The Ska Vengers share the stories behind their songs
Not really into ska? You will be after this
Few bands in the independent music scene are as resolutely political – and as popular – as The Ska Vengers. The eight-piece band from Delhi contextualises international genres like ska, reggae, and hip-hop to the subcontinent with their lyrics and references. The Ska Vengers continue to, as one of their songs goes, kick up a rumpus, and this rumpus is taking them to Britain to the Secret Garden Party, Boomtown and Bestival in August and September.
Their latest, widely anticipated album, XX, released on July 1 – this time packing more politics, punk and punch. Arriving four years after their eponymous debut in 2012, XX is everything a fan has waited for the band to become – ever more audacious, angry and entirely danceable. Their music is best experienced live, but while you’re plugging into their Bandcamp stream waiting for them to come tour at your city, we’ve got Taru Dalmia (Delhi Sultanate/MC), Stefan Kaye (keyboardist) and Tony Guinard (bassist) to tell us the stories behind some of the songs.
Taru Dalmia: Frank Brazil is an alias of Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh, who travelled to England in 1934 to assassinate Sir Michael O’Dwyer whom he held responsible for the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. Like many of our freedom fighters, there has been attempt by the Sangh Parivar to appropriate this figure, conventionally trying to mask over the fact that he was an atheist with a communist ideology and was fiercely secular. Upon his arrest, Udham Singh took the name Muhammad Singh Azad to incorporate the various religions of the subcontinent. Begum X’ vocals are an adaption of Bessie Smith’s murder ballad ‘Send Me To The L’Ectric Chair’ we felt the theme and lyrical content of this piece were apt.
Stefan Kaye: This is the first and only song from the album to have been released already, put out a year ago along with an animated video. With help from sound engineer and co-producer Paul Schneiter, we introduced a Punjabi folk element – with the one-string instrument, ‘tumbi’, that can be heard in many bhangra songs as well as the dhol and dholak. I poached a couple of French and Catalan players I had watched perform in the orchestra pit for an opera production at Kamani Auditorium. I brought in a violin teacher from a Mussoorie music school and a cellist who was slightly tone deaf but somehow managed to fashion a string quartet for the outro. I like the idea of contrasting this with a Western classical-style string arrangement since I felt that it could represent British and Punjabi cultures that are alluded to in the lyrics. To give it a more contemporary twist (and because The Ska Vengers are a contemporary sounding band!) the song deploys a hip-hop style rhythm section with Jamaican-style vocal delivery from Delhi Sultanate.
Tony Guinard: I think I was listening to some Nigerian music when I came up with that hook that became the trumpet line throughout the song.
Taru Dalmia: The album is named after this track. Delhi Sutanate’s part of the lyrics for this song were written in 2011, originally for a Word Sound Power project song with Naxal balladeer Gaddar. I had visited Telangana (Hyderabad) just a few months after Kishenji had been murdered by the Indian state. The official story was that this was an encounter killing, but Kishenji’s body was found with marks of severe torture and I believe that the state version of the story is a lie. Gaddar was close friends with Kishenji, who was also a singer and poet. We wanted to write a song about Kishenji, so Gaddar packed us off in a car to visit the village of his birth Peddapalli. We met his mother and people who knew him before he went underground. Many people allege that Mamata Banerjee was involved in his murder, the lyrics allude to this. The song came together for The Ska Vengers about three years back when we were jamming in the studio and Tony had a bassline that made me remember the lyrics. The Word Sound Power version of the song features vocals by Gaddar but has not yet been released.
Taru Dalmia: I was in Shillong, visiting film-maker Tarun Bhartiya, who first made me aware of a roughneck Bangladeshi singer called Pothik Nobi, and his song ‘Makki Gira’. Pothik himself had spent time in jail, and his song is obviously built on an earlier song from the freedom struggle, about comrades being locked up in Central Jail. We took Pothik’s theme. Stefan developed the music and I wrote fresh lyrics. So many people around us have been arrested in recent times – Professor Saibaba, The students of JNU, Soni Sori, Jiten Marandi, the singers of Kabir Kala Manch.
Tony Guinard: The song is about intelligence and surveillance. The style alludes to ’60s spy movie soundtracks with perhaps the biggest debt owed to Bollywood movie Jewel Thief. Stefan came up with a section that was meant to sound like the music for an RD Burman number with an item dance number from Helen. We threw in a theremin, punk sounding guitar and something recorded off a radio news bulletin to create a masala of sorts.
Taru Dalmia: We are at war and controlling information is of crucial importance. We say, be mindful of where you get your information from. The media is owned so watch where you get your news from. Plus, a paranoid state is ever increasing its surveillance and attempts to control people’s thoughts and utterances.
Stefan Kaye: It started off as a song that me, Nikhil (Vasudevan, drums, backing vocals) and Tony’s other band The Jass B’stards would play. Taru started rapping over the top and it became Ska Venger-fied. It is the only song on the album which is mostly improvised. We are currently producing a video for this song that features a brilliant Russian ballerina wearing a coat of white paint and little else.