Tracing the interconnected origins of world music—from flamenco to the blues—Alex Shoumatoff travels to India in search of the Gypsy music of Rajasthan.
By Alex Shoumatoff
The overnight train from New Delhi to Rajasthan is called the Pink City Express, and at nine in the morning it pulled into the big, seething capital city of Jaipur. After changing trains, I continued into the Thar Desert, past red dunes, mud huts with thatched roofs, women in veils, men in turbans, the scant vegetation clipped by goats. Wild peacocks, the males’ fans folded into long, streaming tails, were trotting around in the desert scrub like flamboyant roadrunners. At 1:30 we reached the last stop: the ancient desert citadel of Jaisalmer.
The main gate to the city opens onto a cobblestoned courtyard, and on the far side of it loom the walls of the 12th-century inner city, with intricately filigreed balconies projecting from them, and bell-shaped guard towers. A Bollywood movie was in the process of being shot. The director was barking instructions at a little boy in a turban who was playing the young maharajah and standing under a sumptuous canopy. They would be at it, take after take, for the entire week I was there. The cast members’ costumes were gaudy, but no more so than those of the locals. Rajasthanis dress like human butterflies or flowers, explained a Jaisalmer native: “We try to make up in our clothes, art, and music for the lack of color in the desert,” he said. “The men wear bright orange turbans, their long shirts green like calyxes, and their pants white like corollas. The women wear long green or yellow robes with tie-dye patches, and outline their eyes with mascara.”
My interest was in the music. During my far-flung travels over the past 40 years I have always taken along a little guitar and played with local musicians, from pygmies in the Ituri Forest to flute players in Kathmandu and charango strummers in Ayacucho. There’s no better icebreaker—the language of music is universal. Over the past few years, I’ve been tracing the historical connections between world musical cultures, and not long ago, I saw the wonderful 1993 documentary Latcho Drom, about the music of the Gypsy diaspora. The people known as Gypsies, or Roma, mostly left north India a thousand or more years ago, but a few remained behind. The film starts in Rajasthan, with a woman twirling under a tree, accompanied by men playing various instruments, then proceeds to Gypsy bands in Egypt (from which the word Gypsy is derived), Turkey, Romania, Hungary, France, and finally Spain, with guitars, castanets, and flamenco dancing. The whole film is just music, no words, and the music in each country is very different, but you can always clearly hear echoes of India.
That was what I was doing in Jaisalmer: looking for the Gypsies who never left.
Squeezing past sacred cows in narrow alleys lined with all sorts of intriguing wares made by local artisans, I made my way to the Deepak Rest House. There was a nice restaurant on the roof, where a bearded old man in a turban came every night at six and sang while playing the kamaica, a stand-up fiddle with a banjo-like skin resonator box. Instead of pressing the strings down on the neck while drawing his bow across them, he raised their pitch by inserting the nail of his index finger under them. There was an unmistakable Appalachian flavor to his mournful tunes, which may not have been entirely coincidental.
The hotel’s owner, Deepak Vyas, belongs to a Brahmin family that has inhabited the citadel for three generations, and he sketched the history of Jaisalmer for me. The fort was built in 1156 for the Rajput (warrior caste) maharajahs, who still control much of the action in Rajasthan. The city was attacked by the Moghuls in the early 14th century, peace was subsequently established, and it became part of a new, more southerly trade route that ran across the Thar Desert into what is now Pakistan, only 85 miles to the west. Jaisalmer’s maharajah grew rich from the taxes he levied on the camel caravans that passed through laden with silk, spices, gold, and opium.
Today the entire inner city is given over to tourism. The merchandise on display every step of the way is the product of the local traditions of weaving, painting, ceramics, and metalwork that tourist dollars keep alive. There are two groups in Jaisalmer and the surrounding desert thought to have ancestral connections with the Roma: the Kalbelia tribe and the Manganiyar caste. It didn’t take long to find some of them.
The Manganiyar are completely dedicated to music and have been for generations. The best performers play for the Rajput maharajahs and are known as alamkana, the musicians of the king. They are Muslim, like 28-year-old Amin Khan. Khan has played with Malians in Paris and flamenco musicians in Barcelona, and felt a strong affinity for both. He lives in the artists’ colony below the fort, with four or five hundred other Manganiyar families. While I was visiting his compound, various male members of his extended family dropped by to play. Khan sang in a passionate, quavering voice that wandered up and down all kinds of strange and wonderful scales I had never heard before, most of them consisting of widely spaced half-tone clusters rather than the familiar Western melodic sequences. The fingers of his right hand flew over the keys of his harmonium (his left was doing the pumping), and various kinsmen played the dholak (a type of drum) and khartal (flat wooden clappers flicked together with incredible speed and syncopative dexterity; they may well be the ancestors of flamenco castanets).
