Chennai-based EarthSync synthesises voices from across genres and explores sound that is well off the beaten track. Shonali Muthalaly on the record label that makes music for the common man

Music is their political statement. Democratic, inclusive and independent. Putting the feisty songs of the fishermen, hypnotic devotional chants and the carefully-modulated tones of revered classical musicians on the same platform. Chennai-based EarthSync is a world music record label exploring, recording and working with music that is usually well off the beaten track.

This month opened with their first ‘IndiEarth Xchange’, a world music conference-festival that brought together Indian and international professionals for a series of think-tank sessions, workshops, concerts and — of course — networking opportunities. “I opened the first session by saying that there are no conclusions,” says CEO/director Sonya Mazumdar, swivelling her chair thoughtfully, in her cosily cluttered office, bristling with EarthSync posters, photographs and albums. “We are in an era of change. What is really important now is dialogue.”

Yotam Agam, who founded EarthSync with Sonya, saunters in, and adds emphatically, “Now is the time.” He talks of how they were fairly avant-garde when they began, in 2004. The music they promoted was perceived to be obscure and audiences were difficult to find. Then, the Internet changed everything. “There is an audience for the music we promote. But for many years we couldn’t gauge that,” says Yotam. “Before the Facebook days, you had to hire a PR firm for a lakh a month, and even then you couldn’t engage with people.” Now people listen to their music on YouTube, follow them on Twitter, and connect on Facebook. It’s the best time to grow. “It’s all happening right here. Right now,” says Agam.

EarthSync ‘just happened’, says Sonya, talking about how they began. “It was a tryst-with-destiny kind of situation.” She and Yotam met in Chennai. An Israeli, he was in Chennai to work on a music project for a software- based company. “I fell in love with everything here,” says Yotam. “I’m a producer-audio engineer, and have been a nomad for many, many years. I’ve been all over the world. Hong Kong, Japan, America…” What impressed him the most about Chennai, was the music of South India. “Music here is a way of life,” he says, “If you are talented, parents will dedicate their lives to making you a musician. In the West they will dedicate their lives to stopping you.”

Unexpectedly, the 2004 tsunami ended up setting the course for EarthSync. “It happened soon after we opened. And we decided we wanted to contribute. To go beyond charity. Do something deeper, more sustainable, more long term, through the channel we know best — music,” Sonya says. “We wanted to show the resilience of the human spirit.” They also decided to tell the story of six countries. “India, Thailand, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia… They are all so beautiful. But after the tsunami, the only image left was of death. And we began to ask, ‘How does the healing happen?’.”

Titled the Laya Project, it brought together the people of the coastal communities from all six countries. “The tsunami didn’t differentiate between countries. At the end it made no concessions for state boundaries. One ocean, six shores,” says Sonya, adding, “There’s an amazing commonality among the fishermen folk — they go to work, they sing. Waterside people have similar lives. The ocean is their source of food, and also of prayer.”

Yotam says they also learnt a lot on the Laya Project. “We began with Sri Lanka. There were tons of NGOs there, all just throwing around money. This was destroying communities. So, locals looked at us the same way, at first. They wanted a lot. Like, a lot. $1000 to shoot. But very quickly, the attitude changed. We slowly learned how to approach a village. You come in soft. By foot if possible. Or in a small car. Not with air conditioners, massive jeeps, stopping traffic on the street…” Yotam adds, “You come in to play. Sing, or strum a guitar. They will join you. When you shoot, you engage with the people. We stay typically for 10 days at least — or three weeks.” Along the way, they discovered how music can be cathartic. “There was a lot of grief, yes. Mourning songs. But music cuts through the grief. And it was always a jam session in the end.” They also learnt how to record and edit quickly. “This was how we could show our work in the village. And they would go, ‘Wow… We know one more song’.”

The Laya Project ended up taking two-and-a-half years to finish. Sonya says, “While editing, I was thinking, “Who the hell is going to watch this?” It ended up being their most successful album, selling all over the world. “It’s received awards. And till today it sells. It’s still very much alive.” She states that Laya was never intended to be a charity project. “It was about a sustainable existence. To take the art forms of these regions and put them on an international stage. Take them out of the village. Give back to these cultures a sense of their beauty. Encourage cultural continuity. After all, music is as critical as food, clothes, shelter.”

EarthSync quickly realised that the main challenge for artistes is reaching the right audiences. “The perception is that Indians are closed to listening to anything new. I know I have struggled with it for 10 years. But people are more open now,” says Sonya, adding, “The fundamental problem in India is infrastructure. Not a lack of talent. Not a lack of art, or media. It’s the lack of an organised structure.”

The recent Xchange proved to her that people enjoy good music, even if it’s completely unfamiliar. “We had artistes from the Reunion Island. They were — very groovy. The audience freaked out. So audiences are open. They just don’t know what exists.” Their solution was IndiEarth, which began a year ago. (www.indiearth.com). It’s an online platform that connects independent artists to worldwide media and markets.

“We decided to use our learning and our experience to help the growing music scene in India,” says Sonya, adding markedly, “Non-film music. Film has an organised set up. But with traditional music in today’s context, it’s hard to find market. So how do young artistes reach out beyond their home region?” Indiearth attempts to address these challenges. “Artist create pages for themselves. Media who register on the site can use the tracks. They can connect directly. We have about 250 tracks now. And 100 media”.

Yogam says they first chose Chennai because “It was comfortable.” However, “We quickly found it was also an advantage to be in this coast. There’s easier access to Singapore, Thailand, even Australia. I know it’s just a couple of hours flight to Mumbai… But our connection to India is really here.” He adds with a laugh, “Our Gateway of India is in Chennai. Not Mumbai.”