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Dhola Maru. Maharaja. Sounds True STA M114D. Available at most record stores.

They once called themselves Musafir, which means “traveler,” or “pilgrim.” Now they call themselves Maharaja, which, as every westerner knows means “King.” Not the greatest marketing choice, in my opinion. Why change a name which westerners could associate exclusively with the group, and choose one which has probably already been used as a brand name for a curry? Perhaps the group liked the name better. What traveling musicians wouldn’t prefer to call themselves kings? Wasn’t Elvis Presley known as the King, and Robert Johnson called King of the Delta Blues? Ironically, although these pretensions of royalty show them straining to become what they are not, it also reveals their authenticity.

An ethnomusicologist teaching at a New York University must guard constantly against polluting his performance with outside influences if he is to play authentic delta blues or Appalachian ballads. A similar constraint inflicts an Indian computer programmer living in Fremont trying to play authentic Karnatik or Hindustani music. But if you’re born in the Rajasthani desert, and have spent your entire life playing the same music your ancestors played, for the same kind of people they played it for, this is not going to be a problem. The musicians and singers of Maharaja would be the real deal no matter how many rules they broke. In fact it is their ability to break the rules and stay authentic that makes them genuine folk musicians, and not just academic copies. For it is the willingness to break the rules that created all of these different forms of folk music in the first place.

However, an essential element for creating this kind of authenticity is some degree of isolation. When every Indian village is eagerly awaiting the next Bollywood hit, there is a danger that the various regional music will become homogenized, or even completely lost. But ironically, economic demand from the West can help to preserve the diversity first created by isolation. Some Indian villagers may look down on their own music as provincial, but if Westerners find it exotic, it may be preserved by traveling ensembles that take village music to western concert halls.

The main source of Maharaja’s success was, surprisingly a French Gypsy filmmaker named Tony Gatlif. His film “Latcho Drom” had no spoken dialogue, only two hours of Gypsies singing and dancing. The performances, however, occur in a sequence that follows the path of Gypsy migration from Rajasthan to Egypt to Turkey and then across Europe. This enables the audience to experience first hand how the Gypsy’s music changed as they traveled. “Latcho Drom” has a very enthusiastic cult following (I’ve seen it seven times). This inspired the world music institute to create a tour called Gypsy Caravan, which features musicians playing these same kinds of music in concert. And because the Gypsies (or Roma as they are more correctly called) originated somewhere near Rajasthan, Maharaja was chosen to share the bill with Gypsy musicians from Macedonia, Romania, and Spain.

If you read the fine print in Maharaja’s albums and press releases, you will discover that they admit that they are not actually Roma. They are, however, the only group in the Gypsy Caravan tour that includes members who actually performed in “Latcho Drom,” and one of the Rajasthani songs that appears in the film is on their “Dhola Maru” album. Besides, the question of who is and isn’t a gypsy is somewhat academic. The members of Maharaja are genetically and culturally more closely related to Indian gypsies than any gypsy from Macedonia. The Hindi spoken in Rajasthan shares many words and grammatical structures with the Romany language spoken by gypsies. And perhaps most importantly, Maharaja share the Roma trait of knowing how to put on a dazzlingly exotic show. Some may claim that the label “exotic” is patronizing, even insulting. But because the Roma have had no homeland since they left Rajasthan, they have been exotic wherever they traveled, and always traded on that whenever they worked as performers. Also, the enthusiastic ignorance that embraces all forms of exotica is actually a good balance between the vulgar commercialism of pop and the rigid sterility of academic orthodoxy.

The main influence of Maharaja’s music is Qawwali. But because their audience wants them to be as exotic as possible you won’t find them using the saxophones and synthesizers that appear on the mass marketed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan albums. You will however, hear a variety of traditional Rajasthani styles mixed together in new and creative ways-ways which are tolerated by the omnivorous western listeners for whom they all sound equally exotic. The members of Maharaja belong to several different Rajasthani ethnic groups, including the Langa, Manghaniyar, the Sapera and the Toli, and are both Hindus and Muslims. Their act includes snake charming music, contortionists, fire eating, walking on broken glass, and a man cross-dressing as a dancing “girl.” And their use of folk versions of what became classical instruments gives their music a distinctive exuberance. I especially like the sound of their sarangi, which is both edgier and more reverberant than the sarangis used by classical musicians.

Maharaja’s music does not have the polish and discipline of Indian classical music. They did not have the luxury of practicing for decades before they gave their first performances. They had to start performing as soon as possible, to earn their bread. Most of their performances were at celebrations, rather than concerts, where the audience was as likely to shout and clap along as to listen. But they’ve obviously played for a lot of audiences, and have clearly mastered the art of whipping people into a frenzy. Many of the elements of classic music are there, but they are repeated with only subtle changes to create a sense of slowly rising intensity. When combined with the theatrics and dancing of Maharaja’s live performances, the result will definitely be quite a show.


Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.