'We don't think we are musicians in true sense'

'We don't think we are musicians in true sense'

A chance viewing of a documentary on Kabir folk music inspired Neeraj Arya to set out on a musical journey to recreate these timeless compositions. Thus was formed ‘Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café’, a Mumbai-based quartet that brings alive the poetic works of Kabir infused with rock, pop, reggae and fusion.

Featuring lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Neeraj Arya, who pioneered the Kabir Rock genre, the band also has Raman Iyer on the mandolin, Mukund Ramaswamy on violins and Viren Solanki on percussions and drums. In the city recently to perform for ‘HRC Local’, a programme where Hard Rock Cafe is reconnecting with Indian roots through music, Neeraj Arya spoke to Rajitha Menon about following his heart through music.

Does Kabir still command attention in today’s times?
Kabir never went out of fashion in all these 600 odd years! He was kept alive in text books, the classical music space​ and folk traditions. But right now, he is becoming even more relevant. Today it’s become a trend to point fingers at others and ‘troll’ people we don’t even know. We need to look inward and​ watch our actions while we voice our opinions and point out the wrongs around us. This is​ where Kabir comes in.

How would you describe your music?
We don’t think we are musicians in the true sense. We simply perform Kabir’s poetry in a musically interesting​ fashion. For this, we use a variety of genres but largely retain the folk fabric, because lyrics come out strongly in that.​ So we perform neo-folk Kabir poetry.

Some interesting experiences from your gigs?
Several! But there is one thing that will remain in our memory for a long time. At a gig in Kolkata, we had an​ 85-year-old man come on stage and dance with us. Then a small child, around 4-5 years old, slipped out of his father’s arms and came up to dance. ​To see Kabir dissolving almost eight decades of difference is a moment that we will cherish forever.

How was the name of the band selected?
The first part of the name (Neeraj Arya’s...) was given by Raman, much to my dismay. I didn’t want my name associated​ with it but Raman and Mukund felt that way since the core idea to perform Kabir using contemporary genres came from me and the initial research was also done by me. And ‘Kabir Cafe’, because we believe we have a musical conversation with Kabir, on an equal ​setting.

What are some of the reactions you get?
Mostly people look at us as some kind of evangelists trying to keep Kabir alive. ​But the truth is Kabir found each one of us. ​Reaction-wise, it’s beautiful when school and college children sing our songs and send us videos of their performances.  ​​Because the music you grow up listening to has a great impact​, we are glad they are growing up listening to Kabir.

An Indian musician whose work you adore?
Many! Can’t zero down to one but to name a few —​ Illayaraja, Indian Ocean, Raghu Dixit, Swarathma, Shakti...

Your favourite song from among all your works?
​​This one song called ‘Moh ko kahan dhoonde re bandhe, Main toh tere paas re’ that not just moves us musically but is also a defining song for us. We were at that point where​ we were settled in our careers and were debating whether it was worth it to go back to square one to perform Kabir. This song gave us the courage and the madness to go for it.

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