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When Indian American rapper Nimesh (Nemo) Patel went to back to his ancestral home for the first time, he arranged to teach in an Ahimsa program at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He thought he was going to stay for a week, but ended up teaching children bhajans for three months. “He kept sending me emails thanking me, saying that this was the greatest experience of his life,” says Project Ahimsa organizer Robin Sukhadia.
Founded in 2001 in response to the violent attacks on Sikhs and South Asians after 9/11, Project Ahimsa has devoted itself to empowering youth through community-based music education. Ahimsa began by providing music instruments and instruction in Gujarat and West Bengal for poor and handicapped children, and now provides grants for music education programs all over the world.
As part of the program, Nemo recorded an album with five of his best students in a professional Pro Tools studio. The album, called Let them Sing, became the basis of a musical project which added a whole new dimension to Ahimsa’s mission.
Sukhadia could sense that the emotional authenticity of these simple tracks (child vocals with harmonium and tabla) made them great raw material for remixes. He proposed that Project Ahimsa sponsor a contest for DJs and engineers, in which individual tracks from the Pro Tools files would be available for download, and each contestant could add new tracks or processing to make their own personal statements. The winners would be featured on an album, and the profits would go to help Project Ahimsa’s charities for poor and handicapped children. “Over a period of 6 months, we got many submissions from all over the world,” says Sukhadia. “We sent it to our friends who sent it to their friends, and it became kind of a viral thing.” From there, it seemed natural to expand the project to reflect the many other aspects of Project Ahimsa’s mission.
Internationally known musicians have been doing benefits for Project Ahimsa ever since its inception. Many of them, including Michael Franti of Spearhead, Sly and Robbie, and Ghanian pop star Rocky Dawuni, offered to donate some of their best studio tracks. Sukhadia and his musical partner, JBoogie, traveled to India and made more recordings of children’s music classes with a hand held digital recorder. A five hundred dollar grant enabled a Project Ahimsa school in Nicaragua to charter a bus, take 30 kids to the capital city, rent recording time, and pay for lunch for everyone.
Oakland-based Youth Movement Records, involved with Project Ahimsa for years, provided the perfect intermediary between the young child-musicians in developing nations and the professional musicians who donated tracks. Youth Movement Records releases recordings by talented underprivileged adolescents, whom they have trained in music and electronic engineering, many of whom are on the verge of becoming stars in their own right. One such singer, Coco Peila, wrote, sang, and multi-tracked the instruments for her song “Any Day Now.” The video for the song, which was commissioned by YouthNoise, a web-based non-profit, as part of a campaign to raise awareness about body image, has had over 20,000 hits on YouTube. Another young musician, Erica Nalani, uses rap-influenced phrasing and rhymes over a simple but eloquent acoustic guitar part in her song “Back to Guahan.”
These diverse elements, along with many others, have become the albumGlobal Lingo, blended together seamlessly by the engineering talents of DK Bollygirl and Dimmsummer.
With so many different featured artists, who should go on the cover?
Who else but fourteen-year-old Ganesh Barriya. It’s not just that he was one of the original children on the Let them Sing album that started it all. It’s also that his sweet childlike voice—sampled, looped, backed by drum machines, and sometimes electronically processed—is featured on more tracks than any other performer. Ganesh is no Michael Jackson, which is probably a good thing. What he has is raw talent on the verge of maturing, and an innocence and enthusiasm that shines through the processing and remixing that ornaments his performances.
Ganesh’s life has not been easy. The eldest of five children, he lives with his family in a one room tin shack with no furniture. His father works as a rag picker, and Ganesh had dropped out of school and was going down a similar path. Thanks to the Gandhi Ashram, he is now involved with the “Earn and Learn” program that first exposed him to Project Ahimsa’s music classes. “We are opposed to child labor, but this program makes the best of a very bad situation,” says Sukhadia. “If Ganesh didn’t earn some sort of money, his family could not afford to let him go to school. With this program, he works only a few hours a day, in very safe and healthy conditions, and he is learning a skill which enables him to earn much more per hour than his father. The rest of his time can be devoted to education, and he is now on track to go to college. His love of music is what keeps him coming back to school. His family is very proud of him. They have copies of his two albums on their wall, and his friends treat him like a celebrity.”
Does Ganesh’s story have a happy ending? Probably, but the story is still being written. “There are definitely moral challenges involved with the sale of this album,” says Sukhadia. “We are very careful not to exploit Ganesh and the other children on the album. They’re all still very poor, there’s no getting around that. We have set up accounts to support their future careers. At the same time, Project Ahimsa needs finances to reach out to other children like Ganesh. Like all of our work, this album shows that music can transform people’s lives in so many ways. This album is both a means to that end, and a beautiful musical end in itself.”
Global Lingo is available for sale at http://www.protectahimsa.org
Teed Rockwell, a student of Ali Akbar Khan, is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.