SOME UNFINISHED BUSINESS WAS LEFT>> About Rabbi <<
Bulla I know not who I am…
Nor did I create the difference of faith
Nor did I create Adam and Eve
Nor did I name myself
English translations of 18th century Sufi poet Bulla Shah's words seem unlikely on a chart-topping Indipop debut album sleeve. But then, everything about Rabbi Shergill is unlikely.
The broadest classification possible for his music is rock, his lyrics Punjabi, his video bereft of belly buttons. His songs flit from Bryan Adams-ish light to Leonard Cohen-esque darkness. He sings Simon and Garfunkel in an autorickshaw, and says, "Chhod yaar [let it be, man]" when you ask him his age.
He even comes walking to the neighbourhood coffee shop with his guitar if you ask him to.
September 30, 1988, Bruce Springsteen (Amnesty's Human Rights Now) concert. That was when the man, whose album has got the pundits and proletariat rooting for it in unison, decided music was it for him. "The sheer power of what rock could do, to be accepted and respected by such a lot of people," he says.
"Those were the wander years. So I wandered. I did that for a long time," he says of the period in Khalsa College, Delhi. He taught himself guitar, "got into hard rock. Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith," idolised Jimmy Page, hung out, wore his hair long rockstar style, saw the world through LSD-coloured glasses.
Why sing in Punjabi then? "Why not?"
"We Jat Sikhs are very proud people. I could never get it out of me. To start thinking in any other language would mean acknowledging its superiority. I would become a poor version of a Western rocker, a wannabe. I can't forget who I am," he says.
Rabbi's father was a Sikh preacher and his mother, a college principal, loved Gurbani kirtan. Rabbi was "very, very influenced by Sikh literature. I grew up reading Gyani Gyan Singh, Kabir's dohas, Shiv Bata... We would have long discussions on poetry. I was listening to rock music and Punjabi spiritual music. It all combusts man. It's the great reality of urban India."
Is that what combusted with his album as well? Is that why it worked?
"I think [it worked] because I was talking about myself, which is a rarity," he says. "Generally somebody else writes the songs for the artists. The artist comes to the studio and tries to pretend in those two minutes. It's the saddest thing."
Rabbi wrote his own songs, and began recording them when he was not making advertising jingles -- "lots of them for Yamaha, Times FM…"
His first demo impressed world music producer Jawahar Wattal. Sony Music wanted to sign him on. "I had differences with Jawahar. I told Sony. They put me on to K J Singh," the man who would produce his debut eponymous album. The two worked on a new demo.
Sony backed out. Knocking on doors began again. Rabbi met Minty Tejpal, brother and business partner of Tehelka editor in chief Tarun Tejpal. The first meeting, Rabbi got drunk and banged his car. Minty helped him out. It was instant chemistry.
"I signed a contract with Tehelka, and started working on my album. Just when the recording was finished, they [tehelka.com] broke the story [of Westend, a sting operation which claimed to expose corruption in defense deals]. All hell broke loose."
Tehelka ran out of money. Rabbi's album was unfinished. Why didn't he approach others? "I'm a lazy bum," Rabbi says, munching on a chocolate almond cake. "I liked Tehelka's maverick way of doing things. I just kept writing more songs, playing more guitar, surfing the Net.
"Struggle is a big word, I didn't have to break my b***s or anything like that," he says. That honesty shone through in his demo. Amitabh Bachchan was one of the first people outside Rabbi's circle of friends to be given a copy, Nobel Laureate Sir V S Naipaul heard him in a car. Rabbi performed at the launch of the Tehelka weekly newspaper.
The demo eventually reached Anand Surapur of Phat Phish records, who signed him on. "I think he (Anand) is also instinctively attracted to de-glamorised real people. That's why we hit it off."
Has glamour changed him? Has his album, being a hit, altered his life?
Not much, he says. Except "my mother, who was very anxious [about his future]. She wanted me to succeed, whatever that means. In her eyes, I am successful. I feel rested."
Rabbi rattles off more unlikely answers. He insists he is "not in the danger of becoming a Bombayite." He considers silence the biggest compliment. "Silence when the other person understands."
Next album? A little way off, he says, "though we have material ready for two more." He wants to play live, and trip on his creative dope — travel.
"Inspiration is a big word. For me, it's the need to write. Solitude is what I require. I get 'stoned' when I go to a new city. It somehow all falls together."
Can honest songwriting jostle for space with the remix rage and overproduced opuscula? Yes, he says. "Record companies need to have conviction. Not go so far away from art."
Thanx to Rediff.com Specials