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Thu, 21 Nov 2019

Northeast Today

Hitting the right notes, In conversation with Joi Barua

Hitting the right notes, In conversation with Joi Barua
October 22
16:28 2019

Pritisha Borthakur

In today’s hyper-connected world, with cultures crossing international and regional boundaries, it’s no surprise that music, too, is transcending barriers of language to win over hearts of connoisseurs across the globe. Closer home, regional music, too, is coming out of the shadows and becoming popular. From Assamese folk to Meghalaya’s Khasi Opera to Nagaland’s rock and roll, music from the North Eastern region is slowly finding its groove and place on the world stage. And the people behind it are some ardent musicians who are working tirelessly to make it popular.

Assam’s pride, Joi Barua needs no introduction, but the sheer breadth and depth of his versatility and contribution to music, does bear recounting. In both music and manner, Joi has always registered — from afar, anyway — as smooth, sophisticated, and impeccably well-connected.

Singer, composer, lyricist, producer: Joi has been all these, switching hats, or wearing them together, to dazzle audiences for over two decades now. His versatility is seen in his works; in music that transcends genres; a discography spanning rock, soul, jazz, folk and world music.

His prodigious talent was recognised at the age of seven when he won the first school singing competition by performing the popular Cliff Richard’s song “Bachelor Boy”. Encouraged to sing and take part in stage acts actively by his school principal, Sister Mabilia, Joi went on to not only fulfil his passion but surpass all expectations.
Joi’s name – other than his band “Joi” – has been associated in several notable Bollywood projects: 2010’s Filmfare Award winner (Soundtrack) Udaan, National Film Award winner Dev D, Jannat 2, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, No One Killed Jessica, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, Gangster, Jab We Met, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Bhagam Bhaag, Munna Bhai series, Margarita with a Straw, and the latest being Laila Majnu as music composer. The many years in the industry have only brought a depth and thoughtfulness to his musicianship, while retaining his signature clarity and sparkle.

 

In a tête-à-tête, Joi Barua shares about his early life, struggles, inspirations, ongoing and upcoming projects, and so much more! Read on.

 

When did you decide to take music as your career? If not a singer, who would Joi have been now?
Probably a little after college. I was a bit apprehensive. Even though music was the one and only passion, I was used to singing in English and Assamese. Bollywood was a far cry. So there was a hell lot of confusion. If not a singer … I don’t know. But there was a lot of interest in mathematics and psychology. So, I really don’t know!

What defines your music style? Languages you are fluent in?
My music is pretty open ended, but probably woven around an attitude of rock and power. I like that. Strong stories and moods influence me. I like to pass on this energy to the listeners. Give them a moment. Take them away from everything.

What’s your opinion on the current music scene in the Hindi film industry?

I am a part of it. It’s a great place. And a great time to be. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of variance. A huge melting point, I would say: the party’s only getting started.

Do you think Assamese folk music has the potential to draw the attention of the listeners in other parts of India?

Of course it has. Our folk music has a universal appeal, and not just in India.

Many musicians, once they go national/global, don’t really feel the need to make regional music. What makes you stick to your roots, despite being a known name in the Indian music industry?

I am inspired by home. The farther I go, the more I am. It probably comes out loud of what the heart is looking for all the time. But then, heritage has already fascinated me. How are we so different and then trying to be the same? The untold stories of conflict, identity and pride have been nagging me for a long while. One is a function of the very society you might not like to think of it that way. But then, how have we arrived at where we are today? This question takes me back home each and every time, and out of this, hopefully.

What are the biggest hurdles in making regional music? Do you think it works well commercially?
I think the biggest hurdles are the lack of self-awareness and probably the lack of self-respect. Of course it works commercially, but like everything else, it requires commitment and dedication.

You’re a mentor to several artists from the northeast. Things an aspiring artist should keep in mind?
I don’t think I’m a mentor, but I like to meet people with right ideas, musicianship and commitment. An artist can be many things, and there are many ways to do music and many ways to be an artist. I would say, to each his own. I don’t think there’s anything for me to kind of add there. What works for me might not work for somebody else, and definitely, I’m not in a position to advise. People do different things; different scopes, different work.

