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March 28, 2000

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Music without borders

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

Call it funky music, bhangra hip-hop, Indian reggae, transcontinental blues or classical calypso. Here is a band that has fused the sounds of three continents, merged multiracial and multigenerational talents to come up with sounds that are different, a celebration of global music in its best possible sense.

'Funkadesi', Chicago's (and probably the US's) only Indo-Afro-Caribbean band has built up a loyal fan following in its three years of existence.

Interestingly, the band started off with a predominantly south Asian following, but now is appealing to more and more Americans, signaling the mainstreaming of a band that is distinctive for its broad clear-cut genres. Their first full-length CD Uncut Roots , was out in the beginning of April, and the name symbolizes the story of their music.

Rahul Sharma, 30,who besides being the founder of the group is also their bass guitarist and sitarist explains how 'Funkadesi'; is a musical search for one's roots. "On the cover of our CD, I say that we're proud to be from North America but we are roots-seeking, roots-affirming North Americans. We're exploring, finding and celebrating our roots," says Sharma.

'Uncut Roots', with its funky beats and vibrant tunes is a mix of folk songs, rap, reggae, Calypso, Indian classical and the blues. They-see blues is a number which has vocals by Radhika Chimata in Raag Bhagyashree, while Valroy Dawkins sings the philosophical lyrics. There is the ever-popular Punjabi folk song, Longavacha, and a rap number with a philosophical monologue.

There is 'Funky wrench' an integrated song with styles of alaap, bass solo and a sargam over rich funk groove. One tune which stands out for its pathos is a ballad called Everybody. The lyrics go something like this:

'Everybody looks for a place to call home,
Everybody looks for a place to say '
Om' "

Born and raised in Michigan, Sharma is the child of two southeast Asian professors who were born and raised in Kenya. Not surprisingly, Sharma went through what he calls dryly "an Alex Haley period" when he was 18-19 years old.

He had visited his family in Kenya many times before that but on his next trip he looked at the culture and traditions with eyes that were seeking meaning and connections. "I heard all these wonderful, rich stories about my family and I didn't want to lose all that. My music is a vehicle to stay true to all that," he says.

In the US, Sharma had taken to playing the bass guitar but Indian classical music had instilled in him a deep desire to learn the sitar and tabla. A chance encounter with Zakir Hussain led to an invitation to come to California for tabla lessons.

He took up the offer almost five years later when he went to the Ali Akbar Khan School of music in California.

After he finished his graduation, he visited India for the very first time, where he met the late Allah Rakha and took lessons form one of his students.

Moved by the sights and sounds of India, Sharma toured the country, carrying his tablas with him everywhere, dutifully doing his riyaz (practice) everyday.

"Carrying my tablas everywhere I went, was like bodybuilding," he laughs. People were impressed by the intensity of his desire to learn Indian music.

"I love my Indian background and culture but I really wanted to get deeply into it. This was a perfect avenue and people could see that I was trying to reconnect with my roots," says Sharma.

In Chandigarh, he also took sitar lessons. Today, in addition to the bass guitar he focusses more on the sitar than the tabla.

"Playing the guitar and the sitar satisfies the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) predicament in me. I can play the sitar in a very Western way and the guitar in a very Indian way," he says.

On his return to the US, Sharma worked with the Sexual Assault Prevention Center at the University of Michigan at a time he was experimenting with a band that had two white American musicians and two Indians. The one piece they played was called Funkadesi and it went incredibly well with the audience. Sharma knew that he was on the right track. But he was so caught up with grad school that he just didn't have the time to find the right musicians. But soon things and the band just started falling in place. The chemistry between the band members was phenomenal and 'Funkadesi' was born.

The nine-members in the band bring unique and fascinating sounds. There are the three percussionists -- Carlos Antonio Cornier who plays the Puerto Rican congas, bongos and a plethora of percussion goodies. Cornier has 25-30 instruments in his collection.

