video of Nihal Khan performing at home in Sanawada, Rajasthan

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Day two of the concert featured Mangey Khan, a hidden gem from Rajasthan representing the next generation of Sufi musicians. He sang a mix of Rajasthani folk and sufi songs at his first public appearance in Delhi, and had the audience up for a standing ovation by the end of his searing 40 minute set. 

Next, Bhungar Khan walked through the audience playing the khartal (a pair of castanets in each hand), to join Rais Khan on the morchang (the Jew's harp/mouth harp), and Mangu Khan on the dholak on stage. It was a performance few will forget. Rais Khan, a gifted young musician from the Manganiyar community, has been experimenting with sounds and been a student of beat-boxing the past couple of years (under the guidance of UK's Jason Singh, an acclaimed beat boxer and electronic music producer). And that’s what he did. Alternating between the morchang and beat-boxing, creating deep bass, analog scratches and loop-like effects. Young members of the audience were in the aisles, dancing. [Video: Rais, Bhungar and Mangu jam]

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The final act of the evening was the Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara, the son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, presenting Mr. Vieux Farka Toure! A desert blues musician, Vieux Farka Toure and his band comprising of Aly Magassa (guitar, backing vocals), Souleyman Kane (djembe, calabash), Mamadou Sidibi (bass, backing vocals) are leading the new wave of African rhythm and blues, folk and traditional music and taking it to a world audience. Indeed, the moment he walked on to the stage, in his hat and traditional Malian wear, the evening turned into a rock concert. Everybody was up, dancing to his guitar, and the rhythms created by his troupe. Before his set was up, Mamadou and his kora were in the mix, and it was magic! [Video: The Amarrass Festival Jam]

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The evening ended with an impromptu jam with the Rajasthani musicians, with Lakha Khan playing the sarangi, and Rajasthani beat-boxer, the dholak and the khartal joining the Malian musicians on stage. Though everybody was dancing, there was something incredibly moving about this moment -- two Muslim communities from different continents, speaking different languages were communicating with their instruments. Music was their medium.

The concert coincided with the formal release of Amarrass’s latest albums, ‘Mitha Bol’ and ‘Banka Ghoda’. Two volumes of field recordings done over several months of travel through Rajasthan that bring the finest musicians singing the purest folk. Watch out for music from the Desert Festival out later this year!

More in this category: « Lakha Khan Bombino »

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