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News |  27 Apr 2016 14:13 |  By Suhas Thobbi

Music and mankind's gloomy fate; Rabbi Shergill laments over a dying art

MUMBAI: "100 years", predicts Rabbi Shergill on how long the earth can sustain mankind. "If you look at the data that research offers, I do not think humans can go beyond that. Parts of India had never seen such a calamity before. Several rich regions have virtually dried up," a worried Rabbi says in his trademark soft tones. But more of that later....

The assumption that Rabbi Shergill will have a promising career was cultivated vastly on the basis that contributing more to the mainstream music scene defines immediate evolution for an emerging talent. Rabbi had just turned 30 then. The songwriter did evolve - lyrically, politically, and on the philosophical front - and not in a generic way. Mainstream music never found a place in Rabbi's professional and ideological experiments, and no matter how many times opportunities knocked at his door, the 'true urban balladeer' prides himself on never letting his musical creations be influenced with the demands of the mainstream. That, in fact, deservedly should be considered as growth.

"We can do this interview if you promise to not ask about ‘Bulla Ki Jaana’ and the past," he insisted. Fortunately, the convoluted effort to connect to the songwriter was motivated by no such intentions.

Rabbi has spoken and shared everything that could be known about his masterpiece anyway. The man wants to be asked about 'Ganga' and 'Aadhi Kranti', and how the journey from 'Avenga Ja Nahin' to 'III' helped him reshape his understanding of music. Rabbi's desperation to avoid questions related to his first hit does not necessarily translate to a love-hate relationship with the song. In fact, the song will never stop being a part of his live sets. After all, the song is Rabbi's 'I Walk The Line' or Mona Lisa, that officially introduced him to the scene filled with few like minded songwriters with the complete opposite definition of fame.

Over a decade has passed since Rabbi attached a musical structure to Baba Bulleh Shah's poem that eventually led to 'Bulla Ki Jaana' and nation-wide fame. The trouble, however, lies with the fact that Rabbi surpassed his own lyrical genius with the albums that followed, but the fans did not move on. For someone whose songs talk about cultural explosions, womanhood, ironies of two establishments from centuries apart, the downward spiral of the importance given to lyrics comes as an obvious concern. "When climactic conditions change, the entire ecosystem will be affected," answers Rabbi, whose dependence on poetry to elaborate on aspects extends beyond music compositions.

Rabbi has lived for over four decades now, and sung for three. The composer draws inspiration from the 60s and the 70s musicians of the west, and the poets and storytellers of Punjab. The essence of his music is a reflection of the former, and the consistent beauty of his lyrics is a reflection of the latter. The current state of mainstream music, as Rabbi puts it, is a direct result of a generation surrounded by average musicians and songwriters. When was the last time the Indian music industry gifted the listeners someone like Tom Petty or Bob Dylan or John Lennon? Artistes who travelled an extra mile and potentially revolutionised how certain things are perceived? Today, lyrics are lost in the noise of bi*ches, alcohol and what not.
Rabbi is sceptical, yet not bitter.

The opinion is not driven by the influence of western musicians in my life and their respective personal achievements. I genuinely want to know how many musicians, with a deep understanding and respect towards lyrical importance, have found fame of impressive proportions in the Indian market? Kishore Kumar, maybe? In the current lot, Tajdar Junaid perhaps. But even he continues to remain an unknown face and an unheard voice. Raghu Dixit? Thoroughly respected throughout the alternative music scene, but eventually succumbed to the Bollywood diktat - once - compromising his original identity.

The concern is not about musicians occasionally dropping a poorly written song in an otherwise flawless album. The concern is lazy writing and the lack of intent to create a change. On the lyrical front, the times are gloomy and worrisome. And no one knows where the change could come from? "The whole ecosystem is corrupt," repeats Rabbi. The songwriter believes one would have to revisit the 50s and 60s to actually realise how every element - the producer, singer, studios - were on the same page when it came to the genuine understanding of pop music.

"I am very proud to be not mainstream." Throughout his interaction with journalists, Rabbi has never shied away from how he detests mainstream music. Sufism has been a major influence on the musician's perception of life, and the Punjabi lyrics in his music have been a conscious decision. The implicit ignorance of Indian languages can be fairly noticed, and Rabbi believes the approach to lure listeners with the 'western' sense of music, just for the sake of it, needs to be discouraged further. "Language, in any case, is prosthetic," believes Rabbi, "If the crutch is poorly designed, you are only going to run so far. Our mainstream musicians are obsessed with money and fame" The short-lived success of several musicians, he believes, boils down to the lack of these - attributes such as passion, education and the ability to not succumb to the changing needs of the ecosystem.

The flag bearer of 'Sufi-Rock' - Rabbi - acknowledges that modern Punjabi songwriting played a role in the falling standards of the dying art, that is, lyrics. "In order to listen to good Punjabi songs, one must go back to the previous era. Now, Punjabi mainstream music (or otherwise) is doing well commercially, and not artistically. The theme for the last five to six years has been 'party'. One can observe there is a neurotic emphasis on partying," reminds Rabbi.

Usually confrontational, artistes compromising on their primary passion for money do not find a place in Rabbi's good books, and the multi-instrumentalist, currently working on a film and independent music videos, urges songwriters to stick to originality. When asked about how the 70s legendary band Led Zeppelin could lose a court battle for the copyrights of 'Stairway To Heaven', Rabbi replies, "The entire production does not change. Page's solo, Plant's soul and the rest of the song still remains Zeppelin's."

For someone who was dragged to court for a similar reason, Rabbi understands how inspiration
can get mistranslated as imitation. In Rabbi's case, the issue was settled out of court, and the song 'Ballo', once again represented the songwriter's style. Arlo Guthrie once said, "Songwriting is like fishing in a stream. You put in your line and hope you catch something." What if Rabbi had never gone fishing? "If I hadn't written 'Bulla Ki Jaana', maybe someone else would have," explained the relentless endorser of pure, honest music.

Rabbi quotes the Bob Dylans and the Tom Pettys and the Bob Segers during his interviews, and for someone who decided to pick up a guitar upon an experience through Bruce Springsteen's live performance, Rabbi manages to resonate an honest effort in a live setting too. A craftsman, and an ambassador for redefined form of songwriting, Rabbi is a poet with a deep understanding of music.

100 years! Maybe, Rabbi's prediction of mankind's future does not have a concrete backing, but the art of songwriting surely will not survive that long, if research data in that sector is to be believed. Parts of India had never seen such a calamity before, and the rich cultures have virtually dried up.