Cultural ‘isolation’: Dozens of musicians from all over the world celebrate the art of music in Russia

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Indian folk group from the Himalayas shared their experience of playing in the capital of Tatarstan, the “UNESCO City of Music”

Back in July, Sarvjeet Tamta, lead vocalist for Indian folklore collective Rehmat-e-Nusrat, had no idea where Kazan was. Six weeks later, however, the 28-year-old and his six-member band were sharing the stage in Tatarstan, Russia, with musicians performing Russian rock, African soul, Brazilian jazz, and Chinese reggae.

When he was barely 17, Tamta took to qawwali – music associated with Islam’s mystical Sufism in South Asia – and to Kumaoni folk in his native Uttarakhand, an Indian Himalayan state. He had never traveled abroad in his career as a self-taught musician. However, fate had a surprise in store. 

In August, Amarrass Records – an Indian homegrown record label, artiste, and event management company that has worked with Rehmat-e-Nusrat since 2019 – received an email invitation from Kazan Mayor Ilsur Metshin, the organizer of the Kazan festival, to play in the capital of Tatarstan in central Russia. 

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International debut

Rehmat-e-Nusrat is an ode to the late Pakistani qawwali exponent Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (and Tamta’s musical guru), and was one of the headline acts on the opening day on September 8 at the Kazan Family Center, where non-stop performances on two separate stages by the bands immersed the audience in the diverse genres.

Rehmat-e-Nusrat shared the stage with 150 international musicians from nine countries, such as Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure, who was part of the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (incidentally, whose only live recording in India was at the 2011 Amarrass Desert Music Festival in Rajasthan); Afro-soul singer Nomfuzi; Armenian duduk composer Jivan Gasparyan; rock bands Kino, The Hatters, and Komsomolsk; Brazilian jazz-funk musician Joao Selva; and indie singer Zulya Kamalova, who represented her native Tatarstan and adopted homeland Australia.

Tamta and his bandmates returned to Delhi and were still reliving the “amazing Russian hospitality in the picture-postcard city of Kazan by our gracious hosts.”

The artist profusely thanked Mayor Metshin for giving Rehmat-e-Nusrat the opportunity to perform on a “global stage along with musicians from Russia, Brazil, China, Mali, Armenia, South Africa, Turkey, and Australia.”

Time was of the essence at the festival, meaning the band only managed to play two numbers – ‘Allah Hoo’ and ‘Man Kunto Maula’ – in their 23-minute stipulated slot as a tribute to Khan. A qawwali number can run up to 20-odd minutes, as the performance reaches a crescendo like the swirling dervishes of the Sufi shrines across South Asia.  

Sarvjeet Tamta singing a qawwali at the Kazan Music Festival ©  Amarrass Records

As the curtain came down on this edition of the festival – heralding the end of the bright summer season – Azat Abzalov, the head of the Department of Culture in Kazan, had already set his sights on the coming years. 

“The festival has the potential to become an exchange of ideas, an excellent way to strengthen cross-cultural understanding and attract attention to the diversity of talents,” he said.

“Amazing Russian hospitality”  

Pratyaksh Prajapati, a techie-turned-music executive with Amarrass Records, was full of praise for the organizers. 

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“Language could be a major challenge in Russia. Adele, a volunteer at the festival, ensured that we never had any such difficulties,” he said. “She was a gracious host. She doubled up as an interpreter, showed us around the beautiful city of Kazan, and took care of our logistical worries.”

However, Prajapati regretted their “brief stay of a little over 48 hours.”

“I wish we had more time to explore. I was awestruck by the Kazan Kremlin, a defining and enduring image of the city. It’s truly an architectural marvel along with the Kul Sharif mosque.”

Tamta fondly remembered his companion Daria, who “took us out on Bauman Street for shopping amid fickle weather, as it was raining even minutes before our performance.”

Metshin’s jovial nature struck a big chord with the band members.

“While defining our music in the press conference, I explained to him through the interpreter that our music is spiritual and connects us with the Lord… so when the mayor was asked the question by a journalist as to what he would do if it rains during the festival… he simply said he will ask Rehmat-e-Nusrat band members to speak with the Lord to stop it!” Tamta recounted fondly.

“And, as luck would have it, the rain did stop, much to the delight of the audience,” he added.

His brothers-in-arms are Deepak Kumar, a permanent fixture since the launch of Rehmat-e-Nusrat in 2014, siblings Sahil and Samir Hussain from the famous Rampur school of qawwali, Neeraj Upreti, and Anubhav Singh. All expressed gratitude to Amarrass Records for their maiden international trip.  

Rehman-e-Nusrat at the venue, with the Kazan Family Centre in the backdrop ©  Amarrass Records

Amarrass Records – a musical odyssey

The label’s name is a portmanteau of two words in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit – ‘Amar’ means eternal and ‘Rass’ means the essence – and is the brainchild of Delhi-based Ashutosh Sharma – who runs a travel agency as a day job – as well as Wisconsin-settled Ankur Malhotra, a DJ and a music enthusiast. The transatlantic project is a classic example of a new-age digital venture that transcends geographical barriers and is bound by a common cause: to promote talented artists for a global audience.   

Amarrass Records is the only indigenous music label where each record is individually hand-cut on precision-crafted machinery imported from Germany and assembled in India. All the album artwork and jacket designs are also done in-house by Sharma and Malhotra, with some help friends such as Mahuaa Sen for ‘Dubfunded’, an album by electronic music producer Ravana and Rajasthani folk poet Jumme Khan.

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“Vinyl enables us to present our archive of field recordings, live concerts and studio sessions in high fidelity, which brings the listener closer to the natural sound captured in the recordings sessions,” said Sharma. 

Sharma, who dabbled in amateur theater in his youth, felt a critical gap in India’s music industry, where “95% of the regulation fare comprises Bollywood and largely belted out at big fat weddings and corporate events.”   

The label also owes its genesis to a trend in which talented musicians such as Sakhar Khan could not travel to big music festivals because of “health issues due to advanced age.”

Amarrass Music Tour is one of the label’s innovative ways to promote alternative music that aims to take an intimate audience to an artiste beyond the urban landscape. Though the concept started with Rajasthan, the Covid-19 pandemic in the interim put paid to the ambitious plans and the project is now in revival mode.    

On a similar musical tour to Uttarakhand, Sharma met Tamta at his native Almora a few years ago, and that’s how the band joined the label in 2019.

Amarrass Nights is another annual event of the label, which usually runs between September and April in Delhi.  

A brand-new season of musical soirees began on September 22 in Sunder Nursery, a 16th-century heritage park and Delhi’s first arboretum, which was restored and renovated by the Archeological Society of India and the Aga Khan Foundation, and has a seating capacity for around 2,000 music lovers.  

This year’s opening concert, organized in association with the Israel Culture Center, included a live performance by Guy Buttery, a guitarist with national treasure status in South Africa, soulful jazz reinterpreted by Israel’s Danny Kuttner, followed by a live performance of the soundtrack of a play by thespian M.K. Raina on the 14th-century Indian mystic poet and saint Sant Kabir called ‘Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein’ with contemporary pop and jazz vocals.

Buttery, Kuttner, and Tamta’s Himali Mou – the Kumaoni folk alter ego of Rehmat-e-Nusrat – are also performing at the 10th edition of the Ziro Music Festival, which will be held in the remote northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from September 28 to October 1.

On October 14, Rehmat-e-Nusrat will be back for the second show of Amarrass Nights followed by a live performance by siblings Sreeusha and Sireesha, the young Carnatic mandolin players from Chennai. 

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