By Prem Ayyathurai:
In June 2010, a most unlikely duo of artists came together to put up what is probably the most aggressive socio-political music project in India today. ‘Word Sound Power’ is a phrase from reggae, one that alludes to the remarkable potential of music. A belief that words, lyrics, are potent indeed, but music in itself has a revolutionary potential that extends across mere language.
Word Sound Power (WSP) is a film and music initiative that combines dubstep and Jamaican dancehall music with hitherto obscure songs of the many political struggles being fought by Indian people. In doing so, the members of WSP allow the urban youth a glimpse of some of India’s most vibrant conflict-zones, from violence against Dalits in Punjab to the mortal challenge from India’s ‘development’ story, to the tribal way of life in Odisha.
WSP is constituted by Chris McGuinness, a Brooklyn born DJ and producer and Delhi-based Taru Dalmia who goes by the stage name Delhi Sultanate. While Chris’ relationship with India started in 2005, he eventually collaborated with Taru towards the end of 2010 in Bombay. Taru himself is a pioneer of Dancehall/ Hip Hop and performance poetry in India. Armed with a Masters degree in South Asian Area Studies as well as an MPhil in Indian History, Taru brings a sharp political awareness to the project which shines through in the unforgiving lyrics of their songs.
The Bant Singh Project
WSP’s first collaboration was in early 2011 with Bant Singh, a landless Dalit agricultural labourer from the village of Burj Jhabbar in Punjab. Singh is an activist with the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha in Punjab and has been singing revolutionary songs since his youth. In the year 2002, his 17 year old daughter was raped by the henchmen of the local landlord that Bant Singh had dared to defy.
Refusing to be cowed down, he took the perpetrators to court where 3 out of 4 were sentenced to life. This ‘arrogance’ of a Dalit man who could challenge the local power structure did not go unpunished — in 2006, he was attacked and injured grievously. After being refused immediate medical attention, he was finally treated in Chandigarh but at the cost of losing both his hands and a leg.
Undaunted, Bant Singh continues till day to organize the labourers in his state and sing his defiant songs.
“We have broken the chains of slavery
And have endured much suffering
We want this government to know
That we will not let them sell our nation.”
Working over four days, Bant Singh and WSP overcame language barriers and shared vastly different cultures of political music. As Taru puts it, “Bant Singh feels that his songs are like “drops of blood” – it’s war music. My orientation is similar and we both understood this.”
The film and songs that these artists came up with is now called the Bant Singh Project.
Having heard from an Odisha activist of the little known struggle of the local tribals against a number of industrial projects which threaten their way of life, WSP reached Kucheipadar in South Odisha in August 2011. This project turned out to be much more complicated because unlike in Punjab, here the artists had to operate in a remote adivasi area, lacking electricity at most times and constantly under an atmosphere of siege by the corporate and state interests.
While the tracks of the Bant Singh album have a confident, defiant tone, Blood Earth is marked with a seething anger that unsettles you but draws you in. The track Back Against the Wall fuses the local string instrument Gungunung with the voices of Kondh women singing a traditional night-time courting song, but explodes into rage while recounting a police firing which claimed the lives of five minor girls a few months before WSP landed in Kucheipadar.
“5 months ago there was encounter
went for a meeting it ended up in a slaughter
the feds tracked the movement then set up a trap at night time they opened fire
Uma Shankar they had been after
and that day Kashipur lost 5 daughter
18 years old never get older
big up all my real andolan soldier”
All the tracks on the WSP albums are available for free download. Taru is clear about what they’re trying to do: “We are now fighting what we call ‘mental slavery’… We are all still cultural bastards; listening to music from America and Europe while there are other expressions that address our issues better.”
Why is WSP so relevant to us, today? The urban youth in India have, over the last few years, become increasingly politicized. In ways not seen since the Emergency under Indira Gandhi, students have not only poured out on the streets to protest against what they perceived as unjust, but have gone on to join movements like that of the Aam Admi Party. Today, a large part of mass media refuses to report on the peoples’ struggles that rage incessantly in India’s hinterlands. This situation makes it impossible for the urban youth to understand these realities, failing which a truly democratic renewal in India remains impossible. With no small amount of courage, Word Sound Power tries to fill that gap. It remains to be seen whether we shall sit up and take note.
For more on them, visit their website.