The Politically Charged Voice Of The Casteless Collective Uses Music To Break Barriers

The Politically Charged Voice Of The Casteless Collective Uses Music To Break Barriers

Music has long been one of the most powerful and universally accessible tools for political protest and self-expression. As a form of social activism, it stirs civic consciousness and often produces and dispels knowledge and solidarity across borders, drawing in attention and opening up a dialogue about the current state of affairs in regions under repressive regimes, or those curbed by censorship laws and a lack in freedom of speech. “The whole world has evolved around oral discourse. People would tell tales using music, music for time immemorial has been one of the most effective tools for communication. It is a phenomenal medium. What adds to this power is if the message being imparted is to do with root level issues. When music itself is added to other meaningful aspects it becomes all the more powerful,” said Tenma, music producer and co-founder of The Casteless Collective, in a conversation with Homegrown.

The Casteless Collective is the brainchild of filmmaker and social equality activist Pa. Ranjith and Tenma. India’s largest political ensemble band, The Casteless Collective is a 19-member collective that aims to bring about change with respect to equality and fraternity through music. The band consists of Gana singers and musicians including rappers from Dharavi and Chennai as well as independent Rock musicians. What started off as a residency by Maras Records has now come to be a musical revolution. The Casteless Collective’s voice is rooted in gana – a form of music that is written, composed and performed by the working class of North Madras.

An Unlikely Association

The ban is made up of four rappers, seven instrumentalists and eight Gana musicians. “70 percent of the members have not completed school. 80 percent have no musical education. Their music has been adapted as a means of survival,” explained Tenma. “We wanted these musicians to work with musicians who have been trained in jazz and rock. I wanted the whole process to be a process of learning and unlearning. To build an education cycle around the band,” he added.

Tenma audition 150 musicians, out of which 19 were shortlisted to join the band. “Over the years, music has become elitist. But when people who aren’t “supposed” to do this, do it and do it really well, that is when magic is created – it is raw and untouched. Notes and pitch was secondary during selection, what did matter was sincerity,” said Tenma while talking about the selection process.

Tenma, who himself grew up in a slum in north Madras – Pursawalkam, talks about how he acted as a link between the diverse groups of musicians working together. “I grew up in a middle class area, somewhere between what are describe as priveleged and underpriveleged sections by the society. I grew up listening to both forms of music, gana as well as jazz. I could speak both languages, musically and conversationally. Since I had enough musical education, I could build the bridge between these two very diverse worlds of music,” he said.

The Casteless Collective has come a long way from being a group of strangers from varied backgrounds coming together to create music. “ We are like family now. I have been a musician long enough and have seen how bands break mainly because of ego dynamics. I wanted to keep an encouraging environment. I run it like a school. If you come late, you have to apologise to everybody. If you make a mistake you get fined INR 5. If there is a gig, the weakest performer buys inner that day. Whoever messes up usually comes forward on their own,” he said.

20 Songs In 20 Days

The first step was to make both groups get acquainted with each others backgrounds, everything seemed to fall into place when the songwriting and jamming actually began. So much so that the band put together 20 songs in a span of 20 days. “There were days when we’d create four songs in one day. Even today, people make requests, they suggest topics they’d like us to address and we very comfortably can produce a piece in its entirety in 24 hours,” said Tenma

Pertinent Subject Matters And An Unconventional Approach

The Casteless Collective’s debut album ‘Magizhchi’ (which translates to joy and happiness) was launched at the Vaanam Arts Festival on December 31, 2018. A politically charged work of art to say the least, the album sheds on pertinent subject matters from reservations and manual scavenging to slum politics and the beef ban. These issues are addressed using innovative approaches. For example, one track that voices anti-establishment sentiments has been created using a children’s jingle as a reference point, while another track is conceptualized using traditional stylistic properties of funeral music. All tracks are recorded in echo chambers – a one-of-a-kind approach in which all musicians are put in a chamber in order to record percussion.

A Harmonious Coming Together Of Intersectional Art Forms Met With Overwhelming Responses

“Initially, the name of the band attracted a lot of attention. But Ranjith told us to be prepared for the worst. He asked us not to expect too much, but we were just excited that we had a new group of friends who we’d perform with. However, the response of unexpectedly overwhelming. The performance move people to tears. We didn’t expect that at all,” explained Tenma. “This one time when we were performing in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, a man came up to me and asked me if I was Tenma. He said “I will not comment on your music, you know that that is really good, but I hope you live a really long life.” I will never forget that. No one has ever said something even close to that to me. Music got me that,” recalled Tenma when asked to recall the most memorable feedback he has ever received.

“People have never experienced portrayal of intersectional art such as this. That’s what moves them. There have been times when my t-shirt is drenched with audience members’ tears. Our set up is modest but the responses are phenomenal. The overwhelming emotional exchange is what makes it all special,” he said.

But how would he sum up all that The Casteless Collective stands for? “In the words of Tom Waits – The Casteless Collective sing about “Bitter truths in beautiful melodies”,” signed off Tenma.

Click here to follow The Casteless Collectives.

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