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A balladeer’s journey

Rabbi Shergill’s quest is to become a ‘complete’ artiste. He tells Shailaja Tripathi Taneja why nothing less will do



Artiste’s angst Rabbi Shergill’s music isn’t simply meant to entertain people but also to make them think Photos (cover and centrespread): K. Murali Kumar and Shanker Chakravarty

What’s with Soumya’s case?” Singer-musician-composer Rabbi Shergill asks as he settles down for the interview. Rabbi has just returned from Europe and the U.S. and is curious to know what really happened to TV journalist Soumya Vish wanathan who was found shot dead in her car in the city. “These things hurt me and affect me. Why did Hemraj kill Aarushi Talwar, if he did? It’s not just about law and order. The reasons are much deeper and social. There are too many desperate people thrown together in the city,” says Indi-pop musician Rabbi.

Through the means of music, Rabbi chooses to express these concerns. In his first album, “Rabbi”, “jugni” was a social critique. In 1965 folk musician Alam Lohar came up with the genre of jugni — songs about woman who travels from one place to another having interesting experiences. Rabbi’s jugni Jugni dekhan chali desh Jide janmay si kadi ved jidon kadyaa si angrez dealt with challenges of survival in these times. In the track, Mera naam Bilquis Yakoob RasoolJinhe naaz hai, hind par vo kahan the from his latest album “Avengi Ja Nahin”, Rabbi talks about “martyrs of system” like whistle blowers Satyendra Dubey, Shanmugham Manjunath and Bilquis Bano — victim of a gang rape in the Gujarat violence. The song ends with the tune of the Indian national anthem. “Belonging to different parts of the city, through these representatives, I tried to cover the whole spectrum,” he explains.

His sister

Having a Sikh preacher for a father and an educationist as a mother, Rabbi grew up listening to scriptures and Sufi poetry, which forms an intrinsic part of his base as an artiste. “I inherited classical Indian literature — Vedant, and love for my language — Punjabi from my grandmother and father. From my mother, I got familiar with modern poetic language. In the mornings, my mother would play Kirtanias — Dilbagh Singh and Gulbagh Singh. My eldest sister, Gagan Gill, the foremost Hindi poet also had an influence on me. I was listening to rock music in school and bands from Austria playing strange music at IIC,” says Rabbi adding that the famous Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi taught him to fall in love with himself. “He spoke my language,” he says.

Poetry was the mainstay of his debut album “Rabbi” which came out in 2005. The first track of the album Bulla ki jaana main kaun was originally penned by Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah whom he had discovered through Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. Also, a Sikh interpreting Sufi poetry in a modern context with a lot of western arrangements went down extremely well with the listeners. Rabbi had arrived. He was branded as the “Sufi rocker.”

Latest album

So what about his latest album “Avengi Ja Nahin” which was available on Nokia’s select N Series range before its hard copy was released this year. “With this album, I wanted to chase the concept of world class live album. In India, when you give someone tadka, and then give them exotic sushi, people won’t like it. After “Bulla”, people started expecting stuff from me to which they could give their own spin, something vague which could fit in any situation but “Avengi Ja Nahin” is a straight-on love song. An artiste’s job is to do what he wants to do and not listen to others. Sometimes, I will entertain people and sometimes I won’t,” says Rabbi in a matter-of-fact manner.

In both “Rabbi” and “Avengi Ja Nahin” Rabbi had composed and written all the songs in the album himself. “I look up to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler as true artistes. They complete the whole circle. I take myself very seriously as a man of letters, as an instrumentalist. How many people write and compose their own songs?” he asks.

Despite the rough patch that independent music is going through, the artiste loves it for the freedom it gives him to experiment. “Independent music is very creative and stimulating. What can you express with film music except the same old love and romance,” says Rabbi. By composing and writing lyrics for “Delhi Heights” and singing a song in “Waisa Bhi Hota Hai,” Rabbi opened his account in Bollywood but isn’t very keen on the genre.

“I never wanted to become a film musician for film music doesn’t excite me. I am excited by working in a studio with people with whom I share musical references. But it’s unfortunate that independent music in India has just died. The Rs.400-crore industry has shrunk to a 60-crore industry because music companies and channels are chasing short-term profits and that’s why consistent outflow of talent isn’t going to happen,” rues Rabbi. However, with Rabbi going strong, hope is still around.

The musician finds resonance in anarchism. At present, he is helping one of the leading Western anarchists, John Zerzan, organise public discourses in India.

He wrote the "Tere Bin" song for his father after he passed away.

After his first album "Rabbi" he pursued a course in sound in London.

Quite keen on writing, as a hobby, Rabbi even writes film scripts. So far, he has written three.

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