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A Sub-culture in the World of Music

Prabhu Ghate

By Gregory Booth
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 335, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

As a researcher and participant in an anti-poverty project in eastern UP in which we were trying to come up with suitable livelihood activities for the 40 percent of the population that was totally landless and dependent on agricultural labour, a surprising item would appear in the list of activities that dalit members of the target group expressed an interest in taking up. This was “band-baja”. It turned out that many of them already had some experience of participating in processional wedding bands, which were stuck with the label of being a caste-based activity (like most other activities undertaken by the dalits at the time). This led me to note the parallel with jazz, at least superficially. Jazz evolved in its early days partly out of processional music, funeral processions in this case, and like Indian brass bands was syncretic in musical origins. It built upon cotton-picking field chants, gospel, and African rhythmic traditions, just as Indian brass bands drew on western military, regional folk, and increasingly, filmi music. But the most striking similarity was the low status of the musicians, not just along race/caste and economic dimensions, but also initially, musically. Though jazz progressed rapidly in the 1920s and I930s to become mainstream dancing and listening music (a status it no longer enjoys), the musicians themselves remained on the margins of the festive and celebratory occasions they did so much to create. Even as jazz went on innovating to evolve into a unique art form by the 1940s, with increasingly universal musical appeal, the performers themselves felt more comfortable performing in Europe till the 1950s. It took the transformation in race relations that gathered pace in the 1960s before jazz musicians could completely transcend their social origins to acquire equal musical and celebrity status with their counterparts in the classical and other western music worlds. The musical sub-culture represented by Indian wedding processional bands failed however to undergo the same transformation either musically or socio-economically. This important study, which explores the relationship between musical changes in the band world and broader societal and cultural changes in colonial and postcolonial India (or of “musical changes as metaphor”) helps explain why.   The author explains that he has had to sacrifice some degree of ethnographic depth in exchange for geographic breadth. His justification for doing so is that studies whose chronological and geographic objects of study are more narrowly defined (such ...

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