Songs of the Sand

Desert song Kutle Khan is very comfortable playing to a big audience
Desert song Kutle Khan is very comfortable playing to a big audience

Born to Manganiar singers, Kutle Khan literally grew up amidst music. “Back home, even when people fight, they fight through music,” says Khan. “We have a song for every mood, every occasion.”

The hint of pride is unmistakable as he speaks fondly of his influence. “I was trained by my father, who is also a singer. Even my lyrics are inspired by the many stories he told us. He can play seven to eight instruments and so can I,” he says.

Khan’s favourite instrument is the kartaal, a wooden handheld instrument that has small cymbals. “It was the first musical instrument I picked up,” the 29-year-old recalls. “Even today when I play it, I feel detached from the world. It still feels like I am playing with those wooden bars, like a child.”

The kartaal, used mostly in Rajasthani folk and devotional music, is played solo as well as a part of an orchestra.

Growing up among a community of musicians, it was natural for Khan to embark on a musical journey fairly early in life. He worked very hard at his art, making it his key to the fame that came naturally to his grown-up community members.

In 2002, a French tourist, visiting to see the Manganiar way of life, was flabbergasted by the music. “He couldn’t believe people could sing throughout the day in different tones and moods,” recalls Khan. “Since I knew basic English, I showed him the instruments and played them for him.” He took Khan and a few others with him to Corsica, a small town in France, for three months. It was a big leap from the artists’ colony he grew up in. “That trip moulded me into what I am today,” says Khan. “I learnt a lot about western music and different instruments, and decided to experiment with them when I got back.” The saxophone and the drums have become a part of Khan’s brand of Rajasthani folk music today.

In his musical journey, Khan has collaborated with different musicians across genres. He has played with Susheela Raman, Kailash Kher and Amit Trivedi in the MTV show Coke Studio and Star World’s Dewarists. He recently collaborated with the band Midival Punditz for their upcoming album. How does he work with such disparate genres?

“The folk music, especially Rajasthani folk, is sought after because of its beats and variations. I just play and it automatically fits,” he muses. Then wistfully, he says, “I want to play with Zakir Hussain sahaab.” Almost immediately, he bites his tongue, so as to not jinx his wish.

Unlike other folk musicians, who consider the genre sacrosanct, Khan is not averse to mainstream Bollywood music. For him, music can never be bad. “Music is like an ocean you float endlessly in,” he says. “There is always something new to be done, something better to be discovered. Even otherwise, it is good in its own way.”

Khan has played in over 83 countries and on numerous stages across the world. The stage has never made him conscious. “When I am on stage, I get lost in my music completely,” he says. “I don’t even notice my co-performers until they strike a wrong chord.” However, he also enjoys the attention his traditional clothes get him. “My costume gets a lot of applause from foreigners. They start clapping when I enter with my colourful turban, without even listening to my music,” he says, laughing loudly, sign of a man who is comfortable in the limelight.

For now, Khan and his band have a packed schedule. They tour Austria in July and are working on an album, which they plan to release by the end of 2015. Khan also plans to organise a 100-piece orchestra of Rajasthani folk musicians. “The deserts are full of talent and I am trying my best to provide a platform to as many as I can,” he says.

As a parting note, he admits that he doesn’t get time to practise as much as he would like to, but dismisses it with a laugh, “Riyaaz to pehle karte the, din din bhar. Ab to samay hi nahi milta (We used to practise for whole days earlier. Now we don’t get much time).”

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