Name few young bands/independent artists doing well in and outside Assam? And what makes them different from the rest?
I’ve loved Shankuraj Konwar’s work. I’ve known him for some time; before he came to Bombay. I think I’m liking the whole sound of this band, Bottle Rockets – Arghadeep is an actor, which I think, helps him to bring in a little more into the way he sings. I like Arup Jyoti Baruah’s work and his band Cultivators. He is a very original artist. I believe that he can do very differently from what has been done in the folk genre. He brings a very different soul to the music. I’ve loved Nilotpal’s work. Anurag Saikia is doing great, and with his project Borgeet, he’s taking it to the next level. I have not heard it, but I’m sure it will be amazing. These are few people, I think I really liked in recent times.

Your work in Imtiaz Ali directed film Laila Majnu has been appreciated nationally and globally. How did this project happen? Were you expecting such fantastic responses from the audience?

Imtiaz Ali has been very appreciative of my work since my first album, Looking out of the Window. He has mentored me on my first meeting, on a film that has still not been launched, with John Abraham. He has taken a peculiar liking to the way I bring folklore into contemporary music. He seemed pretty interested with the thought of not losing the soul overall, and moving forward with the sound in terms of presentation. That is the reason he got me into Laila Majnu. He felt, Kashmiri music, the land and the people are beautiful and special, and that the music could be a one degree approach from an outsider’s perspective, and make it really fresh all over again. Bollywood has worked in Kashmir, Kashmiri music has come to Bollywood; but I guess an outsider’s perspective to understanding story and understanding sound was what we were looking for. That they all liked it; though it was a subtitled film. I’m grateful for the reception, I’m grateful that everyone liked it.

What are your ongoing and upcoming projects?
I’m in working two films here at the moment, in Bollywood; in advertising, in couple of films; and on my own album. Also I’m involved for the last 1-2 on a project with one of the foremost scientist that deals with the future of science, inanimate objects – things coming to life, and part of the work is chronicled through music. We’ve recorded songs at Abbey Road. You’d probably be getting them on Spotify and other international distribution mediums, and I’m really looking forward for the part of the music that’ll be recorded with London Philharmonic in November. Working with the London Philharmonic, I guess, it’s every musicians dream. I think, I’m extremely lucky to be a part of this, at this stage of my career. And, as we speak we’re probably two months away from that date in November.

Tell us about the team and Assamese projects you’re associated with?

My original set of people would always be there; Ibson Lal Baruah, Abani Tanti, Pawan Rasaily, Manas Chowdhury and Partho Goswami. Of late I have been working with Manasquam Mahanta, Pranay Saikia and Sagar Saurabh. Planning to get a few more into pool.

I had recently released the Assamese song, Nedekha Xutare – a song that carves a road through friendship and the politics that we find ourselves entangled in. A diverse and intoxicating mix of soul, rock and hip-hop, this song truly defines my personality. And I owe the success of this number to Ravi Sarma for bringing along his saxophone brilliance, Ibson Lal Baruah for his magical lyricism, Priyanku Bordoloi for his mad guitars, Kaushik Saikia for his banging skins and Poran Borkatoky for getting this all together.
Another song, Moi Bhagora Nai, from Parthajit Baruah’s directed film Chiaroscuro is close to my heart. The story is fantastic, and so is Parthajit – a man with immense knowledge and vision.
Prior to that I worked on Bornodi Bhotidai. Anupam Kaushik Borah has done a brilliant job. This is one fascinating movie, I have watched in recent times and am really proud to have been involved in.

 What are your thoughts on collaboration with young and aspiring bands/independent artists?

I am not looking at mutual benefits. When I had come to Bombay, I had got immense help from Zubeen Garg and Jatin Sharma. I am just passing on the traditions; being helpful to people who need it. I’m not looking for paid acts; rather looking to cultivate a community which is thinking a little beyond individual benefit. I had formed a community called The Sunshine Society in Jorhat in an attempt to encourage artists and give them a platform to share and discuss ideas. And I am glad to see several emerging people coming out of the Sunshine Society.

What change do you wish to see in the Assamese music industry?

In terms of aesthetics, we are going through times where people need to question when and where the need be. Couple of guys can do it and bring in the change. Rather than just music, I want to see the artistic personality. Personality driven music is what appeals me and that’s what I would love to see from our people

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