Then there is Mississippi-born Meshach Silas, who relies on the West African djembe and other African instruments; Maninder Singh, who plays the tabla with amazing virtuosity; Abdul Hakeem on the lead guitar and Inder Paul Singh on the keyboard.

Avant garde jazz is provided by the saxophones of American Kristin McGee, while some soul is provided by Jamaican Valroy Dawkins' reggae-infused vocals and Radhika Chimata's haunting voice disciplined by a training in Indian classical. Dawkins adds an extra topping with his West Indian dancing.

Sharma says he found to his amazement that all these styles synchronized so naturally.

"I kept thinking about things that would serve as a bridge. The reggae beat for example is so in synch with Indian beats and soca sounds to me just like Indian folk rhythms speeded up. The combination of reggae and Indian folk music was easy because there is such a marriage of rhythm," he says.

To Andhra-born Radhika Chimata, Funkadesi's unique appeal lies in its harmonious but yet distinctive blend of so many styles and sounds.

"Our group offers a large variety of genres-Indian classical music, folk, reggae, and jazz in away no group does in America. You can hear the jazz, reggae and Indian music in its purity whenever it pops up," she says.

For Chimata however, 'Funkadesi' was not really a way to find her roots. On the contrary, she is already deeply rooted in Indian arts. She had learned Bharat Natyam and Carnatic music and now is training in Hindustani music; it was a way she could integrate her 'Indianness" with other cultures. It was also a way to resolve the conflicts between Indian and American values.

For instance, singing in clubs was against her Indian upbringing but it was something a band has to do if it is to survive. Chimata adjusted and realized that it really didn't cause so much heartache.

Working with people of such diversity has also helped Chimata understand different genres of music -- and social issues -- better.

"'Funkadesi' has helped to make everything so real. Until then, I had only an intellectual understanding of political and social issues and different kinds of music," she says.

That's a sentiment shared by Maninder Singh, 23. Singh's friendship with Sharma goes back to their University of Michigan days, when 'Funkadesi' was still just a mote in Sharma's imagination.

Singh, who has also trained with Zakir Hussain, is a software engineer by profession. He has played with a number of Sikh groups, which have come out with kirtana CDs. He also plays with an Indo-Pak Jazz coalition.

Singh, who wears a turban, had his own problems growing up in America. Playing with 'Funkadesi' has helped him come to terms with who he is, he says.

"Being with people who are different and accepting of who I am has helped me to grow up in an environment that is not so easily accepting. I am now comfortable with my identity," he says.

Singh also admits that getting a band like 'Funkadesi' to harmoniously synchronise calls for a lot of hard work. But in the end, it is very rewarding.

"We complement each other. We all have respect for each other's traditions. We don't try to force anything. Nothing is contrived and so it seems that all the rhythms have originated from the same music. I'm a part of so many groups, but with 'Funkadesi' it is like being part of a family. We have such good rapport," says Singh.

Sharma hopes 'Funkadesi' will be the beginning of the mainstreaming of Indian music. The coming of age, so to speak, of a timeless music tradition.

"On the one hand Indian music has been secluded and inaccessible, except for people like Bally Sagoo and Apache Indian from England who have put bhangra to hip-hop on the map. But I would like to see us, as a people, to be cultural ambassadors, and share our music. People mix reggae and funk, but Indian music is not mixed and put in the forefront. I think that is because of this element of exoticism and mystery associated with Indian music," says Sharma.

Of course, Sharma is determined to aid the cause of many aspiring south Asian musicians who see him as a "role model". He works with other south Asian artistes who sometimes perform with Funkadesi. But he is disappointed that an artiste does not get support in the south Asian community the way a western artiste gets from his family and community.

In 'Funkadesi' itself, all the Indians pursue careers other than music. Sharma, for instance, has a doctorate in clinical psychology and works as the Director of Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention at the University of Chicago. The non-Indians in the group, however, are full-time artistes.

"If there was more emphasis on pursuing dreams, we'd see more south Asian artistes," admits Sharma.

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