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Of vinyl and folk artists: How Amarrass is putting rural musicians on the map, reviving interest in records

“The legends are out there. We don’t know them, but that means it’s an opportunity to go out and find them,” says Ankur Malhotra. Malhotra speaks of the music legends who live in rural India, far from urban gig venues and studios. A shared passion for music and shame at not being able to name ‘the greats’ of Indian folk motivated him to start the record label Amarrass Records in 2009 with Ashutosh Sharma. The duo got on the road with microphones in hand, scouring the Rajasthani countryside for rural talent.

Among others, they found Sakar Khan, simply described as one of the greatest kamancha players the world has seen. The musician, who had been playing all his life, finally released his only album At Home: Sakar Khan in 2012 with Amarrass, which received five stars on Songlines. In 2012, Khan was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to Indian folk music. “These are people for whom the sole purpose, the sense of being on this Earth is to perform and play music,” Malhotra explains.

Another noteworthy example is Manga Khan, who the duo heard by chance and decided, ‘This guy needs a band’, forming the folk outfit Barmer Boys. After first performing at the debut Amarrass Desert Music Festival in 2011, Barmer Boys had their international debut in 2014 at the Roskilde Festival, with a set scheduled between hip-hop duo OutKast and The Rolling Stones. The Barmer Boys have also released two albums with Amarrass, At Home in 2012 and Kesariya Balm in 2017. “They come back after having played a bunch of shows abroad and they’re looked at with increased respect in their villages,” Malhotra says, “So it’s been this positive reinforcement cycle, which is what we’ve been trying to accomplish.”

It is with this aim of being a platform for unheard ‘greats’ that the label started their annual Festival. They organise Amarrass Nights too, where they regularly have gigs not just for Amarrass artists but all great music that deserves recognition. “We don’t discriminate based on region or the type of music, we discriminate based only on the quality of music,” Malhotra adds.

 Of vinyl and folk artists: How Amarrass is putting rural musicians on the map, reviving interest in records

Ashutosh Sharma with the Painted Caves LP. Photo by Ankur Malhotra

Apart from bringing in legends like blues and reggae artist Vieux Farka Touré, they also try to encourage collaborations between musicians from across the globe. “The role that we take quite seriously is how can we explore, engage with different genres, different styles of music, to perhaps create something new,” he says. Within this capacity they’ve engineered quite a few collaborations, including The Lakha-Madou Project. This brings together two living legends: Lakha Khan from Rajasthan, a virtuoso of the 27-string Sindhi sarangi, and recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, and Madou Sidiki Diabatè, carrying on his family tradition, being a 71st-generation kora player from Mali. The Lakha-Madou Project premiered at the Amarrass Festival’s 2014 edition.

According to the founders, the most important aspect is getting this music out there, which, besides their events, they distribute through licensing and preserve with their non-profit endeavour, Amarrass Society for Performing Arts (ASPA). ASPA has been set up with the aim of preserving and presenting folk musical traditions to music lovers. They’ve rescued the morchang, kamancha and other traditional instruments from extinction and mediocrity, by providing opportunities for skilled blacksmiths, who were otherwise forced to make sofas, to forge these instruments one at a time.

With ASPA, they’ve also undertaken the mammoth task of archiving the oral songbooks of Rajasthani tradition, recording them and making them available on their YouTube channel and other streaming sites, creating a database to preserve the music from becoming extinct.

Their main aim is to spread awareness, since at present, most musicians are playing the same select songs that have been popularised by Bollywood and termed ‘Rajasthani folk’. They want listeners to understand the vast diversity of Rajasthani music and create a recognisable identity for each type. More importantly, they want more of the music to be accessible, since a lack of demand for the rest of it means their songbooks are dying. "With each generation, there’s a drop in knowledge," says Sharma, explaining the urgent need to archive the music and make it commercially viable.

The duo has noticed a shift in the personalities of artists who’ve gone from being resigned to doing nothing to actively playing and sharing their songbooks. All of this has certainly been an uphill battle for Amarrass. “You know, [in] our country, between Bollywood and classical, there’s a very thin sliver of music that gets consumed out there, yet there is so much of it. So it’s our way of just trying to shine our light on the in-between-the-cracks” says Malhotra.

Amarrass has been committed to making music sustainable, which includes earning respect for the musicians, money so that music can be a full-time career, and exposure, so people who think that folk music isn’t sophisticated enough for urban audiences realise that "sab bakwaas hai"; essentially, bringing sustainability to the way the industry interacts with music.

Vinyl production setup

Vinyl production setup. Photograph courtesy of Amarrass Records

Within this framework, their most recent foray has been producing hand-pressed vinyl records, contributing to the growing vinyl revival in India. Ashutosh recalls a college student looking at a vinyl at an Amarrass Night and asking ‘What kind of a CD is this?’ and another millennial being immediately converted after listening to The Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl. He laughs heartily at the memories of the incidents, concluding that the main hindrances to the vinyl market in India are a lack of awareness and affordability.

The duo spent time training in Germany and now individually hand-cut each record, making it an accessible format for bands that want a run of 20 or 30 copies for their album, instead of ordering in the hundreds. “Yeah, we’re completely nuts!” says Sharma with a laugh, in explaining their reason for starting vinyl production. Meanwhile, Malhotra meditates on the warmth of the analogue sound and the tactile feeling of holding a record.

Overall, their efforts have yielded a sale of over a 100 vinyl records, with their latest release Dubfounded, the label’s 15th album, a collaboration between Jogi folk poet Jumme Khan and DJ and producer Ravana, their fifth vinyl release. “It’s still early days, but there are hopeful signs,” concludes Malhotra, about India’s vinyl revival.

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Updated Date: May 04, 2019 10:44:40 IST