Whether he performs to a motley audience of families and children in Cubbon Park or to a politically charged gathering of Dalit activists and students in Hyderabad or to a boisterous gang of migrant workers from Bihar, Balu Djembe (known thus for the percussion instrument, djembe that he plays) immediately sets the audience grooving to his folk beats and stirs them into a collective celebration and engagement.
“Music is something that connects people beyond any language.
Even songs have words and lyrics in one language, but Djembe is beyond language.”
It is perhaps this realisation that brings Balu in immediate connection to people across languages, castes, communities and regions. Just the sound of djembe becomes a call to come together and be together – a space that Balu opens through art and music.
Growing up in a village in Karnataka in an agricultural family, Balu was always fascinated with music. He would make musical instruments out of objects from his daily life and play them. Perhaps he was always waiting to find an instrument like djembe which he could make his own. He recalls a moment when he got hold of a traditional drum known as dhappu. Dhappu, is played by slinging it from one shoulder using a strap or holding it close to the chest vertically, but instead of playing it traditionally, Balu placed it horizontally between his legs and started playing it with his bare hands, the way djembe is played – an instrument he found eventually and has been playing for the past ten years.
Balu dropped out of school after 7th standard and started doing odd jobs to sustain his music. He worked in a popcorn manufacturing unit in Kerala, with the waterproofing systems at UB City, and drove taxi, ferrying people to and from the Bangalore airport – all this to sustain his music.
Encountering John Devraj, the famous artist, musician, theatre person and cultural activist, at a youth camp was instrumental to Balu’s practice as a musician. Through him, Balu not only received the much needed guidance and encouragement, but also deepened his political consciousness to use art for greater social purpose.
Infusing a streak of protest in his beats, he plays for various Dalit activist groups like Karnataka Dalit Sangathana, Bheem Drum etc. to culturally raise a cry against caste exploitation.
“I don’t hold any official position in any of these groups. I am an artist. In their protest, my job is to play the djembe and bring communities together. I don’t do this commercially.”
Balu’s practice has consciously redefined the idea of protest. His choice to use leather skin instruments is an active assertion of the Dalit pride and identity. He considers playing folk music as an important form of protest, a political statement in itself. In folk music, Balu sees something primordial and immediate, an experience which is not hindered by the elitism and casteism of classical music. He believes that music should not be restricted to a particular community and instead should act as a platform to share each other cultural experience.
In 2012, Balu formed the ‘Indian Folk Band’ – a group of percussionists, folk singers and theatre artists who are bound by their belief in art as a form of cultural resistance and social change.
“Indian Folk Band, unlike most classical musical groups is not a family enterprise. There is a tendency to collaborate only with your own kin and that is very limiting and against the spirit of music.”
The team of Indian Folk Band lives and practices together in a house that they have rented together in Hebbal, Bangalore, and have established themselves as full time folk artists in a city where indigenous cultural forms are either exoticised or ignored.
To bring wider recognition and appreciation of folk forms is the vision of Indian Folk Band.
It is not that they are formally rigid or enclosed in a singular tradition. They always seek innovation but resist appropriation into dominant musical genres and forms. Djembe itself is a West-African instrument and Balu picked its Reggae beats (also known for the spirit of resistance) by himself through observation and now plays them alongside the folk beats of Dollu Kunita, Nandi Kolu etc. In the various folk forms of India, they see a possibility of exchange, dialogue and connections being formed. It is their dream that through sharing the formal and cultural knowledge of these forms and understanding their significance they can provide a counter to the highly segregated and exclusive classical music traditions of India.
“People of Kerala do not know about Karnataka’s Dollu Kunita and we here do not know about Kerala’s folk form of Chende. There should be a Folk Institute where we can all together learn the various folk forms and explore the possibilities”
In this vision of Indian Folk Band lies a greater thrust to bridge differences, come together and present a rich progressive cultural milieu drawn from our common way of life and driven by values of equality and justice.