Propaganda on your TV screen/On the exterior they look so nice and clean/In Emporio I see them pose and preen/Wake up, wake up, things are not what they seem,” warn Delhi-based The Ska Vengers in their song Gunshot. The eight-member band’s sharp suits and pork-pie hats are accompanied by a blend of punk, jazz, rap and ska music, as well as political lyrics full of local references. In waging their “musical war”, the “ruder than rude” group has become cooler than cool, say members of their small but growing Facebook fan club.
While the Delhi indie music lot has always thought it was too cool for school—preciously aware of how small it is—manifestos have never been high on the agenda. But with their earnest lyrics about home-grown uprisings and “dutty politricks”, The Ska Vengers, founded in 2009, are showing that ideology and show business can be the perfect mix. Not to mention, great public relations.
On Thursday, The Ska Vengers hosted and performed at a much-publicized benefit concert to supplement funding for the musical training of Tihar Jail inmates, at upmarket live music venue blueFROG in Mehrauli, Delhi. On 26 April, Tihar Jail’s inmates will watch a performance by the band in a concert at the prison.
School of rock: The Ska Vengers mix punk, jazz and political rap with ska music. Photograph by Sarah Lankford.
Owing to the Internet-aided proliferation of bands, groups compete for as little as Rs5,000-15,000 per gig, barely covering costs. Most groups are just happy to play at a gig—even if they must occupy Jantar Mantar. Outfits like The Ska Vengers, with their media-ready package, can charge more, says Asif Khan, who has written about indie music for publications like Rolling Stone India for a decade and regularly photographs and organizes gigs and festivals.
Whether they are performing original music or interpretations of Bollywood tracks, the band is playing at every kind of venue. The Ska Vengers performed at 11 gigs in Delhi alone in 2011, playing with international artiste Apache Indian in March that year and at Justice on Trial, part of the Free Binayak Sen Campaign, a few weeks later. At the launch of Arundhati Roy’s Walking With the Comrades in May, they covered Bob Marley, changing “Israelites” to “Naxalites”: a pitch-perfect localization of the reggae anthem.
Will others on the financially lean indie music community follow their lead?
“Bands in Delhi might be disillusioned, but they are also typically privileged. They aren’t really involved with identity politics,” says Khan. “Political statements in music are meant to move a mass; we haven’t reached that level yet.”
New Delhi-based The Vinyl Records. Photograph by Shiv Ahuja.
Of the around 50,000 people who go to concerts, only 5,000 are regulars, Khan estimates. What Delhi bands now need is new platforms which will help a larger cross-section find new audiences, he explains.
The Ska Vengers are trying; they use an indigenous kind of counter-propaganda, filling your head like a newscast on repeat. “I want people to keep hearing these words and connect them,” says lead vocalist Taru Dalmia, who writes most of the band’s lyrics in a kind of patois and speaks with a Jamaican accent. He adds: “The sad reality is that three things sell: sex, violence and rebellion. Sales are not my orientation, but we offer something that is commercially exploitable by those who have made this their profession.”
Joseph Pottenkulam, who organized indie gigs in Delhi for a decade, says, “Many of Delhi’s musicians come to the city, and often move on to do other things with their lives; unlike Mumbai’s bands, who are generally natives and stay together for longer.”
This, perhaps, makes Delhi more challenging.
“I wanted to do something useful with the narcissistic quality that comes with being an artiste, to put something back in,” says concert organizer Stefan Kaye, the British founder-member of The Ska Vengers. “We want to help prisoners—many of them unconvicted or untried—who don’t have full access to music and the freedom to walk into pubs and clubs.” Kaye tutored Tihar’s inmates for a month last year and plans to stage high-profile fund-raisers, with support from media channels and musical equipment retailer Furtados, which will be donating equipment to prison.
Delhi band Menwhopause, founded in 2001, was the first band to do a gig at Tihar. “We held workshops and helped inmates form a band called The Flying Souls last December,” says guitarist Anup Kutty. “There was an ironic moment when they sang our song Free. Eerily, even though we wrote that song in 2003, it felt like it was tailored for them.”
Inder Pal Singh (left) of Menwhopause jams with Tihar Jail inmates. Photograph by Shiv Ahuja.
Playing to form, Menwhopause say they were not concerned with the publicity the gig would engender; they enjoyed watching the inmates perform last year and are currently in post-production for songs they recorded together and plan to release soon. “We are not politically inclined, or seeking to overthrow the establishment,” Kutty explains. “We sing about personal confusions.”
Mithy Tatak, the drummer of Delhi’s all-girl The Vinyl Records, which also took part in the Tihar Jail benefit, says her band too is indifferent to politics. The four members of The Vinyl Records are from Arunachal Pradesh. “We are new wave, have influences like the melodic hard rock of Veruca Salt; our lyrics are about self-expression,” asserts Tatak, talking about the strength of their music.
New bands, however, have short shelf lives. Among the older indie bands, Parikrama, Pentagram and Motherjane—based in Kochi, with a large fan base in Delhi—are the big three who have survived through sheer persistence, canny business formulas and a faithful college-going audience, says Rahul Gandhi, the former manager of Motherjane. The rock group was the only one to target corruption and politicians in their music: “There’s something wrong with the Constitution/When criminals freely contest.” (from the song Let’s Privatize the Government).
“Using politics to create your identity is a good selling point,” says Gandhi, who now works in ITC’s fast-moving consumer goods division. “The Ska Vengers can carve out a market of their own; it’s what Megadeth did in the US. But they will have to struggle to stay different.”
It’s still sound and performance that matters most, he emphasizes. “I don’t think lyrics get much attention in the scheme of things.”
Harsh Sahni, 25, who manages the resource centre at a Delhi non-profit, agrees. “I find The Ska Vengers’ lyrics, especially all the Leftist rapping, intellectually shallow, but harmless. Ultimately, they are a delight to watch.”
The indie music audience, like its entertainers, has always been pricey. Bands have always been picky about their causes—more likely to champion an anti-war effort than protest fuel prices, explains Pottenkulam, who left the music industry to consider a return to architecture. “Lyrics will stay in a vacuum, they don’t matter when it comes to success. But international records are now part of the game; the bands that have a unique identity are the ones who will end up making money.”