Some way or another, poet and friend Vivek Narayanan and I figure we’re related. Some of his people hail from Besant Nagar in Chennai, as do mine, even sharing a street if not during the same decade in time. And his poetic alter-ego is a man named Mr. Subramanian. On a warm winter night we met up in Chennai with plans to see music. First we wandered on Eliots Beach, a place transformed with each return, more people, more glowing and squaking toys, more vendors selling roasted corn on the cob, rubbed with lime, chili and salt, which I have a serious weakness for. That kind is known as “normal,” though the new “American Sweet Corn” is also available. Oh, sorry, am I talking about food again? With my lips still numb from the chili and lime, Vivek led me into Spaces, a place I’ve walked by a hundred times yet never entered, though the granite posts that serve as a fence have always caught my eye. Inside, it is a space removed, the same peacefulness offered by the nearby Theosophical Society, where trees and the quiet space between them dominate, the sounds of the city set back, only the occasional roar of the Besant Nagar boys on their bikes speeding along the beach penetrated into our realm.
We were there to see other boys. More talented boys. Much more talented boys. I can call them boys because they’re younger than me, and because that’s their name: the Barmer Boys. Here’s how their label Amarrass Records describes them:
The Barmer Boys are led by Mangey Khan (vocals, harmonium) with the twin percussive punch of Rais Khan (morchang, bhapang, beat-boxing), Magda Khan (dholak). Barely in their 30’s, and yet seasoned performers, they carry forward the centuries-old musical tradition of the Manganiyars and are leading examples of Rajasthani folk and Sufi music.
Mangey Khan on vocals was wonderful, and Magda Khan on the drum too, but Rais Khan, there on the left, was transfixing. A self-taught master of the morchang (a Rajasthani folk instrument, also called the chhangg in Gujarat or morsing in southern India, and similar to a Jaw’s Harp, Jew’s Harp, choose your name), with each song he’d pick up some small instrumental item and then leap with it out into the stars, smiling with the joy of the sound he was creating with the two others. Here’s one bit of my amateur video:
And another, in which he shyly mentions he’s been learning beatboxing and then proceeds to do this…
A fine evening, away from the boys and the noise of the beach and immersed in the sounds that emerged from the Rajasthani desert to travel the world and end up, like my poet friend and I on that one night, on the sands of the Bay of Bengal.