A lot of Khan’s repertoire was Sufi, and he played and sang in a semi-trance, his eyes rolling, “a little out of mind, but not fully,” he explained. One song was in the classic blues scale with the flatted fifth. I had no trouble getting into it with my Guitalele. A dozen other tunes were ear-openers for my musical sensibility, rooted in standard Western harmonic progressions.
One afternoon I drove into the desert with Magh Singh, the Deepak Rest House’s general manager. Passing white goats with black heads and veiled women on their way to a wedding in another village, we stopped in Kanoi, 20 miles from Jaisalmer. The elders were sitting on carpets in an open-air covered patio with carved sandstone pillars. They all had turbans and handlebar mustaches that looked as if they had been pasted on. We spent a few hours listening to local singers, including an eight-year-old boy with a piercing, high-pitched voice, and an extraordinary performance on the morchang, or jaw harp (or Jew’s harp, as it is called in the States). It’s one of the world’s oldest instruments, with many names in different cultures, and the sounds that this man got out of it—he had three different tracks going on at once—were astonishing.
I took a bumpy camel ride out on the dunes in Sam, and then continued to the village of Damodra, where some nomadic Kalbelia people camped in the desert performed for us. They are snake charmers and go from village to village, begging and trading cobra venom. “They are always on the move,” said Singh, who has great affection for the Kalbelia. “They have no solid house and sleep under the stars.” Two young women named Marua and Midja danced with unfettered joie de vivre, exulting in their vibrant beauty, writhing like cobras, their voluminous skirts swirling and ankle bangles tinkling, while a fakir in an orange turban played a reedy double pungi clarinet and another man slapped out a rhythm on a plastic jerrican. The pentatonic scale was the same as the one used in a Celtic reel.
Back in Jaisalmer, I wandered the streets below the fort. At the maharajah’s residential and administrative palace, a couple of German shepherds poked their heads out of ornately carved windows on the top floor. Two elders were sitting under a tree in the courtyard. I joined them. One was named Hasan Khan, and he was the alamkana, the musician of the royal family. A genial-looking man in his late fifties (my vintage), he didn’t speak English, or his ears would have turned red from what his friend was telling me: “Hasan Khan is the tiger of singing. All the others are copiers. He sings songs about the maharajah, he performs the king’s morning puja, his waking song, his leaving song, and his welcome song, his drinking song, and his wedding song.” The Manganiyar, Hasan’s friend explained, “followed the camel caravans to Iraq and Persia centuries ago and became the alamkana in the courts of the shahs and the caliphs there.”
That night I went to the Gorbandh Palace and heard Hasan Khan perform; he was sitting on a carpet on the rooftop restaurant with two of his sons backing him up, while a full moon came up over the fort. It was a scene that I imagine has not changed much in a thousand years. The following morning I went down to Hasan Khan’s house and listened to a bhairav, a morning raga that had many exquisite melodic variations. He played me one of his own compositions, which I would have guessed was a good-time northeast Brazilian accordion dance tune had I not been where I was—hearing it live from the harmonium of the alamkana of Jaisalmer.
To my ears, there was certainly evidence to support the hypothesis that Gypsies have been principal transmitters of common melodic patterns in Eurasia and the European cultures of the Americas. But then again, a lot of the melodies I heard had no connection to Gypsy music at all. That’s not surprising, since the octave and the five-note pentatonic scale, based on the cycle of fifths, are considered universal. They are the way the human ear organizes melodic sound in every culture. There is eighth-century Taoist zither meditation music that sounds like Delta blues, with the same pentatonic runs minus their emotional weight, and the Incas had pentatonic panpipes. Neither of these had anything to do with the Gypsy diaspora.
Music is the most elusive form of human expression, and its transmission is never a one-way street. The kamaica that the Manganiyar were playing here, for instance, probably originated in Persia. Modern Malian music is influenced by American blues. Cuban rumba affected Zairean music and was in turn affected by it. (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.) All this crossing and back-crossing really muddies the waters, so it is almost impossible to establish what came from where. You cannot say this is where it all began, any more than you can say this is where the first drums were beaten. As I listened, I eventually stopped imposing what I was looking for and began to enjoy the music for what it was: beautiful, alive, and present.