When I was first assigned this feature, there was a growing, but later successfully stifled, fear at the back of my head.
This had to be about reggae. So, how could I, as reggae-uneducated as I am, possibly write about this musical genre, let alone the people who endeavour to spread its reach towards all corners of our sub-continent?
Of course, in this day of the internet, nothing is beyond our grasp. One can ‘google’ reggae, ‘wiki’ it or ‘YouTube’ for samples as I did, to gain a better understanding of the genre: one that doesn’t necessarily start and end with Bob Marley. But (not so) surprisingly, Bob Marley was one of the key factors behind the Reggae Rajahs, India’s first ‘sound system’, coming together.
Circa 2009. On the 5th of February, reggae enthusiasts from around Delhi had gathered for a Bob Marley tribute gig. Had he lived, this would have been in celebration of his oncoming 64th birthday. But, as fate had other plans, this was simply in memoriam. It was here, at this 2009 tribute performance, where DJ MoCity, one of the selektahs(a term usually used in Jamaican/reggae parlance for a reggae DJ; one who selects the riddim/rhythm) for the evening, met with Mr Herbalist and Diggy Dang. Three seemingly fledgling reggae artistes came together on this night to form the Reggae Rajahs, a ‘sound system’ that aims to spread reggae consciousness across India.
The Reggae Rajahs, it would appear, had followed a Jamaican dream, the roots of which could be traced back to their not-so-distant past, where the beat of reggae rhythmically reverberated in the labyrinths of their minds. For Zorawar ‘Mr Herbalist’ Shukla, his parents’ music collection — Bob Marley, UB40, Inner Circle, Yellowman — might have been where it all began. But this proved to have been only a beginner’s guide to reggae; reggae took an all new meaning in the days he spent at a university in Boston, where he had the chance to experience many reputed reggae artistes perform. Raghav ‘Diggy’ Dang’s brush with reggae occurred whilst in London, after which he could be seen flitting in and out of reggae concerts and festivals around Europe. And for Mohammed ‘DJ MoCity’ Abood, the call came from closer home. A Bob Marley-mixed tape that he had picked up from one of Goa’s many beaches in 2000 marked the beginning of his reggae expedition.
Since 2009, the Reggae Rajahs, operating as a ‘sound system’ with one DJ and two emcees, have been seeking to introduce reggae into the Indian musical playlist through a mix of genres that include ska, dancehall, lover’s rock and dub. With some frequent performances in Delhi as well as some other Indian cities — Mumbai, Bangalore and Goa to name a few — they’ve also ventured abroad, showcasing their skills in Peru, Panama City and New York.
I have to wonder though, for a country whose music industry is heavily defined by film soundtracks or classical artistes who perfect Carnatic and Hindustani notes, where, or how, exactly does reggae fit in? The only other Indian-origin reggae artiste that comes to mind is Apache Indian, responsible for introducing a new breed of Jamaican sound — bhangramuffin — that combined the styles of bhangra and ragamuffin, a sub-genre of reggae.
As always, my assumptions get the better of me. It would appear that the infant reggae scene in India has given rise to some other sound systems as well — Dakta Dub (Monkey Soundsystem) in Hyderabad, Low Rhyderz in Goa and Delhi’ BassFoundation which includes Indian raggamuffin vocalist Delhi Sultanate. Not to mention, India’s first ska/rocksteady band, The Ska Vengers, where Diggy Dang is in charge of guitar and vocals are taken care of by the Delhi Sultanate.
Still, being relatively new ground for both — the Indian artiste to conquer and the Indian audience to accept — the listener has to be sensitised first with familiar tunes — Hello again, Mr Marley? — such as those by Sean Paul or Mr Vegas, before getting a whiff of the groups’ own sound. And of course, taking into consideration the typical Indian’s love for dance or dance-music, the Reggae Rajahs prefer to “play more dancehall sounds than vibe to some roots.”
Since reggae is mostly unchartered territory in India, a newly-formed reggae group may not have much to lose. If anything, they tend to stand out all the more for making a name for themselves in a niche market, which might lend them a very boutique-ish appeal.
Being a niche market, however, might disallow multiple opportunities or avenues for expansion and exploration. But this, as with most ventures in life, is only a ‘starting problem’. Sharing their own experience, the Reggae Rajahs relate that at first, clubs would show a certain sense of apprehension in signing them on based on the assumption that their area of musical expertise did not cover dance-able beats. “That changed when we started showcasing reggae’s many sub-genres, some of which qualify as highly energetic dance music. After our first gig together, we decided to perform at two different venues every Thursday night and gradually, we built up a following. Having established ourselves as a heavyweight party posse, it helped pave the way for our future gigs,” they say.
In a great start to the year, this reggae outfit has been nominated for the Best International Band/Group award at the British Reggae Industry Awards, due to take place in October 2012. What else is on their 2012 to-do list? The release of their first single and music video and a reggae festival among other things, I hear. They will also be touring Europe, having been invited to perform at the Outlook Festival in Croatia this year, Europe’s largest bass music and sound system culture festival. I wonder then, if I should be heading back to my heavily internet-reliant reggae education. I wouldn’t want to miss the reggae train should it pick up any more speed, which, as it appears, it surely will.