Found in Translation

Ruby Singh and the Khan Brothers' genre-bending musical collaboration
Ruby Singh
Conner Singh VanderBeek

Jhalaak is a thumping, Rajasthani folk-inflected, qawwali-hip-hop-dance album born from a years-long collaboration between the Khan brothers of Rajasthan – 19th generation musicians of the Manganiyar tradition – and Vancouver-based rapper and emcee Ruby Singh. The album joins iconic qawwali songs with rapped verses by Singh and production by Adham Shaikh. Jhalaak is thus a conversation between the languages and aesthetic worlds of Sufi qawwali and Rajasthani folk, and North American hip-hop – all presented for the dance floor.

Ruby Singh first crossed paths with Chugge, Khete, Salim, and Gule Khan at an Indian Summer Fest event in Vancouver at the Imperial in 2014, when Singh was among several musicians invited to perform with the brothers. ISF artistic director Sirish Rao invited Ruby Singh the following winter trip to accompany the family back to India. Singh describes a rooftop party in Jaisalmer where the brothers performed a program of popular qawwali songs – songs that Singh knew intimately from a musical upbringing spent listening to famous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recordings. “They were taking requests, and I was the only one calling them out,” Singh recalls. “When they saw me singing along with all the songs, they called me onstage. And then I did some beatboxing and freestyling, and everyone loved it.”

Singh was then invited to perform alongside Chugge Khan’s larger group, Rajasthan Josh, at the Jaipur Literary Fest in 2015. Ruby performed on a program that included the sword and fire dancing talents of the late Queen Harish, a Jaisalmer-based male folk dancer known for performing in full women’s bridal outfits.1Sandip Soparrkar. “Queen Harish: The man, the woman & the mystery will stay the same forever.” The Asian Age, 10 June 2019, https://www.asianage.com/life/more-features/100619/queen-harish-the-man-the-woman-the-mystery-will-stay-the-same-forever.html (accessed 11 August 2020).

Singh and the Khan brothers then began discussing collaborating on an album. And so, began the back and forth trips to India for Singh and to Canada for the Khans, made possible by support from Canada Council and Creative BC’s FACTOR grant. Rajasthan Josh would return to Vancouver for an Indian Summer Festival program titled Songs of the Desert Sufis at the Orpheum in 2016. The Khan brothers would later be scheduled to return to Vancouver in 2018 to record their album, Jhalaak (literally, spark), in collaboration with Ruby Singh and producer Adham Shaikh.

But then the visas for two of the brothers to return to Canada were denied. Ruby Singh and Adham Shaikh instead applied for Canada Council funding to meet the Khan brothers in Rajasthan, where they tracked down a quiet enough spot in the Rajasthani desert to set up a hut for recording.

Jhalaak teased singles and music videos online in the months leading up the full album release on May 6, 2020. In lieu of a live performance – and amid a global pandemic – Indian Summer Fest closed the inaugural event of their all-digital tenth season with Jhalaak’s music video for “Mustt Mustt | Enrapture” that the group filmed in Rajasthan.

Crossing Linguistic and Stylistic Barriers

Working across languages and styles is a tremendous responsibility. Canadian translator and critic Barbara Godard writes that translation is not just the shift of letter from one language to another; the translator must also convey the complex social world of the original author, including caste and class, religion, and aesthetics.2Arun Mukherjee, Alok Mukherjee, and Barbara Godard. “Translating Minoritized Cultures: Issues of Caste, Class and Gender.” Postcolonial Text, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2006), 1.

Ruby Singh received support from the Canada Council to research the centuries-old Sufi texts of the Khan brothers' repertoire and interpret them into rapped verse. "It felt like a huge responsibility," Singh says. "Here were these beautiful spiritual texts, and I was just some guy with some ideas and a mic. It was a humbling process."

Jhalaak works not only across languages, but also genre aesthetics and political circumstances. Urdu, Punjabi, and local vernacular meet English; ecstatic qawwali and Rajasthani folk combine with entrancing EDM beats and rap verses. The Khan brothers are a family of Muslim folk musicians amid an ever-rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism in India and a raging pandemic, while Ruby Singh is a successful collaborator and educator in multicultural Vancouver. There is something strikingly defiant about releasing a Sufi album by Indian musicians amid the rollouts in India of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizen Amendments Act – acts that disproportionately affect India's Muslim minorities.

Regarding aesthetics, there are a few challenges. Ethnomusicologist Hiromi Sakata describes the pitfalls of qawwali moving from the communal, participatory dargah (Sufi shrine) to the more passive and observational stage or record.3Hiromi Lorraine Sakata. “The Sacred and the Profane: ‘Qawwali’ Represented in the Performances of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.” The World of Music, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1994), 91. Songs and concerts are shortened, and the ritualized progression of poems and incantations in a sama' (Sufi concert) is disrupted. Listeners are less in attendance for the goal of ecstatic union with the divine and more for generalized forms of music enjoyment.4Ibid, 87.

(Sakata's piece, however, precedes the numerous rock arrangements of qawwali produced Bollywood and Coke Studios, and the bad EDM remixes of old Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recordings. Concert stage qawwali was relatively new when she wrote this piece.)

