Their mix of Rajasthani folk, jazz and The Beatles vowed audiences when Jaipur’s Kawa Brass Band performed at the Olympics Torch relay in Shrewsbury and Belfast. But there’s more to the band than its music.
When Hamid Khan Kawa founded the Kawa Brass Band in 2000, he hadn't an inkling of the multiple honours that awaited. With their performance for the Olympics Torch relay in Shrewsbury and Belfast recently, this band from Jaipur has put both Rajasthan and India on the world map. “We were so proud when we received the letter from the British Council, inviting us to play. It's opened further avenues for us and introduced us to a crowd that both loves and appreciates music” recalls Khan, speaking from France.
Hamid Khan's family has been musicians for generations. Khan is a classical tabla player, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. “I used to play at functions, both in India and abroad. When I played in countries like France and England and saw artists from the world over, showcasing their talent, I realised we Indians had that too.” Hamid says that the functions were quite like the traditional Rajasthani jalsa where different traditional artists would come together to perform. “Sometimes a jalsa can go on through the night.”
Not smooth sailing
He made up his mind to start the Kawa Brass Band, an initiative that was to bring together not just classical music, but other traditional street art forms. “Actually picking people for the band took a long time, and was difficult. I went from village to village, seeking artists who had the passion and zeal. They could be anyone, street performers, or members of a wedding band. They just had to be fellow music lovers.” It was not all smooth sailing. Initially, when he suggested that the band would play not just in India but also overseas, the first reaction was incredulous amusement. “People laughed. They couldn't believe that poor unknown artists could play at such a level. I had to convince them that being rich and famous isn't a guarantee for talent. Patthar se hi heera milta hai (After all it's a stone that yields a diamond).”
Right now, the members include Hamid Khan Kawa (founder and artistic director), Siraj Khan (bass drum), Najikali Damami (side drum), Manish Chauhan (trumpet), Chand Mohammad Damami (clarinet), Mohammed Shafi (euphonium), Hakam Ali (euphonium), Govinda (performer) and Chandni Sapera (dancer).
While playing at the London Olympics Torch relay was a great honour, it's not the only time the band's played at a world sports event. Kawa Brass Band also performed at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games 2006 and the Football World Cup 1998 in Paris. “When we went for the football cup in 1998, the number of people in the audience overwhelmed me. I was nervous and disappointed that our Indian team wasn't there. But then we played and the response of the crowd was so complete, so earnest that it lifted our spirits. In fact, we realised that while the Indian football team wasn't there, the band's team was. Our supporters were right there in the crowd.”
Khan says that it is their music that speaks to the foreign audience. “Many band members don't speak English but people identify with us through our music. We mix melodies using Indian tunes and foreign influences. We want our listeners to know that, while we are traditional and love our roots, we are open to other art forms; foreign or Indian.”
Kawa Brass Band plays music with strains of Rajasthani folk music, infused with strains of jazz, and sometimes even The Beatles. “People dance to our music wherever we play. Then sometimes they'll take us out for coffee and tell us how our music reminded them of their school days. And to think, we are a brass band from Jaipur, playing our music wearing safas and dhotis!”
Perhaps the most important goal, one that drives Hamid Khan and his band, is the desire to preserve traditional Indian art forms. This desire fuelled the Kawa Circus, the group of acrobats and street performers that works with the band. “The effort is to bring together not just singers and musicians but also other artists, dancers, acrobats, and showcase their talent alongside that of the band. They perform as we play and the music and the rhythm infuses four times the energy into them.” All the artists, 2500 of them, have been personally trained by Hamid Khan Kawa.
“We hope the recognition we've got so far will go a long way in preserving what I think is the identity of our country. Without our culture, without our traditions, however obscure, unrecognised and small, we don't have a self.” While they are famous abroad, in India they still have a long way to go. “We know whenever we play in India, the crowd will be much smaller, the response not that great. Which bothers me. This is an indication that we are losing touch with our traditions. People outside recognise India and her talent. We should be proud, but we should also recognise it ourselves.”