Ami Dang Translates Folklore With A Heady Spin Of Sitar And Synthesisers On 'Parted Plains'
11 September 2019
Ami Dang might not remember, but in 2011, during an interview with Baltimore Sun, she inadvertently predicted her music career. “I’d love to do an album that’s all house and dance songs and one that’s more pop and one that’s just hymns that are electronically produced,” she was quoted as saying in the article, published shortly before the release of her debut album 'Hukam'.
I agree it's a bit of a stretch to club 'Hukam' under “house and dance songs”, since it took a more experimental, contemporary, global-pop approach (though several of the tracks were certainly danceable) but the rest of Amrita "Ami" Kaur Dang's statement resounds perfectly with the work that followed. 'Uni Sun' is decidedly the most pop-centric album released by the South Asian-American, Baltimore-based vocalist, sitarist, and producer thus far. And 'Parted Plains', her latest work which was released last month on Leaving Records, could be (very) loosely construed as electronic hymns of sorts, if Indian classical ragas and folklore can be considered spiritual influences, and if the sound of the album, which circles around entrancing ambient soundscapes, is factored into the equation.
Dang describes 'Parted Plains' as “a new sort of soundtrack for a yet-to-be written folktale that is neither Eastern nor Western, nor traditional or contemporary – but somewhere in between”. The context here is of utmost importance, because the album is conceptually inspired by South Asian and Middle Eastern folktales, specifically Flora Annie Steele's 'Tales of the Punjab: Folklore of India', the tragic romances of Sohni Mahiwal, Sassi Punnu, Heer Ranjha, and Mirza Sahiba, and by selected stories from 'One Thousand and One Nights'. And of course, Dang's own Punjabi heritage is a key figure in the album, which not only led her to the stories in the first place but caused her to form a resilient, unbreakable bond with the stories.
“I was engaged at the time I was working on the record – I'm now married – and my husband's a white American guy; not Sikh, not Indian. So, as you can understand, my parents weren't exactly thrilled about it initially,” she tells me over Skype, speaking from a hotel lobby in Cleveland, Ohio, where she played a show the previous night as part of her extensive tour across the United States. “I think at some point, I came across the stories of Soni Mahiwal and the like, and I started thinking about how a lot of these traditions we know, and these stories that are kind of like Romeo and Juliet, they're not as deeply buried in the past as I think people in the west like to think. Of course, for me, all's well that ends well. I got married, and everyone's happy, and it's not a big deal. But it was a big deal for a little while, and that got me reflecting on how some of these attitudes are still pervading through a lot of the Punjabi Sikh communities, and on many other immigrant and religious communities.”
For those not in the know, the stories of Soni Mahiwal, Sassi Punnun, Mirza Sahiba, and Heer Ranjha, though varied, all follow the classic Romeo and Juliet pattern – lovers torn apart by societal norms and differences (such as caste and class) and parental pressure, who die or are killed for their love, and are ultimately only reunited in death. It's not difficult to see where Dang might have found resonance in her own experience, albeit in a much milder form (and with a happy ending) and why the stories cast such a spell on her. And as she stated, while one may be tempted to perceive such practices as a thing of the past, especially situated in modern America, it's a stark reality that continues to pervade communities across the world, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East. To be faced with this reality in the western context might even stir up one's awareness of their diaspora, and force a shift in perspective. Perhaps that's one of the reasons Dang was drawn particularly to Flora Anne Steel's interpretations of Punjabi folktales, as they view the folklore through a Western lens.
“Steel's a British writer, and she visited India some 100-150 years ago. From what I understand, she spent time in Punjab, talked to the local people, and then transcribed some of these stories,” Dang tells me, briefly digressing to tell me the intrepid, violent story of Bopoluchi, which inspired the track by the same name on 'Parted Plains'. “Apart from the stories, I was interested in reading Steel's annotations, footnotes and stuff, where she talks about how she chose to translate certain things. And she literally transliterated in those footnotes, on the original Punjabi to English, which to me was fascinating. It's intriguing to see how she chose to translate things. Every translator makes certain choices, but I do think that with a lot of these stories, like 'Tales of the Punjab' and 'One Thousand and One Nights', those British translations from over a century ago, they took pretty severe liberties to adapt and change things for the audience they were writing them for. So it's just interesting to think of all the things that get lost in translation.”
So while it was nostalgic memories from Dang's childhood that compelled her to revisit these stories, it was partly the complicated process of translation that made her stay, and that drove her to make 'Parted Plains'. “For me, it was the connection between the stories, and playing sitar and using electronics to sort of... almost like I'm another translator,” she muses.
