The musicians’ new song, ‘Frank Brazil’ is a fitting tribute to the freedom revolutionary who avenged the Jallianwala massacre.
Indian history doesn’t make for great raw material for a ska song. Or so we thought. Delhi-based band The Ska Vengers’ newest offering, a song called ‘Frank Brazil’ is a tribute to Udham Singh. Udham Singh who? No, not the '90s VJ on Channel V. He was the guy who assassinated the infamous General Dwyer, the British police officer who commanded his troops to open fire at the peaceful gathering at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, leaving hundreds dead.
Singh's story is not one that many Indians know about. He was convicted for murder in 1940, and July 31 marked the 75th anniversary of his execution.
“We were intrigued by his personal story. It is a powerful reminder of our colonial history and our brutal relationship with our colonial masters... The story raises important questions in today’s climate. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. His story raises questions about who has the right to legitimately produce violence. Is it the state? The individual? Who can claim the right to take life?” questions the band’s vocalist Samara C.
The video of ‘Frank Brazil’, which uses stark, contemporary black-and-white imagery, has been created by Kunal Sen and Tisha Deb Pillai and it chronicles the two-decade long period post the 1919 massacre till Singh’s execution. The narrative is non-linear, and Sen and Pillai admit that their challenge was to “to depict each phase without using text or dates, but only with colour and animation techniques.”
Apart from the illustration of the milestone incidents, the most gripping part in the video is the oft-repeated sequence that shows Singh walking to the beat of the song. In another section of the video, he is shown lip-syncing to the refrain ‘Send me to the ‘lectric chair’. “This dramatic effect of words and images coming together was exciting as well as magical for us,” say the duo.
The curiously haunting refrain ‘Send me to the ‘lectric chair’ has been inspired by Bessie Smith’s eponymous song from 1958. Samara says that the band chose this particular track as it represents the intriguing genre of murder ballads. “They have a clear narrative and of course a murder (or two), and could be from the point of view of the killer or of the victim. They can be quite macabre but also very witty and sometimes full of double-speak. Often they were real life stories ripped from the headlines and put in to verse,” she informs.
The Ska Vengers aren’t new to sending out political messages through their songs. Their previous track, ‘Modi, A Message To You’, was released in April last year, just ahead of the PM elections. It demanded the then-candidate Modi to “stop your fooling around” and “messing up our future” and that he “should have wound up in jail.”
How important is it for artistes to make their opinions on the state of society/politics count? “In the current state of affairs, where one cannot be sure what to believe, whether it be in the newspapers or on TV or in our history text books, I think it’s important for all people to speak up about what they know to be true,” responds Samara. Especially when the state practises stringent censorship and information control. “Songs have the ability to spread like wild fire,” she says.
‘Badda’, another song from their first album, spoke about the dismal state of our democracy. “The water in my sink run murky murky. Bad politician them is out to hurt me. Never did like the matrix – try come quit cold turkey. The whole a them a come play dirty.”
The band pulls no punches when its brands India a police state. “There is very little freedom; there is constant surveillance and threat of police interference. Who by the way in many cases seem to be a law unto themselves and are only too happy to act above the law.” Has the band’s forthright political statements ever brought any harm to it? “So far it has mostly been internet trolls who wish death upon us and make derogatory remarks.”
The Ska Vengers is currently wrapping up its second album which it plans to release this winter.
All images: The Ska Vengers