“The word commercialization can never be associated with music”: Mame Khan, folk singer

Folk singer Mame Khan’s Instagram biography describes him as the “voice of Rajasthan”, and rightly so, as the famous singer single-handedly carried on his family’s legacy – Manganiyar folk music. With songs like Kesariya Balam, Doli Re Doli, Baware, Nakhralo, Chaudharyand many others, the singer, who has a distinctly powerful voice, has an unrivaled fandom and repertoire.

However, although he has experimented with music over the years, he remains true to his style, Rajasthani popular, which he says still forms the root of his melodies. In exclusive interaction with indianexpress.comthe playback singer talks about his journey, giving up his love for dholak to pursue singing, creating music, and why marketing and music don’t go together. Excerpts edited below:

You’re one of the most popular names on the folk music circuit, how would you describe your journey all these years?

I come from a family of master singers who have been performing a unique oral musical tradition for over 15 generations. I owe my energy and vocal skills to the influence of my father and guardian, the late Shri Rana Khan. My musical career started in a small, almost medieval village named Satto near Jaisalmer, where I sang Manganiyar folk music. The city of Jaisalmer and its surrounding villages are famous for their rich history of kings and poets, and also known to be a place where Muslim and Hindu mystical traditions meet, across borders. The particular style of Manganiyar folk musiccalled Jangra, includes a universe of songs for all occasions in life – from traditional wedding songs to welcome songs for a newborn baby and other happy occasions.

I also sang and performed songs by Sufi poets from Sindh and Rajasthan including Mira Bai, Kabir, Lal Shahbâz Qalandar, Bulleh Shah and Baba Ghulam Farid with elan and joy. I started my journey specializing in Rajasthani folk music and quickly started to earn respect from the Rajasthani folk music circuits. Today, I sing a wide repertoire of traditional and Sufi folk songs. My musical journey is inspired by sounds and music from the golden Thar desert.

Is it difficult to further your family’s legacy given the ever-changing nature of music?

I was trained by my father Rana Khan who for me is not only my guru but also an inspiration that motivated me to present the folk music of Rajasthan to the contemporary world. I do not consider it a challenge or a burden to carry forward our legacy, but an opportunity afforded to me to introduce and acquaint the world with the rich and traditional folk music. My family has been my mainstay throughout my musical journey and it has certainly helped me achieve my vision of connecting listeners to their country’s roots through music.

You have also sung in Bollywood films and performed abroad in concerts. How do you ensure that you keep the identity of your music intact, while responding to contemporary audiences?

The most remarkable thing about our genre of Rajasthani folk music is that it lends itself easily to fusion, and can also be mixed with anything because we have no rules. My first album — Mame Khan’s Desert Sessions (2015) — is a testament to this fusion as it features the saxophone alongside the main instruments of my community – the string kamaicha, khartaal and dholak. I’ve always believed that if you’re good at your own craft, you can collaborate with anyone. I also work with jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco artists, Romanian gypsies, opera singers. Therefore, although my music uses contemporary style forms, the origin has always been the Rajasthani folk that I identify with.

You have often said that singing was not your first love. But are you glad you made the change, following your father’s advice in 1999 – in what way?

My first love was playing dholak. I would buy all Zakir Hussain tapes saab and reproduce his work on the tabla or on my dholak. I first played dholak outside of Rajasthan when I was 12 on Independence Day to a crowd that included Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1999, after a seven month tour in Brussels, I returned to India without my precious dholak. I had assumed that I would return to the Belgian capital to collect the percussion instrument, but life had something else written for me. Soon my father’s advice to switch to singing became a blessing in disguise. This blessing has led me to perform in nearly 60 countries and in prestigious venues such as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC and the Sydney Opera House .

The pandemic has affected the music industry tremendously, but you’ve made sure to stay connected with your audience through virtual concerts. How was the experience?

Lockdowns haven’t stopped me from connecting with my fanbase and listeners. The moment when going digital became the new norm, I considered it a blessing as it provided me with a platform to stay in touch with my listeners. I firmly believe that home is where my bag is. I’ve been in Mumbai since day one of lockdown, playing for my fans, making sure they don’t feel down and staying home. While my online concertswhere I am often seen performing with just my harmonium, are very different from my stage events, they have certainly helped motivate my listeners to come out of the pandemic, together, one step at a time.

There are many platforms that promote Indian folk music. Do you think it has been recognized as it should be?

When people told me that folk music was dying, I got angry; and that’s when I promised myself that I would never let people say that again – something that even my background reflects. Although I certainly think these platforms have helped amplify the reach of Indian folk music, there is still a long way to go. While platforms serve as mediums to popularize folk music, audiences and listeners act as facilitators who can elevate the music to another level. India has always been known for its rich heritage and culture, as well as its diverse and multi-dimensional music. Therefore, I welcome and support all initiatives and platforms that aim to introduce enriched folk music to the world.

Bollywood music is very different from Manganiyaar music – do you think the former does justice to the latter when mixed and fused?

Bollywood music was born and raised in India, just like folk music. As mentioned earlier, the beauty of Manganiyaar music blends with all genres. We have always identified music as a language of love and expression; therefore, it must be packaged in a way that comes from the heart and touches the hearts of the listeners. The formula for success lies in how we merge the two forms and present it in a way that resonates with the soul of the listeners.

The music was widely commercialized. Did it affect your art form in any way?

The word “marketing” can never be attached to music. People interpret music in endless ways based on their connection to the song/note. The way music is welcomed and amplified today across all industries has certainly helped boost the niche recognition of Manganiyaar music. Today, people know Manganiyaar music and appreciate it. Therefore, the era we live in today has only helped singers and artists like me to create an impression that stays in people’s lives for years.

You participated in the Me For My City 4.0 campaign; What qualities do you think a good singer should have?

Me For My City 4.0 – Meri City Mera Music organized by Canara HSBC OBC Life Insurance is an important campaign and initiative that provides an opportunity and a platform for young talent across the country to showcase their folk music. It was an honor and a privilege to be associated with such an initiative and to witness the emerging folk talents of the country. As a jury member for the two-month campaign, I simply didn’t have the opportunity to judge their singing potential and knowledge, but also to understand if they were able to connect with me. on the right deal. Such campaigns must be proactively engaged as this will keep our traditional roots intact and alive. We think the top 4 singers in each zone are just phenomenal and if their music is nurtured in the same way, they will surely reach greater heights. It’s important for them to understand that while singing with the right skills is important, music that comes from the heart connects better with the audience.

A composer with whom you would like to collaborate and why? And your favorite song of yourself so far.

A dream come true collaboration would be for me to work with AR Rahman sir. I’m a big fan of his work and it would be really amazing to sing one of his compositions. I have a lot of songs that are close to my heart, but one song is very special to me, Sanu Ik Pal Na Aave Channel by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song is filled with a lot of cherished memories for me, in fact I love the song so much that I created my own version of it with a Rajasthani twist.

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