Indie India: What’s the fuss about? (Pt. 2)

Read Part 1 of this series: “Indie India: ‘Early Influencers’

This is the second post in a three-part series, reporting on Mumbai’s independent music scene today and offering some commentary on the challenges facing India’s emerging music industry.

I caught up with Randolph Correia, a local producer, and a member in two of the city’s most successful indie acts, Pentagram and Shaa’ir + Func. Straight off the back of Shaa’ir + Func’s third album release—Mantis—I asked Correia, a local industry veteran of 15 years, exactly what an “Indian sound” is today.

I think the question should be what is India today, rather than what is an Indian sound. It doesn’t matter if you love hip hop, or you’re in a rock band, it doesn’t make you less Indian. You know, you still eat with your hands, still ride in a rickshaw. So we try and focus on those little things that are Indian for the India now (of today). In fact, we were told 15 years ago, back when I joined Pentagram that we should put tabla in our music or some ‘Indian sounds’, maybe some Hindi lyrics, to make it Indian rock. And I just said, “that’s rubbish!”, you know?

The fact is that India and its music is far more than just the internationally recognised, pop sounds of Bollywood and Bhangra folk (music from North-western region, Punjab). I caught shows by a handful of acts who are defining the sounds of independent music in India. They’re modernising (musically) what it means to be Indian (in the eyes of the rest of the world) and packaging it for an international market.

Shaa’ir + Func (trip-pop): There’s a lot of Indian-ness to them, with sounding Desi, Bhangra or Bollywood. The ‘sounds of Mumbai’ feature throughout their latest LP Mantis, from a hat tip to the popular drum & bass and dub-step club scenes in the opening track, to the locally-shot video track “Every Time Your [sic] Around”, and the easily over-looked Maharashtrian rhythms in “My Roots”.

The band have released three full-length albums and split their time between New York and Mumbai. Guitarist Randolph Correia has also produced several young Indian acts. You can download S+F’s latest album, Mantis, free from the band’s website.

Scribe (metal): held their launch for their new video single (below) while I was in town. A professionally shot, edited and graded piece featuring a group of B-boys who have taught themselves how to break. A mean feat for anyone, but most of the dancers in the video are kids living on the fringe of South Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavi. Scribe’s lyrics are about Indian things too. They’re singing about how to make pav bhaji—a quintessential Indian street-snack—and about Bollywood. Their between-song interludes are more like short stand-up comedy sets. Most of them are in Hindi and the young crowd respond with fits of laughter, applause and friendly jibes or witty cultural retorts in English, all of which are lost on me.

While being one of the most popular metal acts in Mumbai, these guys all maintain full-time jobs outside of their work as a band.

Swarathma (folk fusion): The Bangalore-based six-piece were one of four local acts invited to tour the UK and record with renowned producer John Leckie (New Order, Radiohead, Doves, My Morning Jacket)—sing in three languages (Kannada, Tamil and Hindi) and describe their music as the “untamed sound of modern Indian youth”. That is, I find out in the course of conversation, that most of them are not trained musicians. My couch host, Laiq Qureshi, founder of inroom records, later gives that passing comment the perspective it deserves: “To train in a classical Indian instrument, students play the same song, non-stop for 8-10 hours a day, everyday for 40 days”, he tells me. Swarathma have played for audiences in Singapore and Morocco and have festival appearances scheduled for Australia in October and November. Perhaps what’s most impressive though is their commitment to helping spread new music to communities unable to afford to attend gigs. They call them “Swarathma Action Reply Shows”.

“They’re shows that we do on our own as free shows outside the regular paid shows we do –say from a fee of 1.5 lakhs (150,000 INR) we take 25,000-30,000 out of it and do a show in places where people don’t have access to watch a band play live, like a leprosy centre, blind school or old age home. Because these are the kinds of people who don’t have 200 rupees to watch music in a pub”, Dixit explains.

The band have also worked with Global Water Challenge (GWC), releasing a video for their track ‘’Pyassi’, to raise awareness of the global water crisis, which is hitting India particularly hard –a country with 15% of the world’s population and only 4% of the world’s water (according to the World Health Organisation).

The bottom line for indie music in India, despite its critics (who don’t feel it merits attention), is it’s going through an exciting period of growth since being thrust under the international eye. The biggest challenge for the industry today, is a ‘lack of infrastructure’. The term is thrown around at conferences and in the media and is a reality the country as a whole is suffering (not just the music industry). Specifically, India’s music industry needs to grow in five key ways:

  • Re-establish ‘underground’ music venues dedicated to giving younger bands a stage
  • Meaningful corporate involvement. Not just soulless cash injections from alcohol companies
  • Establishment of bigger, more powerful ‘indie labels’, underwritten by the majors like Universal Music
  • A proud but critical (and less gratuitous) scoop of local music journalists, like Arjun Ravi; and
  • More start-ups creating credible relationships between artists and the business of music, like Only Much Louder (OML).

Brands like Red Bull are leading the way for meaningful corporate involvement in Indian music, with projects like Bedroom Jam (launching in India later this month and aimed at up-and-coming musos aged 14+) and Music Academy (aimed at musos 23+, with a focus on the business of the music industry, through workshops, industry speakers and mentors). National Culture Marketing Manager, Ashkai Sarin adds that “OML are also helping us [Red Bull] reach-out to some bands”. And OML, lead by Vijay Nair and Bobby Talwar, is inescapable when it comes to India music in Mumbai (and greater India). While there are individuals like Laiq Qureshi (inroom records) making valuable contributions to the industry. My only (feeble) criticism is that the enthusiasm, and sound business model of OML is creating a monopoly. OML have created or partnered with a string of music-related start-ups run by a talented network of creative young professionals:

Babble Fish Productions: Audio/visual production house headed up by Samira Kanwar. They’ve been documenting the growth of independent music in Mumbai for the past couple of years and plan to release it as a documentary film in the near future.

Counter Culture Records: In their own words, “An alternative to the major labels” and home to many of the acts mentioned in this post. A joint venture between OML and Arjun Ravi’s is a customisable online music resource that links into your social networks and provides you with curated content, based on your specified music tastes.

There has always been a fascination with India in the West. Perhaps owing simply to the rare sense of freedom embodied by Indian culture. Artistic freedom, spiritual freedom, a tenuous sense of time and a different kind of currency. We’re calling this global music movement ‘Indie Ashram’. The next post in this series will explain that movement in more detail and discuss the India’s influence on some of the west’s big-name indie acts.

10 Indian indie acts you should know by now: Tough on Tobacco, Something Relevant, Medusa, Airport, Sridhar/Thayil, Bhoomi, Indigo Children, Jalebee Cartel, Menwhopause, Advaita.