Singer Rashmeet Kaur on staying connected to her musical roots, finding inspiration in folk music and poetry
Rashmeet Kaur talks to Firstpost about following in the culture and tradition expressed in Punjabi folk music and poetry, keeping it alive through her own music.
Singer-songwriter Rashmeet Kaur’s stylistic range extends from showcasing her Gurmat Sangeet training on Manjh Muhabbat Teri—the album she dropped last week consisting six shabads (Sikh hymns)—to Bollywood playback with ‘Heer’ in the 2017 film Phillauri, to winning Amazon Prime’s 2018 reality show The Remix. “I think that’s what an artist’s life is,” she tells Firstpost. “You never stop exploring, never stop believing in the possibilities.” Following the win, she found herself collaborating with Nucleya, one of the show’s judges, on ‘Mirza’ and ‘Mahiya’ off his 2019 album Tota Myna. “That was a big thing, it opened up a lot more directions for me,” says the singer, who’s recently featured with the producer on ‘Jadi Buti’ off electronica trio Major Lazer’s Music Is the Weapon, released earlier this year. “I like to collaborate with people in the industry. I keep jamming, which leads to a lot of nice music. You get to learn a lot when you’re working with other artists.”
This experimental breadth is rooted in a firm belief. “Folk music is the origin. That’s where everything has evolved from,” says Kaur. “It has a soul, right? And soul is very important when you sing or write or do anything in life. If there’s soul, you’re definitely going to be connected to life.” These roots were laid down at the age of six when her mother, who sings in a gurdwara, started teaching her singing and the harmonium. “I couldn’t reach the pump of the harmonium, but I was playing it,” she says with a laugh. Soon she was performing in the gurdwara herself, reciting religious verses and earning appreciation as a child. Even today, she makes it a point to be connected to the gurdwara closest to wherever she’s living, reciting there as often as she can. “That’s where I come from. And you know how the music of religion keeps you divine and pure and powered from inside? Folk is the same thing. Folk is also very pure. It’s untouched.”
It’s the soulful earthiness that allows for a most primal connection with folk music, a living record of our cultural history. It’s something that stays, across all remakes and interpretations. “Because it’s there, in the notes,” says Kaur. “It meant something to them. And we keep following in [this] culture and tradition throughout our life.”
With her music, Kaur is committed to carrying forward this folk heritage, her debut 2019 four-track EP Musafir being inspired heavily by the poetry of Punjabi Sufi poets Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain. With strong, confident vocals, she’s leading listeners through their poetry, which she’s set to music on her EP. Kaur’s voice, dipped in emotion, is accompanied by instrumentals that offer the poetry a contemporary, energetic alt rock sound, making the album seem like deceptively easy listening, echoing the duality of the folk music that’s so intrinsic to her. While ‘Aa Mil Yaar’ and ‘Main Bulbul’ are poems that she’s sung as they are, on ‘Kahaan’ and ‘Musafir’ Kaur is actively conversing with the poetry, tweaking it in places, and adding her own lyrics to the track as well. On ‘Kahaan,’ for instance, which is in theth Punjabi, she’s translated some of the poetry to Hindi to make it accessible to a broader audience. “That song has a time. When people come to this space [in their life] where they understand and are going through certain things, my song can help them travel and take them through that journey.”
And on the title track ‘Musafir,’ she’s tweaked Bulleh Shah’s ‘Rain gayi lutke sab taare’ to
Rain gayi sab kho gaye taara,
Ab tu jaag musafir pyaare
[The night has passed and the stars are lost,
It’s a new day, so now you have to wake up
- as translated by Kaur]
“The meaning behind it is to wake people up,” she says. Calling attention to every disappearing night that’s marking the passage of time, Kaur’s holding the question “how are you spending your time?” over her listeners, encouraging them to awaken from waking slumbers, and “find your true motive.” She’s then added her own words,
Qismat ka kya bharosa,
Ye kisne jana kya hai dhoka
[Who can trust destiny
Who knows what betrayal is]
She’s alluding to the idea that everyone has a different definition of betrayal, and what seems like a betrayal one day might, in retrospect, seem a blessing, and that essentially, "is destiny, you can never say". The track then bridges onto another line she’s taken from the poem:
Mirag jatan bin khet ujaade
From a scent sac under the abdomen of the male Kasturi Mrig (Musk Deer), a musk emanates (making it valuable to poachers and endangering the species). The line of poetry alludes to this deer, who’s searching the forest to find the source of the smell, never stopping to look inward. “You never think about what’s within you,” points out Kaur. “You keep finding happiness in what’s going on outside. You don’t [ask], ‘what’s going on in my mind right now? I have to fix this first and only then will I be able to concentrate or achieve whatever I want.’ So that’s the idea,” she explains.
All this poetry has helped her make sense of things, given her perspective, and helped her with her own compositions. “That’s how I want my music to connect with people, like the poetry,” says the artist, who’s currently working on an album which will use more of Bulleh Shah’s, and others’, poetry.
Besides giving her space to work on the album, the lockdown has also been a time for Kaur to reconnect with the importance of mindful listening. She’s been "reading, exploring different genres and languages, finding new local and folk artists, and listening to gurbani music, which has supported me all this while. It’s meditative". It’s such focused listening she hopes audiences will indulge in during this year’s virtual edition of Weekender. And with this being her first time performing at the festival, from folk to religious and electronica to Bollywood, she’s bringing audiences a set that fully encapsulates her holistic approach to music. “That’s my musical language, if you want to connect with me. It has a lot of variety.”
Rashmeet Kaur is performing at the 2020 virtual edition of Bacardi NH7 Weekender, on 5 and 6 December.
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