The sky has dimmed to a cobalt blue, and the Rajasthan desert, as deserts do, has cooled to a crisply autumnal temperature. Stars are winking on above, fires are being lit below, and on the roof of Chugge Khan’s house, in the artists’ colony of Jaisalmer, friends are gathering for food and song.
This may be the best possible place in the world to hear the music of Khan’s group, Rajasthan Josh.
“Every year when we visit India, my wife and I go to Chugge’s home,” says Sirish Rao, artistic director of the Indian Summer festival, on the phone from the organization’s Chinatown office. “And you can see how at home he is, just wandering out into the sand, milking a camel, and drinking that milk. He’s so playful in that harsh environment. And Rajasthan itself, everything they do is like a gash of colour. The clothes, the architecture, the music—it’s almost like they’re filling up the unforgivingness of the landscape with this riot of sound and colour.”
It’s no wonder that Rao has built the 2016 edition of his festival (which runs July 7 to 16) around Rajasthan Josh’s return to Vancouver. For one thing, the group’s performances are intrinsically festive, to the point of being almost carnival-esque. On the roof, “there were as many people playing music as there were watching,” says local rapper and beatboxer Rup Sidhu, a Rajasthan Josh collaborator who was also at the party with Rao. “And then at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I performed with Rajasthan Josh for a crowd of a few thousand, there were dancers and fire-eaters and all sorts of craziness going on on-stage with us.”
More importantly, though, Khan’s ensemble also epitomizes Indian Summer’s expansive heart. This year, the festival is subtitled Where Worlds Meet; many of its components deal with borders, and how to cross them. Fittingly, while Rajasthan Josh’s music is rooted in the ecstatic rituals of Sufism, particularly as expressed in the call-and-response chants of qawwali, it’s not limited to any religion or musical idiom. Khan is Muslim but his band includes Hindus, and he’s happy to reach out to others—like Sidhu, who’s Sikh, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has recorded with Khan and other members of the troupe.
“Think of it as a bit like a family,” Khan tells the Straight in Hindi, during a three-way telephone call with Rao interpreting. “And think of religion as just different ways of doing things. So it’s different family members with different approaches. That’s about it. We don’t actually think of that as any kind of divide.”
“‘Music, music, only music,’ is Chugge’s chant,” Rao adds. “He says that what’s perhaps unique about Rajasthan Josh is because of this mixture. They sing qawwali, but they equally sing a lot of Hindu bhajans. And they’ve been working with Shye Ben Tzur, a musician in Israel, so now they sing Hebrew songs as well. They happily break into songs from across continents and religions.”
Hopping blithely across religious, cultural, and geographic borders is nothing new to Khan—or to his bandmates, many of whom descend from a caste of itinerant minstrels that has plied its trade for generations. Respectful openness is also one of the key tenets of Sufism, the most mystical and also the most ecumenical of Islamic creeds. But there are two constants in the bandleader’s world, one being the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great master of qawwali and Khan’s primary mentor.
“Chugge was just nine when he met Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,” Rao says. “He was already singing then, of course—the young voice you hear on some of the albums was Chugge! Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan came to Jaisalmer, and Chugge was completely struck by this thing that he calls the roohani—the soul, the something-elseness—of the man. He heard this man singing with his heart open and thought ‘I need to sing with my heart open so he will notice.’ He says Nusrat was almost like his first teacher, and he continues to hold him dear.”
The other factor that has shaped Khan is the desert itself. It’s not too far-fetched to see Rajasthan’s colourful arts scene as an oasis in the region’s parched terrain, but the singer prefers a different metaphor.
“He says that the desert is an ocean,” Rao explains. “I said, ‘But there’s nothing that grows there,’ and he said, ‘Well, you know, I’m spending my life trying to make it smile.’ That’s what he thinks his music is about: ‘How can I get it to crack a smile?’ And he carries the fragrance of the desert wherever he goes.”
Rao has clearly been touched by Khan’s humour, generosity, and charisma. “He’s got a strange mixture of excitement and humility that you don’t often see,” he says, once Khan has made his goodbyes. “In the most positive way, he’s got this cockiness on-stage. He’s got this twinkle. He’s like, ‘Oh my god, look at this! This is amazing, what’s happening right here on-stage. This is the best thing on earth!’ But also this humility of saying ‘Hey, I got it from somewhere else. It’s a gift, and I keep passing it on.’
“Rajsthan Josh are exactly the kind of folk music that we would like to show more of,” he continues, reiterating that Khan’s ability to traverse musical and cultural boundaries makes him the ideal standard-bearer for Indian Summer.
“I picked Border Crossings as the theme for this year’s festival partly because it seems extremely urgent in terms of what’s happening in the world. It was to see if some of our artists could speak to some of these pressing issues that we have around us, whether it’s in terms of the environment, or whether it’s in terms of bigotry and prejudice on the basis of religion or sexual orientation,” Rao says. “But the other implication is that not all border crossings are painful or perilous. Many are, and that is something to respect.…But for me the most interesting things are on the edges, where borders intersect or maybe even chafe slightly—a kind of good friction.”
Rajasthan Josh presents Songs of the Desert Sufis at the Orpheum next Saturday (July 9) as part of the Indian Summer festival.