Mame Khan: ‘I hope to sing opera some day’

Shriya Mohan | Updated on February 14, 2020 Published on February 13, 2020

Soaring vocals: Khan has had several performances abroad with world musicians special arrangement   -  special arrangement

The Manganiyar superstar on how the power of folk stories — along with bajra roti and jaggery — is fuelling the rise of his community’s heritage music

It ain’t a welcome until the Manganiyars arrive. So although it was day two at the Corona Ranthambhore Music and Wildlife Festival — which in its third edition saw an eclectic mix of indie, fusion and folk artistes perform under chilly winter skies — when Mame Khan Manganiyar entered the stage, it felt like a show-starter. And the listeners were all ready to shout out their song requests.

Khan, who comes from Satto in Jaisalmer, is one of the most prominent voices today, pushing the boundaries of Rajasthani folk into pop, indie and the contemporary world music scene. At the festival, he treated the audience to Mitho laage, Damadam mast kalandar and his own upbeat version of Kesariya, among other songs. In a chat with BLink ahead of his performance, the Luck by Chance playback singer and Coke Studio artiste dwelt on what it takes to stay relevant, and the secret to survival.

Folk music has largely struggled to survive in the face of modern pop. The music of the Manganiyars is an exception. What’s the secret of its survival?

Eating bajra rotis and jaggery (laughs). In our Manganiyar community, there are only 16,000 to 17,000 people across Rajasthan — Barmer, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer. The Manganiyars were the record keepers of royal families since the Middle Ages. They sang about wars, forts, beauty and legacy. Folk music has survived because of them. Folk was the first language, in a way. Language was first communicated through folk music before it became a script and made it into books. Folk reproduced the stories we saw and heard. Then came classical, blues, reggae and other musical genres...

Our Manganiyar ancestors have made a highway for us — an NH7 for us to drive through. Of course, there are language barriers when we sing to a modern audience. But it largely depends on a singer on how to break these barriers, how to adapt, explain context and take everyone along.

Recently I was at IIT-Bombay’s Mood Indigo festival and I sang Laal peeli akkhiyaan, which is in traditional Rajasthani bhasha. I always ask, ‘Are you ready to sing along?’ When they can’t repeat after me, I say, ‘Let’s forget the words and just repeat the melody.’ Lalalala... (sings).

Everything depends on how much you love your audience, how hard you try to make them understand your music. Then you’ll definitely get the love back.

The Manganiyars have been able to blend into Carnatic, Hindustani, Bollywood and other kinds of music. What’s the common root?

I believe that there is something in the blood of the Manganiyars. If you take an eight-year-old child and give him a piece of music, from anywhere in the world, and you tell him to sing along, he’ll be able to interpret it and make it his own.

I’m a tenth pass. I’ve travelled to 50-60 countries, jammed with Iranian and Spanish musicians, and performed at some of the biggest venues, from Sydney Opera House to the Lincoln Centre. But our village children, even without the exposure, are so talented. It is god’s gift. We carry with us the blessings of our ancestors. The Manganiyar instruments such as the kartaal and kamaicha can blend in with any piece of music, no matter how complex and layered.

I hope to sing opera some day! The range that we have matches with the vocal scale of opera singers. I am always open to ideas.

With fame, aren’t Manganiyars also facing the challenge of a shrinking repertoire of music?

My album Desert Sessions is the first successful crowd-funded album from the Manganiyar community. We raised the money in 20 days. I got a GiMA [Global Indian Music Academy] award for best folk single for the song Saawan, which is a traditional Manganiyar song. It wasn’t for Nimbooda (pop folk ).

Our music isn’t just limited to Kesariya, Nimbooda or Damadam mast kalandar (popular folk tunes). It’s a vast treasure. My father, the late Ustad Rana Khan Saab, passed on this treasure chest of songs to me, which I won’t be able to exhaust in an entire lifetime. I revive these for a modern audience.

Your question is right. Manganiyar singers shouldn’t reduce the repertoire and play to the audience’s demands. Kesariya has become Rajasthan’s anthem and it is demanded each time by the audience. It is the duty of the artistes to say that we want to bring you more than this. I always ask the audience, ‘Do you want to listen to something new? Or just what you already know?’ I tell them that I will first sing something of my choice and then theirs. It is important to make them listen!

Tell us about the lesser-known Manganiyar songs from your father’s treasure chest.

There is a song called Lolee, which is a Sufi composition by my father. Bichhudo is an old song about a girl who gets married, but can’t tell her in-laws that she wants to meet her husband. So she tells them that she’s off to collect firewood and cow dung. When she’s back she says there was a scorpion in the cow dung that stung her ankle and that made her late. It’s a sweet lie. There’s Moomal...

There are so many varieties of maand (classical-cum-folk singing style). Jaisalmer’s maand is different from Jodhpur’s and Bikaner’s maand. There’s Nendkatari, Chungri and Laal peeli akhiyaan, the last I made modern by including the saxophone, guitar and giving it a flamenco world music appeal.

What can we expect from you in 2020?

Some singles are expected to be released soon. People want visuals with singles, not whole albums anymore. You’ll listen to me in a new light. We just released Alive India on YouTube, an ode to India sung by various artistes in 26 different languages. I sang in Rajasthani. I’m excited about my first Tamil song, to be released by Chennai-based music label Think Music, sometime before April. I’m also writing some originals.

How has teaching and riyaz changed for the Manganiyars?

The first school of music for Manganiyar kids was their home. Their mothers and siblings would be singing while cooking or sweeping. That was their music lesson. Now electricity, internet and digital penetration have made the learning process less organic. Thanks to YouTube, the kids are all clued into what’s being sung outside. The musical influences are many. Taking talim and sitting under a tree to do riyaz is passé. The tanpura is on our phones. We hum our riyaz while travelling between flights and hotels.

Shriya Mohan

Published on February 13, 2020
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