‘I don’t make music to buy three limos’
Rabbi Shergill on the lack of innovation in Indian music, the bane of reality shows and why bollywood isn’t at all exciting
RABBI SHERGILL has always been the elusive sort; he doesn’t speak much and doesn’t publicise himself. In short, he doesn’t follow the ‘set’ norms, those that assure tremendous success in the Indian music industry: launch your own album and squeeze in an item number. A bevy of beauties will help even more and then make your way to Bollywood.
No, Rabbi doesn’t do that. Or rather hasn’t so far at least. Four years after the release of his last album, we catch up with Rabbi for a candid chat about his newest venture, III, and his views on why Indian pop music is still struggling to find its way, leave alone a footing.
Why were you missing in action for so long? It has been four years since we last heard anything from you.
I wasn’t missing consciously. For the first two years, I was working on III, and then for the next two years I was trying to find a label to distribute the album. That took time, a lot of time to find the right people.
In a gist, how would you describe your latest album?
In our lives, we are constantly seeking various things. Basically the question is would we still seek if we weren’t told to. That is the essence of III. It’s a bit of a little dialogue that I have with myself. For instance, the last song on the album Eho Hamara Jeevna, that’s an open declaration of non-compliance. It’s about how I will not tame myself, I may be complicit I may be guilty of that but I shall not comply.
On this album you’ve collaborated with opera singer Christine Matovich for the song Tu Hi. How did you marry opera with sufi?
I was in Tuscany a while back, driving down and listening to some good old operatic music. Passing through the Italian landscape, listening to this language being spoken, something combusted somewhere. I had this desperate urge to be home and speak in Punjabi. All of these things combined, and I wanted to write a song, and I wanted it to be beautiful and sing it again and again. Out of this desire, this collaboration came about. I even sing Gurbani in the song, one of the verses of the song is a poem by the tenth guru. Sometimes you try a few things, I tried it and it worked for me. The proof will be in the pudding, whether people will like it remains to be seen.
Do you define yourself and the music you play with a certain genre?
There is this guitar bass in blues rock, which is 90 per cent of what I’m about. Other than that, Punjabi folk, Indian classical music and funk are ones I enjoy tremendously. But it is blues and blues guitar players that I find myself lapsing into. But I can’t bring that into my music, not because of any fear but because it doesn’t make any sense. There is something inherently strange about that, you wouldn’t bring an American tree and expect it to flower beautifully in Punjab.
What is your take on the indie music scene in India?
India doesn’t have honest Indian pop music. It has stylised Americanised Indian pop. Basically, it’s American pop music in different Indian language.
But that could also be because artists are not attempting Indian style of pop music and don’t take the initiative.
Yes that’s true, there is no one rushing out thinking, ‘I’m going to play sitar, I’m going to do this crazy thing to the sitar’. But it’s not as if we are adequately charged about our own instruments either. And that’s a shame, because one of the undiluted joys of my life has been to be able to listen to Bismallah Khan live. And we have so many undisputed greats of our own, like Ustad Sultan Khan saab who passed away. There is Lata Mangeshkar, Ashaji. I use these filmi references, but you see there is a value about Indian music which is just undeniable. You can’t find a single fault with anything. So I don’t know how this music is any inferior to anything from the West. One of my biggest disappointments is that the Indian sound never really developed. Just listen to Pakistani singer Mehdi Hassan’s Ranjish Hi Sahi Dil Hi Dukhane Ke Liye Aa, it’s such a classic song.
It’s sad to see that the more popular music in India today is bleached of anything remotely Indian.
After the monumental success of Bulla, your second album Avengi Ja Nahin didn’t do well commercially. What contributed to its failure do you think?
Avengi Ja Nahin came out in 2008, and I remember on the various radios my songs were played once in a day. The radio guys said, ‘Look we have two guys — you and Sukhbir. We’ll play you once in the afternoon and Sukhbir in the evening. The next week we’ll reverse this order.’ That is how it was back then, which was shocking. If Bulla can work, anything can work. It was the most challenging song I did, if that can work I don’t really see why other things cannot. I find it inconceivable, the audience does exist I’m convinced about that. What doesn’t exist is equitability in our cultural dissemination systems. Unless that is restored, this country will be monochromatic. Unless we have TV and radio as community resources, this problem will continue. Media modes shouldn’t belong to corporates, it shouldn’t just belong to the guys with the most money. Because then it will adversely affect independent music artistes. Have you recently seen anyone come up from the independent music industry ranks to really sweep this nation, the way it was routine once?
They usually seem to come up from the ranks of Indian pop to then switch to Bollywood.
Yeah, people ask me often, ‘Why don’t you do films?’ My question to them, to all those hotshot music directors, is: Why don’t you make your own independent albums and then make sure that it runs? I’m in the business of expressing myself, I’m not in the business of selling and becoming rich and having three limousines. If human expressions needs a production house, three stars, a director and Rs 15 crore, I think there is something wrong with that. If I need an entirely capital intensive paraphernalia simply to express myself, what will happen to expression in this country. It’s like telling a kid who’s growing up with a song, ‘Don’t waste your time, it requires Rs 20 crore to express yourself so you might as well give it up. Better to go to a dance class, learn some moves and participate in any one of those reality shows.
So you don’t think the reality shows are helping at all?
They may sell, but at the end, they’ll say, ‘We’ll make you a playback singer’. And a playback singer, by definition, works only in films right. So how does that help? We have quarter-stars and half-stars. We don’t have a genuine voice today, or a genuine band. The point is not to just have classically trained voices, people should be allowed to express. The minute expression finds a verse or a melody, it penetrates our souls. The greatest invention of human species is music, that’s why we’re addicted to it, It defines us.
What about Bollywood? Why have we seen no Hindi film album post your composition for Delhi Heights?
It doesn’t excite me, it’s not something I wanted to do. The one project I did, Delhi Heights didn’t please me much. The music was fine. But they come to you saying, ‘Give us a Holi song, give us a friendship song, give us a wedding song.’ That’s how they package and commodify human emotions. It was just not my scene.
There are a lot of independent acts coming up now. Do you think social media helps?
It has come of age recently. For instance, Kolaveri Di is not the most challenging song, it’s not the greatest song, its just a limerick. But 5 crore people saw it. That was just so heartening and reassuring to see a Tamil song making it so big in the entire country. Just the random success of that song makes us hope and pray for a huge independent music industry hit soon, someday