When there is angst in your heart there are two things you can do, burn yourself and destroy everything you touch, or use that hurt to create something meaningful, a piece of work that can not only ring through the ages, but also touch people’s lives in some way. Similarly, singer-songwriter Pragnya Wakhlu (who was born in Kashmir and grew up in Pune) took the second route for her newest work.
The album Kahwa Speaks is her endeavour to help audiences (both Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri) across the world to experience Kashmir for what it inherently is—a rich cultural state—the record is ‘a dual fold approach of understanding more about where she comes from and also to introduce the world to the positive side of Kashmir’.
We catch up with Wakhlu, who tells us more about this thematic album, the feeling of diaspora she feels as an artist, working on the album, the crowd funding campaign on Ketto, things she strongly feels about as an artist, and more.
What inspired you to write Kahwa Speaks—could you tell us about the themes, ideas and a brief back story behind the album?
Kashmir has often been a misunderstood state as there is a lot of media attention on the violence there. There is so much about Kashmiri culture, tradition and music that remain concealed from the public eye. A lot of people that moved out of Kashmir and the generations after them have never been there and never visited. What these generations know about Kashmir is what they have heard from their parents or what they read in the media.
I have always wanted to do something with my music with a dual fold approach of understanding more about where I come from and also to introduce the world to the positive side of Kashmir. That’s when the idea of Kahwa Speaks evolved and I spent a lot of time doing research (over the past few years).
My endeavour with this album is to help audiences (both Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri) across the world to experience Kashmir for what it inherently is—a rich cultural state. The intention is to introduce the audience to the finer nuances of a forgotten culture and history through an experiential show involving live music, visuals and storytelling. It is an honest attempt at preserving the Kashmiri language, by creating memorable songs that pique people’s interest in learning the language.
The music aims at spreading the message of peace and unity, strictly keeping away from any political agenda.
The album has six songs; can you take us through the meaning and inspirations behind each of them, please?
Henzay-Return To Peace
This is a form of Kashmiri singing called Wanwun which is traditionally sung at weddings as blessings for the family and bride. The Kashmiri pundit style is more like a Vedic chant and the Kashmiri Muslim style is slightly different. This song brings both styles together in the same track. I’ve also added a lot of vocal harmony layers to make it sound bigger and fuller. The lyrics are blessings for Kashmir.
The riddle Hukus Bukus is a childhood poem that has its roots in Kashmiri Shaivism. It talks about self-identity and how we are all made by the same creator.
Based on a poem written by Habaa Khatoon it is the love story between the erstwhile poetess and the 16th Century king of Kashmir Yusuf Shah Chak.
Lalla’s Lore features two vaakhs (verses) by the poetess Lalleshwari (fondly known as Lalded) and their translations in English. I spent an afternoon with Jawaharlal Bhat (author of Lalded Revisited) who helped me select and understand the meaning of the vaakh’s and then I re-wrote the essence of the vaakh in English. This is also the first time something like this has been attempted in India.
This tune is written about a cause I feel really strongly about—the injustice that is happening to the Tibetan community. The song aims to bring awareness to the oft-ignored and critical issue of self-immolations. I felt the relevance of including it in this album for several reasons. J&K consists of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Ladakh has a huge community of Tibetans and I feel their forced exile is similar to what Kashmiri Pundits went through earlier on. We’ve also released a music video for Burning Fire which has been shot in Dharamshala with real refugees and real stories.
The title track of the album speaks about how we can view a cup of tea (kahwa) as a metaphor for life. Can’t we be sweet with our words, fragrant with our actions and live together in harmony just as the different elements of tea come together to create a beautiful brew?
The album also features the ballad Hukus Bukus and poems of Lal Ded and more. Any reason why you took this route as far as the songs are concerned?
To help people gain a deeper understanding of existing Kashmiri poetry and the roots of Kashmiri Shaivism.
This album seems like a thematic one, what were the challenges like? Could you illustrate your answer with interesting backstories, please?
Since I don’t really get to practice the language every day, I faced a lot of challenges in getting the Kashmiri pronunciations correct and I had to practice several times with my grandparents and other elders to make sure it sounded authentic. People from the community would often laugh/criticise my accent and this only made me want to get better at it.
This project is an amalgamation of modern music with traditional Kashmiri. One of the challenges was part of the Kashmiri community mistaking my efforts as a “dilution” of Kashmiri culture. There are purists that believed that translating songs into English is a form of dilution. Some of these people used harsh words (over social media) to express their dissent which came as a bit shock to me since I thought everyone would be happy that I was helping the world see the good.
But I’ve learnt that it’s okay if everyone doesn’t see things the way I do. When you’re trying to do things that are different from what people are used to, there is bound to be some resistance, always.
