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September 30, 1999
Musafir Gets A Warm Welcome in America
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
For the past five years, the Rajasthani folk ensemble Musafir has been living up to its name.
Based in Brussels, they maintain a rigorous schedule, giving over a hundred concerts every year spanning four continents and 40 countries. In fact, these nomadic musicians touch base in Rajasthan for just four months every year. This year they will be on the road for 10 months before going home.
The ensemble consists of 11 musicians (six Muslims, five Hindus) who bring alive qawwalis, Hindustani music and the rich songs from the gypsy culture.
The members belong to various sub-sects found in Rajasthan like the Langa, Manghaniyar and Sapera groups. Back in Rajasthan they would not have played together, but here they live and sing together as one big happy family.
Says group member Bacchu Khan, "India and Pakistan are fighting with each other, but we artists live together happily. Zindagi ek musafir hai [Life is a traveller]."
In Chicago recently, as part of the city's first World Music Festival, Musafir, playing on the inaugural day, got the audience dancing and clapping to their fast-paced music. The setting was also inspiring. They sat outdoors on a stage facing the city's elegant Field Museum, with the listeners sitting on the museum's stone staircase. The group thus performed with the city's spectacular skyline as a backdrop.
The shimmering lights of office buildings and the boats throwing off the light on the lake, added to the ambience. Warm day temperatures suddenly dipped to biting chill, but the audience was not deterred, warmed as it was by the sounds and rhythms of the desert.
The men dressed in black sherwanis and colorful Rajasthani turbans, and the women in their bright ghaghra cholis and jewelry, were as much a feast for the eye as the ear.
Musafir was conceived in 1995 by Arnaud Azzoud, an Algerian living in Brussels, who has made the showcasing of Rajasthani folk art as "folkloric cabaret" his life's work. After spending months with various folk groups in Rajasthan, he knew he had the makings of a world-class ensemble on his hands. His own background in jazz, Arab music, and north Indian classical music, and his passion for crossover styles has produced an eclectic meld.
He is now Musafir's manager, agent and friend. So strong is the Rajasthani influence that he has picked up some broken Hindi, smokes bidis, eats Indian food and lives with the group when they make their annual stopovers at home.
"When I first heard Rajasthani folk music I thought 'Wah, kya baat hai,' " he says. "Tak, tak, I picked different musicians belonging to different groups. Hamare baccha, Musafir."
The "children" grew into masters of showbiz. The vocal repertoire includes women's songs of the life cycle, songs sung to new-born babes, of seasons, devotional songs composed by 19th century Sufi poets.
Musafir performers have played before enthusiastic crowds in Central Park in New York and before a 11,000-strong crowd in LA recently. The group just released its third CD, Dhola Maru.
They have teamed up with great Hindustani musicians like Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and, next month, they will work with the flamboyant Zakir Hussain at a performance in Paris.
Azzoud refuses to discuss specifics about how much the group makes; all he will say in his accented English is, "There is no minimum and no maximum. If there is going to be a room of 100 people we are not interested, if it's an audience of 1,000, we are interested. We make business."
Adds Bacchu Khan, "He takes good care of us. Badiya paisa dethe hain." And Khan and the others are obviously doing well, given that the group gives 15 performances a month.
How have the rustic musicians used to a simple and slow-paced desert life coped with the hectic schedules in the West? The musicians while happy with the response and the phenomenal success of their group remain unspoilt, simple villagers at heart.
Barkhat Khan says: "Hamme pasand hai, magar vathan tho vathan hai, bahuth yaad aatha hai [We like it, but the motherland is the motherland and we think of it a lot]."
Adds his relative, Iddhu Khan: "Yahan parpaise hi hai, pyar mohabbat nahi hai. Hamare ghaon me, agar koi bimaar pada tho sara gaon aakar dekhege, yahan tho police aathi hai. Yahan sirf paise ka izzat hai, aadmi ka nahi [There is only money here, no love. If somebody falls sick in our village, the whole village comes to visit him, here the police come. There is only respect for money here, not for the person]".
But Iddhu Khan says he is happy with the respect given to all the performers, irrespective of the language they sing in. He is also impressed with the way their music is appreciated, even though the lyrics are not understood.
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