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Rediscovering Afro Jazz

The core music of the Santhals still represents the Bush Music of Africa and is probably the natural genesis of the inspiration that came to be known as Jazz

Shom Dasgupta
Thu, Jul 18 2013

About Shom

His passion makes Somnath believe that music will one day change the world. Someone who enjoys breaking away from the norms and playing with non-conventional ideas, he wrote his first poem when barely 16 and the tradition continues...

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It was Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya and then in Ray’s Aguntuk, where Santhals were exposed with their full hue of skills and culture to the uber cool metrosexuals of Kolkata and India. Santhal, as we all know is the name of a tribe who inhabit the better part of the hilly eastern coast of India primarily localised around West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and parts of Assam. In fact a region named Santhal Parganas figures prominently on the political map, to primarily denote their concentration.

Santhals who later on broke onto multiple tribes like Kol, Bhils etc have one single origin and that is Austro-Asian or Austro-Afroid. This means long before we could even conceive a boat, these brave men who originated from Africa, reached Australia and from their somehow came and settled in India.

History doesn’t exactly record their migration path but some say it must have been before the Tectonic Shifts or the Gondwana land movements and some believe that they must have mastered the technology of a water craft or else how could one entire mass of tribe cross the great Indian Ocean and the turbulent waters of the Bay of Bengal!

If by chance you veer into their village, you will be greeted by neatly coloured blue and black bordered mud houses with artistic motifs and paintings. The striking part about their houses are the almost super smooth walls (all smeared with mud and cow dung with their own hands) that you would possibly come to believe for a moment that some expert mason from Asian Paints have done the job! This apart, their houses have a small courtyard and are impeccably neat and clean despite the abject poverty and misery – possibly the neatness only reflects their serene and lucid state of mind.

 Other than being dexterous hunters and superb musicians, they are also very good in various handicrafts apart from being extremely amiable people always with a big smile. Hang on – don’t forget that these were the very people who gave the first clarion call for an armed revolution against the Brits and the corrupt zamindars way back in the 1800’s even before the Sepoy Mutiny. The rebellion was called the Hool Revolution or in their own words – “Ulgalan”. Major Jervis who observed during the war recollects:

"It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down. Their arrows often killed our men, and so we had to fire on them as long as they stood. When their drum ceased, they would move off a quarter of a mile; then their drums beat again, and they calmly stood till we came up and poured a few volleys into them. There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.”

You will be amazed to know that their core music still represents the Bush Music of Africa - meaning you will find a lot of similarities, their rendition of the songs, their dance forms in groups and their sense of vocal harmony will leave your hair raised as your adrenaline races back in time trying to match and draw various images of an eerie yet vibrant night in a remote village in central or east Africa.

I guess this is the natural genesis of the inspiration that came to be known as Jazz that was to edify a new genre of music in this world.  The instruments they play like the Madol, the Lakra, the Banam -will shock you with their similarities in similar percussion instruments of the African Bush Music.

Remember, none of their songs are documented, they don’t have a single songbook with the usual notations and all their scales and all their notes are different from one song to the other. Yet, in all these years that I have come to know them, never have I ever heard a single note going wrong or a song starting with any hitch! It can’t get more perfect and natural than this, especially when your somewhat technologically challenged mind furtively contemplates in recording their songs just to gauge whether they are on or off it.

When recently I shared one of their song structures with an eminent musician figuring very tall in the world of music, he almost fell from his chair and said: “Hey – are you sure that it is their music because I thought it was MY signature tune!” All this from a man of the stature of Mr John Two Hawks – many times Grammy and Emmy nominated singer, flutist, teacher, preacher of peace and based in faraway Arkansas.

Probably, this music has no genre and its sheer World Music!

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