Soft focus History & Culture

Across the Northeast with reggae

Begum X and Delhi Sultanate perform in Nongstoin.  

Nestled in the West Khasi Hills, Nongstoin College found itself thrumming with riddims one March morning this year. The cold, sunlit corners of the grounds came alive with rub-a-dub, dancehall and roots reggae sounds.

Hundreds of fascinated students milled around the college canteen, in front of which the soundsystem had been set up.

Three hours from Shillong, Nongstoin is not exactly a cultural hotspot. In anticipation of this campus show, enthusiastic banners had been put up as far out as neighbouring villages, announcing the arrival of Bass Foundation Roots Sound System—helmed by Begum X and Delhi Sultanate.

As the sultry vocals of Begum X rent the air, rich with influences of jazz, blues and rocksteady rhythms, you could sense the audience warming up and beginning to bask in the infectious energy.

A roar went through the crowd as the track switched to a traditional Khasi lullaby, sung by one of the college’s own students, against the backdrop of a classic reggae anthem selected by Delhi Sultanate from the turntable.

When the BFR Sound System team rolled into this tiny town in their bright red modified van, they were carrying to the heart of Meghalaya a tradition that originated from the street parties in the Kingston ghettos of Jamaica where, back in the ’50s, poor communities often had no television or radio.

A generator, turntables and huge speakers would be loaded into a truck and the soundsystem would travel to the district, playing in open, inclusive spaces.

The soundsystem culture quickly became an integral part of reggae music. It enabled powerful music to be played outside conventional venues and reach wide audiences.

Building relationships

This was the experience that Delhi Sultanate, which crowdfunded the BFR Sound System and van last year, wanted to recreate in India. “Having the freedom to pack our system into the red van and tour in different parts of the country has been one of our core ambitions from the very start,” says Taru Dalmia (aka Delhi Sultanate). “Wherever we go, we intend to build relationships with people which are lasting.”

This tour across the Northeast was the first big road trip the BFR Sound System has undertaken with the concept. The journey began in March, with the van leaving New Delhi for Imphal, the first stop of the seven-show tour that took place across Manipur, Assam and Meghalaya.

A soundsystem session is a 12-hour undertaking, as a part of which the decoration, lighting and bookstall would all be set up by the team, along with the sound equipment.

Luckily, the team had many volunteers to help with the heavy lifting. The local support that the artists could garner at every venue is really what set the tour apart.

“One big reason for choosing to go to the Northeast was a friends of ours who is with the activist organisation TUR [Thma U Rangli] and because of the Shillong-based community-run news site Raiot,” Delhi Sultanate says, referring to activists Angela Rangad and Tarun Bhartiya, also a renowned filmmaker. “We knew that any BFR Sound System show that we do with their help would have the right context.”

The spirit of collaboration has run deep throughout the journey and been extended to the BFR Sound System’s onstage performances as well. The duo encourages local artists to come, improvise, and perform with them onstage, an interactive experience that is as thrilling as it is atmospheric.

“It’s also a way to connect with people who’ve never seen us before and don’t share the same language,” says Samara Chopra (aka Begum X).

“BFR Sound System plays vinyl records, with the vocal tune on the A-side, and the instrumental on the B-side. It’s so much a part of soundsystem culture to flip the record, and for singers and rappers to sing over the instrumental.”

Different sounds

Trilochan Das, Head of the Department of Political Science in Nongstoin College, was one of the faculty members actively involved in the show. He says, “I was keen on students being exposed to reggae music, and for them to learn that it is a tool of emancipation and empowerment. As music is a strong part of tribal culture here, it was good to have a cultural show of this kind. It was also for the benefit of the children at St. Wollington orphanage nearby.”

Other collaborators who came on board included activist and musician Mr. India (aka Daniel Langthasa) in Assam, and members of The Giving Tree in Imphal, a centre that aims to introduce diverse art, music and theatre practices to Manipur, and help broaden cultural horizons in the strife-torn state.

If there’s one thing all these people involved with the BFR Sound System road trip share, it is courage. Says Begum X, “These are all people who share a deep concern for people, and are invested in creating culture. It’s no secret that these are dark and scary times, and people who speak their minds and ask for justice are silenced, while looters roam free. In one way or another, the people we worked with refuse to get used to the violence and vulgar disparity around. Instead, they choose to create conscious culture.”

The Goa-based journalist writes about music, films and culture, and surfs the Net for unlikely places to visit.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 11:53:24 PM |

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