The Khan brothers, however, are no strangers to adaptation, having performed at folk, worldbeat, and fusion festivals across the world. If anything, the intertwining of folk-tinged qawwali with EDM – a genre of music made for the dance floor – stays truer to the ecstatic spirit of qawwali than would a seated concert. Ruby Singh, meanwhile, alters no Sufi texts, instead offering rap as a Western poetic analogue stand beside the qawwali songs.

Jhalaak treats this balancing act between genres and aesthetics with great care, a discussion I offer through analysis of the album's second track, "Mustt Mustt | Enrapture".

"Mustt Mustt" opens with a jaw harp, Gule Khan’s lively dholak beat, and harmonium playing chords on offbeats. Whereas a typical qawwali arrangement would entail an uptempo dhol beat with claps on every beat and a harmonium that doubles the lead vocalist, this is a distinctly Rajasthani folk groove. An electric bassline then enters a few bars before Chugge Khan’s opening vocal “Ali” and aakar (vocal improvisation on "ah"). A bassy kick accentuates strong beats once the poem starts in earnest. From that point on, the Khan brothers follow a standard qawwali format: Chugge Khan sings a line and his brothers repeat it, with occasional moments for Chugge Khan to improvise.

Excerpt of "Mustt Mustt"
Ruby Singh enters after the refrain of the song, led in by a fill on drum kit – a sonic signal of an incoming stylistic and linguistic shift. He begins his rap with the refrain in mind: "Dam mast Qalandar mast mast / Dam mast Qalandar mast", which Hiromi Sakata translates as "Breath enraptured (drunken) qalandar, intoxicated, intoxicated."5Ibid, 91. Whereas "mast" is typically interpreted as "drunk" or "intoxicated" in standard English translations of qawwali, intoxication is used as a metaphor for the Sufi state of trance.
 
 

Ruby Singh’s opening verse in “Mustt Mustt | Enrapture” is quick to point out that there is not actually any literal drinking associated with qawwali. Instead, any sensation of intoxication is caused by the song, the result being a sensation of trance:

“The music got me drunk and I haven’t had a drop
It must be Qalandar that’s guiding this plot
Intoxicating rhythms that seduce this lock
The key’s been turned and my heart’s in shock.”

Singh also expands upon poetic symbolism that would otherwise be lost in translation. He spins off the line “Sakhi laal Qalandar mast mast / Jhule laal Qalandar mast mast”, which Sakata translates as “Generous red qalandar, intoxicated, intoxicated / Bridegroom red qalandar, intoxicated, intoxicated”.6Ibid. Singh plays on the significance of red (laal) by referencing the blood in his chest, “these crimson robes,” and “a thousand ruby tongues” – red, in South Asia, being the colour of passion and love.

Much more could be said about this collaboration, but I leave with a few major takeaways. First, it is clear that a significant amount of research went into the production of this album. Singh’s verses are respectful of the texts he is working through, with occasional references to his hip-hop subject position: “Heart breaks like an 808” in “Kise Da Yaar Na Vichre | The Lost Beloved”, or his playful “Pop pop” that disrupts the beat in “Mustt Mustt”.

Ruby Singh

Next, it is reductive to call the Khan brothers qawwali musicians and leave it at that. They are extremely traveled and renowned musicians who excel in both qawwali and Rajasthani styles, whether that be in the context of Jhalaak, the larger Rajasthan Josh, or the even larger Rajasthan Express – which collaborated with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur on the 2015 album Junun. They bring a wide swath of styles into their collaboration with Ruby Singh, fully knowing that he offers the same.

Jhalaak is thus not merely a modern spin on a traditional style – especially considering it was originally the Khan brothers who invited Ruby Singh to join them. Jhalaak is a measure of what happens when standard-bearers of a traditional form travel and converse in a musical style that they have already made their own, beyond bad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remixes and countless (though extremely satisfying) rock arrangements of qawwali songs.

Jhalaak is available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp at jhalaak.bandcamp.com/album/jhalaak. Proceeds from the album support the Khan family amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s grasp on India.

  1. Sandip Soparrkar. “Queen Harish: The man, the woman & the mystery will stay the same forever.” The Asian Age, 10 June 2019, https://www.asianage.com/life/more-features/100619/queen-harish-the-man-the-woman-the-mystery-will-stay-the-same-forever.html (accessed 11 August 2020).
  2. Arun Mukherjee, Alok Mukherjee, and Barbara Godard. “Translating Minoritized Cultures: Issues of Caste, Class and Gender.” Postcolonial Text, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2006), 1.
  3. Hiromi Lorraine Sakata. “The Sacred and the Profane: ‘Qawwali’ Represented in the Performances of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.” The World of Music, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1994), 91.
  4. Ibid, 87.
  5. Ibid, 91.
  6. Ibid.
Conner Singh VanderBeek is a composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist working on his PhD in ethnomusicology at University of Michigan.View bio.
Ruby Singh is an interdisciplinary artist crossing the boundaries of music, poetry, visual art, photography and film. As a composer and sound designer he has worked with theatre and dance companies across Canada, as well as creating numerous scores for the National Film Board and other independent films. View bio.
 
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