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Spreading religion through music

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, June 18, 2015

WHEN the girmitya arrived in Fiji from 1879 to 1919, they brought with them traditional music instruments and styles from various parts of India.

The early music influences drew heavily from rural North India and some came from the southern states.

However, over the years, traditional Indian music in Fiji has transformed and developed into a style that has become unique to the country.

According to historical accounts, observations made by the late Ustad Sheikh Mohyudean — a renowned qawali and ghazal composer and singer from India —revealed that a lack of classically-trained tabla players came to the country during the indentured labour migration period.

As a result of this, qawali musicians had no choice but to perform with dholak players who were only familiar with bhajan music. The complex rhythmic beats of the tabla, compared with the more simplistic dholak, is like comparing chalk and cheese.

The dholak rhythms interwoven with qawali music began a metamorphosis of a traditional Indian art form that was criticised by Hindi music purists because of its non-conformity to classical qawali style.

The new genre, however, became popular among girmitya across the country.

As the fusion of dholak beats into ghazals began to gain popularity, bhajan singers began to venture into qawali music and infused elements of an ancient bhajan singing style from Bihar in India known as "phagua gayaki".

Nagana, Ra, musician and farmer Ram Janak said he recalled the old music styles and instruments and lamented the loss of traditional music skills over time.

"At one point in time, it was not uncommon to find people living in cane belt areas like this to gather together and play music and sing religious songs of old in styles that you won't hear today because it has not been practised for a long time," the 70-year-old shared.

"More than 50 years ago, the singing styles and instruments that were brought here by our forefathers were used everywhere.

"The Sanatanais used to sing a style known as alaas and only people from Labasa continue this tradition today. A lot of this has been lost over time on Viti Levu.

"Another unfortunate thing is the loss of music skills on traditional instruments. You'll be lucky to find people who can play instruments like the kanjari, tambura, dhafla, sitar and tabla these days.

"There are a lot of young people interested in singing and playing musical instruments but they have all gone into electronic things like keyboards and some just learn the harmonium and dholak and don't have interest to try other instruments."

Since scaling down his cane farm many years ago, Janak spends most of his time spreading religious messages through music.

"It became too difficult and costly to continue canefarming on a large scale so I just plant enough to produce 200 tonnes of cane and that's enough to feed my family.

"Nowadays, I get the people in my area together and we play musical instruments and sing old religious songs.

"I feel it's important to do this. Otherwise, the younger generation will lose touch of who we are and where we're from."

The Nagana farmer also teaches youngsters who express an interest, the finer points of kirtan singing and dholak and harmonium skills.

Over the years, numerous ghazal, qawali and bhajan singers and musicians were born into musical families in Fiji.

Inspired by remnants of their classically-trained forefathers, many began exerting their influence on traditional and contemporary Indian music.

Janak says perhaps the most famous of them all was Mushtari Begum, the daughter of one of India's music greats at the time, Ustad Amjad Ali, who hailed from Lucknow.

"She sang so beautifully and had a voice that just reached into your heart and touched you.

"It didn't even matter if you understood Hindi or not, that's how good she was."

Begum was born in 1934 in Fiji but there is not much information available on where she lived or grew up. She migrated to Canada at some point in the 70s and was laid to rest there in 2004.

In her formative years, Begum was first a disciple of her father and later travelled to India and learned from music legends such as the late Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Shrimati Shyamala Bhave.

Begum's extraordinary vocal capabilities made her capable of singing close to four octaves in range and in her prime, she ruled the local music charts for close to three decades.

She won 36 trophies and numerous recognitions and awards between 1947 and 1973.

However, her crowning moment was when she was awarded the title Malika-e-Ghazal or "Queen of Ghazal" in 1973 by the Indian High Consulate in Fiji.

Begum inspired a whole generation of aspiring musicians in Fiji. And while many went on to become household names over the years, a Lautoka born musician who was heavily influenced by Begum has gained international recognition as a tabla player and vocalist.

Cassius Khan, who now resides in Canada, met Begum, harmonium player and qawali vocalist Sheikh Mohyudean and Ustad Rukhsar Ali, a tabla player, in Vancouver in his youth.

Fascinated with their music abilities, he took to learning from the trio and later combined the music disciplines to become one of few Indian artists who have mastered the ability to sing ghazal and play the tabla simultaneously — a feat which has earned him respect and renown internationally.

In his illustrious career, Khan has collaborated with jazz pianist Stu Goldberg — the lead keyboardist in guitarist John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, recorded with slide guitar legend Ellen McIllwaine who has performed alongside guitar legends such as John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix.

In August 2012, Khan and his wife Amika Kushwaha, a kathak dancer and harmonium soloist, founded the Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance in honour of his mentor.

The event has grown over the years and has become recognised as Canada's most elite festival of Indian classical music.

As the music and dance fiesta developed and grew to encompass Indian musicians from a wide range of disciplines and instrumentation, the name was shortened to the Mushtari Festival in 2015.

More than 130 years since indentured labourers from India first set foot on Fijian soil, the traditional music styles they brought with them continues in existence.

While the music and singing styles being performed now may not be true to its original form, it is a metamorphosis that has encompassed the unique situation in Fiji and presents to the world an art form that reflects the struggles, trials and triumphs of the Indian diaspora.

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