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Boogie down with the Bauls of Bengal.

December 1, 2011 \am\31 8:01 am

Even people who have never heard or heard of the Bauls of Bengal – and there are many – have seen them: Two appear on the cover of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.

Extending the Bob connection, the ensemble in 1968 recorded a scarce album, Bengali Bauls at Big Pink, produced by none other than Garth Hudson and issued on Buddah, a label best known for 60s bubblegum acts like the Lemon Pipers.

Closer to the Bauls’ home, the 1913 Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore cited their songs as a significant influence on his poetry.

The Bauls are itinerant minstrels who embrace a philosophy that incorporates elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism.  Their origins are murky, but the word “Baul” appears in Bengali texts from the 15th Century.  The etymology of “Baul” is one of two Sanskrit words, vatula, meaning “afflicted with the wind disease” (i.e., crazy) or vyakula, meaning “restless, agitated.”

The Bauls live solely on their music, accepting whatever charity villagers offer. Theirs are devotional songs containing an undercurrent of melancholy.  The voice of Purna Chandra Das, the primary vocalist on the Bauls’ recordings, has a plaintive quality that contrasts with the songs’ rhythmic urgency.  The Bauls play folk instruments with names like ektara, dotara and kartal.

The Bauls’ introduction to Western ears came in 1966 through, appropriately enough, Elektra, the label of Judy Collins, the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley. Their eponymous Elektra LP is available on CD from Empire Music Group.

In 1970 and 1975, respectively, Nonesuch released two Baul albums, Indian Street Music and The Bengal Minstrel, as part of its glorious Explorer Series, through which many pop-nourished ears had their first tastes of African and Asian music.  “The popular romantic imagination everywhere seeks expression through its chosen bards: we have our Bob Dylans and Leonard Cohens, the Bengalis have their Bauls,” enthuse the liner notes of Indian Street Music.  While the analogy may have been savvy marketing on Nonesuch’s part, Dylan reportedly told Purna Das that he (Dylan) would be “the Baul of America.”

Here’s a track from Indian Street Music.  The following is a partial translation as published in the liner notes:  A thief fell upon the master’s garden / The master is absorbed in sleep / The darwan has kept the key.  (The darwan is a gatekeeper.)

  1. December 1, 2011 \pm\31 10:51 pm 10:51 pm

    We just filmed a day with a Bengali Baul on the train leaving Calcutta towards his hometown, in Shantiniketan. It was a beautiful experience, as we stayed the night with them, did an interview…just beautiful. Here’s the result:

    I hope you enjoy it!

  2. December 1, 2011 \pm\31 11:11 pm 11:11 pm


    Thanks for posting the URL. I tried to watch the video, but it stalled at 16 seconds. There must be something up with my computer. The footage, what little I saw, is beautiful.

    • December 1, 2011 \pm\31 11:41 pm 11:41 pm

      Hey, thanks Joel. It’s definitely the “People’s Favourite”. And yeah, they’re awesome people. They don’t ask for donations on the train (they will accept money, though, if you give them some), and call the process “honey gathering”. They sing spiritual and philosophical songs to open people’s minds, as they believe in a direct relationship with god, with no middlemen needed. And finally, there are depictions of Bauls in the Vedas — this is a very long tradition in India. The song in the video is called “Mon Moti” and is about marrying god. If one of your readers can transcribe the lyrics, I’d love to know what he’s saying!!

  3. December 2, 2011 \am\31 7:40 am 7:40 am

    Honey gathering? I like that. How much footage did you shoot? Maybe you have a documentary in the making.

    • December 2, 2011 \am\31 8:14 am 8:14 am

      Roughly 6,000GB, about 350 hours, I think. You’re right about the documentary:

  4. December 2, 2011 \pm\31 12:00 pm 12:00 pm

    Nice footage. I liked the snippets of Marrakech. By any chance, was that man playing the stringed instrument a Gnawa musician? The music of the Singaporean musicians sounds French.

    • December 2, 2011 \pm\31 12:27 pm 12:27 pm

      He wasn’t a Gnawa musician, or at least he wasn’t playing with the other Gnawas. I guess he might have been. Christ, I don’t know enough about Moroccan music :)

      And yeah, don’t think the Singaporese were playing something local. Still, that’s the beauty of music — like the troubadours of old, street musicians are spreading cultures worldwide…

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