Musicians Hari and Sukhmani on the newness of the old

It is a cold December night in Delhi, and Hari and Sukhmani have just finished their set at the National Geographic Wild Wild Fest. The duo, and their collaborators Thu Le and Arshad Khan, are immersed in a post-performance assessment of sorts. Hari is busy urging the collaborators to practice together and go over the songs, so that the next concert sounds ‘tighter’. But judging by the frenzy of the audience, they have played a pretty flawless show.

Hari and Sukhmani are exponents of what is classified as folktronica, a blend of Punjabi folk music and ambient electronica. Hari Singh Jaaj is the producer and backing vocalist and Sukhmani Malik is a trained classical vocalist from the Rampur Gharana.

Explaining their choice of genre, Sukhmani says, “The idea was to do old folk songs, because the new generation doesn’t hear them. And Hari wanted to go into a chill-out zone with it.”

“Bhangra is a very new thing. Traditional folk has never been hardcore; it is very easy going, you never hear big dhols. The idea was to keep that vibe,” Hari elaborates.

In the four years that the duo has been active, their exploration of the novelty of the old has won them a lot of admirers. An appearance in The Dewarists, a music series which airs on Star World India,and a U.S tour have also happened along the way, coupled with performances across several Indian cities. But how is their treatment of folk music perceived back home in Chandigarh?

“You’ll always have the purists, but I don’t think we have come across too many of those. The criticism people come up with to us is that they want faster music. They are used to that pace. But we are trying to break away from Bhangra. If you want to hear Bhangra, please don’t come to hear us,” says Sukhmani.

But for a band that is so decisive about its sound, the duo isn’t particularly dogmatic about the choice of venues it plays in. Audiences, mellow or wild, are essential to the music, for the creation of that aforementioned vibe, and for the relay of energy.

They have also gained something of a reputation for incorporating unusual instruments in their performances. These include the esraj, morchang and daf among others. The roots of this aspect of their performance go back to a collaborative electronic qawwali project they undertook with Rajasthani artistes. Collaborations have been the order of the day ever since, the most recent being the one with renowned percussionist Trilok Gurtu on season 2 of The Dewarists.

The focus, apart from collaborations, has also been to build a repertoire of original songs. But this won’t be in the service of an album. They are quite content to release each song as a single. “There is no need for any album. Who even stocks music these days? If you search Hari and Sukhmani on Google, you’ll find that people have compiled albums of us which we haven’t even released!” Hari explains.

“Everything about us is very simple. We have never hired an agency for promotions and everything is word of mouth. Even the music reflects that simplicity.” he adds.

What else would one expect from a band that refers to itself by the first name of its members. But Sukhmani reveals she would have preferred something more wacky, like Hari Chutney. “I would have loved to keep a cool name. But we had just 10 days before our first gig. And whatever we chose we had to stick with. So we went through an entire list, thought about everything but stuck with Hari and Sukhmani.”