Dressed in black jackets and colourful turbans, Manga, Magda and Rais Khan present an image of the musical fringe they occupy. Accomplished folk musicians from Rajasthan, the trio are known as the Barmer Boys and have stormed the international stage with their unique sound and crossover aesthetics. Performing at the ‘Musical Mélange’ themed December edition of ‘Under the Banyan Tree on a Full Moon Night’ series at 1AQ in Delhi, the contemporary folk band blended traditional repertoire with groovy rhythms.
“Mostly people assume that Rajasthani folk music is one singular category,” explains Rais, “but it has a variety of styles, each one with different techniques and compositions.” Attempting to break the general public’s limited view of Rajasthani folk, when not on performance tours, the trio digs deeper into traditional compositions they have learnt from the masters in their villages. These are songs and sounds that are often on the verge of slipping away from the community’s collective memory. To present it to the urban audience is another challenge altogether. “City audience mostly know only the folk repertoire that has made its way into Bollywood. So, they ask us to play ‘Kesaria balma’ or ‘Nimbooda nimbooda’. But there is a world of folk music from Rajasthan beyond that and we want to share those lesser-known but equally rich compositions through our unique style.” Manga and Magda nod vehemently as we chat over chai, looking for a chance to break into an impromptu baithak to demonstrate Rais’ point.
They open their set with their signature ‘Nagma’. Manga’s harmonium sets the tone, followed by his alaap. Finding the right space, Magda joins in with the dholak, complimenting Manga’s winding movement through the high notes. Rais further embellishes the leisurely melody with his range of folk instruments — morchang, khartal and bhapang, concluding with a flourish of rhythm play.
While they seem perfectly synchronised on stage, like any other band they have their tiffs and creative arguments behind the scenes. Manga has trained with several Ustads over the years and has a refined voice that traverses the octaves smoothly. “Sometimes, I lose track of time when I get into the alaap,” reflects Manga. Rais, on the other hand, with his passion for percussion, is raring to go deeper into high-paced musical phrases. He has experimented with beat boxing and other contemporary percussion techniques. “Long alaaps may not be suited to all kinds of audiences and sometimes they get restless and we need to pace up,” he quips. Just as they are about to get into a heated debate about alaaps, rhythms and audience choices, Magda calmly chuckles, “It has to be balanced, we can’t hurry up the alaap, but we also can’t have an infinite one!” Magda hails from a family of vocalists, yet chose to train in playing the dholak. His adept understanding of melody and rhythm is the balancing harmony between the trio, on and off stage.
The band’s versatility is rooted in their eclectic approach. Sindhi influences and Gujarati garba-like beats merge with local interpretations of ghazal, qawwali and Sufi kalaam. The band was formed in 2011 at the Amarrass Desert Music Festival in Delhi. Since their international debut at the Roskilde Festival in 2014, they have been featured on MTV’s Coke Studio, BBC, NPR and at major festivals such as Mood Indigo, Bacardi NH7 Weekender, ZIRO Festival of Music, Winnipeg Folk Festival and others.
Their layered music style can be traced back to their early years of traditional training. For each one, music is a treasured inheritance. Manga recounts the days of relentless riyaaz with his Ustad in a village near the border. “Taking a murki at a high pitch is not easy,” he shares, “but my Ustad used to make me practise till I got it right, that’s why it is second nature now.”
Rais has been a fan of Ustad Zakir Hussain as far back as he can remember. “As a teenager I could do anything to listen to a recording of the tabla maestro! While walking 12 kilometres to and fro from school, I was obsessed with the tala and matras I had heard.”
For Magda, musical instruments were the toys he reminisces playing with, as a child. “Since everyone in my family used to sing, I would play the beats. In fact, when I didn’t have an instrument handy to accompany them, I would play the rhythm with my fingers on my head!”
Audience members often join them on stage to dance to the compelling combination of sounds. The trio have collaborated with musicians across the globe now. “Our folk melodies remain intact,” points out Rais. “Yet the same composition sounds fresh because we bring in electronic beats, new rhythms, sometimes a groovy and clubby feel. We want our music to have that kind of range – from folk to rock!”
The talent of the Barmer Boys lies in mixing the contemporary rhythmic edge with an archive of traditional melodies. “We have new ideas, and we hope the audience will be open to exploring folk music in a new way with us,” Rais concludes. Manga and Magda smile and gesture to each other to finalise the set for the next performance. As they tune their instruments, they are also tuning in to what the audience wants to hear on a full moon night.