I feel that if one has to reach out to global audiences where one wants people to understand the meaning behind the music, one needs to communicate in a language that is widely spoken, hence the songs are partly in English.
The music is also a reflection of who I am as a person. A combination of diverse influences grounded in my roots. That’s why I made the decision to approach the album this way and stuck to it.
Could you tell us more about the album—the recording session, the production, and how did Songdew come into the picture?
I have been composing these songs over the years after doing a lot of research. We have a Delhi-based band called FRUZU with the initial line up consisting of Manoj (Drums) Sonic (Bass) and Shubhanshu (guitar). Initially, we were supposed to do this project as a band. I would take the songs to the practice room and we would rehearse and arrange the songs. However, our guitarist wasn’t interested in doing Kashmiri songs and opted out leading to delays and leaving the project unfinished. It was hanging for a really long time. I finally made the decision that I would complete the project solo and I worked with Pune-based guitarist and producer Vinay Kaushal. We ran with session musicians that are featured on the album and recorded in Pune. The song Burning Fire was arranged by Sanjay Joseph and mixed by Puneet Samtani. The songs were mastered in London by Hafod Mastering.
I was looking for a way to release the music and maximise its reach. Luckily, Songdew was running a contest called Songdew Fresh at that time where they would select five winners and release their music. I sent my music to them and it got selected as part of the contest for release. I wanted to work with Songdew because I know the team works hard and we’ve had a good association in the past, and the connection felt real. With their help, I knew I might be able to reach out to a wider audience. My goal is to reach out to as many people as possible with our message and hence I saw the synergy here.
The travelling band for the shows comprise of Manoj Mavely (Drums), Shailendra Wakhlu (guitars), Brennon Denfer (Bass) and me on guitar and vocals. We played our launch gig at Depot 48 in New Delhi where we served free Kahwas and we are currently in the process of planning an India tour.
You were born in Srinagar and raised in Pune, but you have a strong connection with your roots. How did you manage to keep your ethnicity alive? When did you move to Pune, and how was life growing up? And how was your reaction like when you found out that you were originally from Srinagar?
I am a Kashmiri that has lived out of the state. I was raised and schooled in Pune. I don’t think that one needs to live in a place for one’s ethnicity to stay alive.
My father’s parents live in Srinagar and my mother’s in Jammu. We would visit them every summer and they would come and live with us in the winters. We grew up in glorious times when there was no trouble in the state and we would share laughter and stories over cups of Kahwa and Nadur Monj (a snack made of Lotus stem) at our grandparents’ homes.
At the height of terrorism in Kashmir around 1991, my grandparents were kidnapped by terrorists and kept in captivity for 45 days. That was a difficult time for all of us, not knowing if we would ever see them again. They were luckily released by the grace of God and the help of the Indian army. Even after this harrowing incident, they chose to go back and live in Srinagar. I still remember their words that rang very true. “Kashmir is our home and will always be.” I think that left quite an impact on me.
As an artist what are the things you strongly feel about? Comment.
I feel strongly about gender equality, equal rights and opportunities for women, not just in the music industry but in every realm of work. I also feel strongly about artists putting responsible music out there for people to consume because the kind of content we’re putting out is knowingly or unknowingly influencing people, so it’s important that the messaging is right.
The most challenging and the most fun track on the album. Why?
I think the most fun track was Hukus Bukus because the track is dynamic and keeps changing throughout the song. It starts off with a funky feel, then goes into a rap section and ends with a metal sound with power chords and a double bass. The band really enjoyed arranging this track. The most challenging was Burning Fire because I wanted to record Tibetan vocals, and getting the Tibetan lyrics right, so it took some time to translate and learn a new language. I went to Majnu ka Tila (A Tibetan colony in Delhi) and found two Tibetan singers to record. Also, the track was created in New Delhi, Dharamshala, Mumbai and Pune, so a lot of coordination was involved.
Plans for the future?
My immediate plan is to take Kahwa Speaks across the world on a world tour with the band and play in different countries taking our message to as many people as we can. I will let the future unfold after that. I have faith in the universe and its ways. (smiles) I’ll keep making music as long as I can and I also plan to take my sound healing workshops to South East Asia in the next year.
Anything we missed that you would like to add?
Yes. We have launched a crowd funding campaign on Ketto to raise money to create visuals and a music video for the audio-visual tour. This is on for another week and we have raised 25 per cent of our goal. We would like to bring this to 100 per cent so please contribute whatever you can and spread the word so that we can spread the message of unity and peace across the world.
Buy the album on Songdew.com here.
Buy the album on iTunes here.
Follow Pragnya Wakhlu for updates here.