A crowded Starbucks isn’t exactly the best place to set up a music studio, but this is only a minor hindrance to Marti Bharath, an electronic music producer also known as Sapta. He sits with his laptop propped up in front of him, mixing a few beats, while independent musician Maalavika Manoj sings along. Seated across them is rapper and writer, Sofia Ashraf, who occasionally pitches in with feedback.
The ease between the three is obvious; they joke, talk about upcoming gigs, and discuss future collaborations. They work quickly and seamlessly; the result is their latest song, ‘Deen’. “There’s this whole spirit of collaboration happening in Chennai,” says Sofia, “This is an exciting time to be a musician, because you really do find a sense of community.”
Their song, recently released online, is a fusion of genres, with English and Arabic lyrics, a medley of what they call “medieval meets hip hop.” Combining Sofia’s raps, and Maalavika’s vocals on the traditional Arabic song, ‘Tala al Badru Alayna’, it’s an anthem that meets a ballad, detailing Sofia’s relationship with organised religion, calling out moral policing and insisting that faith must be a choice, not an imposition. ‘Deen’ carries a message that’s important to all of them, one that they all stand by. Says Sofia, “The song, ‘Tala al Badru Alayna’, is about people who welcome religion into their lives, and that’s what makes it beautiful. However, as much as I respect organised religion, when people start to impose it on you and tell you how to live your life, the problems begin. The song focuses on my path throughout the years; each verse was written at a different stage. When I left my faith, people had a lot of questions; this is my response.” Adds Marti, “Most of my songs deal with the sound. However, in this one, the motivation was to explore words and the weight they carry.”
With eight years of music production behind him, Marti had no problems with mixing two very different kinds of sounds. “The process of creating happened in a few hours,” he says, “The three of us hung out at the beach with our violinist, Shravan Sridhar, who’s featured in the song. Sofia started to rap, I pitched a few ideas, and it just clicked.”
“Not many people know how to handle rap,” says Sofia, “Marti was able to take certain phrases in the song that meant a lot to me and make them stand out.”
Grappling with Arabic was also new to singer Maalavika. “We all knew it was a hauntingly beautiful song,” she says, “Sofia sat down with me and explained the depth of these words. This is a sacred song to many people, and it was important for me to get it right.”
The trio have performed the song live a few times, and with a potential music video on the way, they’re eager to engage in dialogue with their listeners. “It’s really about the issue of moral policing,” they say, “And it isn’t just related to one community; anyone can relate to having impositions thrust upon them. It’s really a universal theme that we wanted to address. There’s a constant need to establish our identities, and that’s where this assertion of a voice comes from.” “We’re hoping this will spark a conversation,” concludes Sofia, “That’s the point of our music.”