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05 mars 2006

Tambourine Man

He used to earn pennies singing in Kolkata’s trains. Today Paris-based Baul singer Paban Das is cutting albums for Peter Gabriel’s label.

Trains running between Kolkata and north Bengal, after sauntering out of the metropolis, pick up speed around what can be broadly outlined as Baul territory: Bolpur, Santiniketan, Sainthia, Burdwan and Rampurhat. It is from around this region that Bauls—Bengal’s own hippies, its wandering minstrels—embark on the trains, sing their songs that philosophize about life and death and earn alms from passengers.

Forty four-year-old
Paban Das Baul was among the luckier and more gifted singers. He could be heard above the rattle of the rails and his voice evoked enough admiration and sympathy from passengers to help him earn anything from a rupee to Rs 200, as a foreign lady once gave him in Santiniketan. ‘‘It was a big sum in those days. But such sums came along only once in a while, otherwise what I got barely helped me subsist,’’ recalls Das, who started singing for alms with his father after their family had to sell off their land and property.

These days, a simple Google search collates the distance the man has travelled with his music. From Morocco, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Mexico and France, to a fusion of jazz, rock, gospel, ambient electronica and club.

Notwithstanding the background soundscape, the only time Das felt he was not allowed to come into his own with his singing is on the collaborative album
Tana Tani, which he released with UK-based State of Bengal member Sam Zaman. ‘‘They kept the vocal levels low and deliberately played up the background score. They wanted to create club music at the cost of Baul,’’ says the Paris-based musician who was in Kolkata recently.

In all this, there is an anomaly that has kept the singer-songwriter worried. The music of Bauls—riding the repute earned by
Purna Das Baul in the West during the ’60s—has had high-profile endorsers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Das, a protégé‚ of Purna Das, has found recommendations from writers like Ruchir Joshi, who included him in his acclaimed documentary 11 Miles, and William Dalrymple.

In an article he wrote for The Guardian in the UK, Dalrymple is clearly besotted by
‘‘the celebrated Baul’’. His voice, Dalrymple wrote, was ‘‘deep and smoky, alternately urgent and sensuous’’.

Even musically, Das has collaborated with the likes of avant-garde musician and musicologist
Sam Mills, which resulted in the critically approved album Real Sugar, and with French jazz prodigy Cheick Tidiane.

His long-running relationship with musician
Peter Gabriel, whose label Real World has resulted in a number of albums; Das also performs at Gabriel’s music festival WOMAD.

None among his 11 albums, Das regrets, has been recorded in India or his home state, West Bengal. The couple of times Kolkata-based record companies have approached him, Das says, the terms set by them were so stiff that he had to walk away from the offer.

‘‘Recently one of the companies wanted to record my singing, but on the day of the recording I had a sore throat. When I told them that, they said that I’d have to pay for the entire recording cost and also for the accompanying musicians. There was no way I could pay that amount,’’
he rues.

There have been exceptions. The pioneer of the Asian Underground sound in the UK, tabla player
Talvin Singh, when he teamed up with Das at the recent Jaipur Festival, mentions being floored by the intensity of the music. ‘‘We had one helluva concert that night,’’ says Singh, hours before a recent concert in Kolkata. ‘‘We also had a few Rajasthani folk musicians joining me and Paban Das and the whole atmosphere was electrifying.’’

It was a 1979 French documentary film on the Bauls of Bengal called
Le Chant Des Fou (Songs of the Madmen), that led to Das getting invited to the country in 1980 by Radio France. His relationship with Paris has evolved since then. ‘‘Sometimes when I don’t have any concerts in France, I can earn my living by performing at public places,’’ he says.

By Shamik Bag

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