Mumbai Mirror, Tuesday, June 5, 2007
“Desi Calypso, Pardesi Folk”
Surabhi Sharma’s documentary Jahaji Music follows Remo Fernandes as he travels to the Islands to discover the rhythms of India in the Caribbean
Winds put out small fires and fuel the larger ones. The same could be said of distances and passions. Indian expatriates have struggled to hold on to a piece of their country and the struggle has often expressed itself through distinct musical sub-cultures from Birmingham to Jamaica. Surabhi Sharma’s documentary Jahaji Music follows singer Remo Fernandes as he travels into the Caribbean islands to discover the music of a culture where it has often been the means and the end of survival.
The film is mounted as an impressionistic collage of fragmented narratives, which do not always link up . The camera sets the pace for the journey with lingering long and mid shots, which soak up the city and culture scape, turning curious and intrusive when the rhythm picks up.
We drive into the heart of Trenchtown with Bob Marley’s teacher and Rastafarian philosopher Mortimo as he pays tribute to the land that nurtures the greatest of artists while remaining decrepit with poverty, violence and political neglect. The trance like beats of the steel pan (a musical instrument that “came from nothing’ when the colonial government imposed a ban on the African drum) set the mood for volatile protest songs against the system, the police and even the queen of England. There is a more uplifting chat with a visual artist in the Savannahs and dancehall queen Stacey. Denise Belafon takes us through the performance of her new song “I want an Indian man” in her characteristic saucy style and talks of the protests that followed from the Indian community as she stripped off her sari mid song.
Indians were shipped into the islands in nineteenth century and they landed with little except seeds and songs to work their way into an alien culture and country. Generations later it is hard to tell them from the majority of the population except for the pictures of Indian deities that adorn their walls and the strains of Karan Johar’s ‘Mahi Ve’ which waft around as they go about their daily chores. Popular musicians from the community have worked hard at being accepted into the local music scene and are mindful of not sounding like ‘foreigners’ when they sing. Soca and Calypso have shaped their identity and they are acutely aware of that as is evident when Rikki Jai croons “hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me Soca” but then he follows it up promptly with Bindiya Chamkegi revamped to fit into Soca Rhythms. Clearly they are not up to abandoning their Indian cultural heritage either. Most of them do not speak or understand Indian languages but they must assimilate their popular folk and film rhythms into their music to complete their expression. Lyrics are written and translated for them by their mothers or grandfathers often. And strange as it may sound to hear “sanwariya hum hu chalab tore saath” in a distinct Caribbean accent it packs the same emotional punch as it would in a non-descript north Indian village.
The documentary is an emotional and musical journey worth taking. And deep in its folds lies an uncomplicated answer to the raging debate of who is the ‘real Indian’. A real Indian is someone you can take out of India but you cannot take India out of.