Don't expect to find line-by-line aural translations of the folktales. Dang admits the inspiration was more conceptual and abstract, and if you pay attention, you can observe it littered about the immersive, heady, ambient soundscapes of the record: on 'Sohni', in the undulating, gurgling urgency of the sitar that mimics the river Sohni and her lover Mahiwal drown in; in 'Bopoluchi', the ominous, sinister bass belies a paranoia that relays perfectly the dark themes of the original story, which tells the tale of a young orphaned girl who is compelled to brutally kill a thief who tries to deceive her into marrying him, as well as his mother and three of his compatriots; in the hesitation on 'Make Enquiry', and the solemn introspection on 'Souterrain'.
Dang describes her music as “a sort of tonal landscape; kind of meditative and psychedelic; not psych, but psychedelic, and not trance, but entrancing.” There's a dark, uneasy mood crafted by the layered synth atmospheres, which is amplified by the reverb and delay on her sitar excursions. It's almost as if the music were the result of Dang thinking out loud and sonically recreating her stream of consciousness while contemplating over the tragic lovers, over Prince Achmed, Princess Aubergine. Which, for all we know, may just be the case. While producing the music for the record, for most tracks Dang first worked with the DAWs, MIDIs and synthesisers (not analog) to produce the electronic terrain, and then improvised over it with her sitar. For a couple of tracks, a single take was all it took. But the process differed when it came to tracks like 'Stockholm Syndrome', 'Raiments' and 'Love-liesse', which were derived from a live score that Dang worked on in 2018, alongside other musicians, for a 1926 animated film 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed'.
“In the story of 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed', there is this whole narrative of the prince (who rides a flying horse) where he lands up in this magical, enchanted land, sees this fairy princess, and falls in love with her. And then he captures her,” Dang animatedly tells me. “Then at one point, a sorcerer captures her from Prince Achmed, steals her away and tries to sell her to the Emperor of China, from where the prince ends up saving her. Ultimately, even the princess falls in love with the prince, and she's so happy to be saved by him... but originally he had also captured her. 'Stockholm Syndrome' is purely a reference to that notion of falling in love with your captor, a kind of tale that is so pervasive. And while I'm referring to the Orientalist themes of these stories, there's also a lot of sexist themes I had to deal with, and in a lot of these fairy tales.”
Translating such themes to instrumental music could be a daunting task, but Dang's sitar channels the pain in its own, distinct voice, mapping abstract, yet evocative narratives with discernible shifts in tone, guided by the expressive moods of the MIDIS and synths. On several portions of the album, the sitar almost seems to be in mourning, as if overwrought by the pain and morbidity of the tragedies and weighed by the plight of the world.
Those listening to the album for a soothing, psychedelic experience may thus find themselves disappointed. The title of the album should have been the first clue. In an interview with Baltimore Magazine, Dang elaborated the meaning behind 'Parted Plains': “I was thinking a lot about this East-meets-West, traditional-meets-contemporary, analog-meets-digital, acoustic-meets electronic, all of these various dichotomies and disparities. My family is mostly from Delhi, but has descended from Punjab, with many people originally from villages in what is now modern-day Pakistan, which before partition was all India, and the South Asian subcontinent. I visited the Partition Museum and was thinking a lot about this partisan ripping apart of communities, even though we share so much culturally, like folklore. Some of the folklore I’m interested in is Punjabi, from this region that is now partly India and partly Pakistan. I wanted to tie in that part of my heritage in an abstract way. And moving to the United States, this is another plain, too.”
With Donald Trump as president, the drastic polarisation of the country could also, in a way, be construed as “parted plains”. While prominent people of colour are doing better than they did before, and people are becoming increasingly aware about socio-political dynamics and their impact, the overall treatment of minorities, immigrants and the marginalised has definitely worsened. Dang acknowledges that, as a woman of colour and an artist, she's been privileged to be operating and living within a liberal bubble that is brimming with voices of dissent for Trump's behaviour and actions. However, that doesn't mean she's disaffected.
“Trump is changing so many foreign and domestic policies that will do severe damage to the prosperity of individual Americans for generations to come,” she says, citing his “detrimental stances” on issues like climate change and immigration policies. “Beyond his policy changes, he projects himself as a 'big man on campus' and really, a huge bully, as we have all witnessed on Twitter and on TV. This change in presidential demeanour has trickled down to even the youngest Americans. In our everyday lives around the country, this manifests as relentless bullying in schools (particularly targeting immigrants and children of colour) and a rise in visible neo-Nazi groups.”
This is one of the cultural and social aspects that scares Dang the most, the fact that Trump is empowering conservative individuals and communities, and motivating people to “live out their lives as racist bigots”. Remorsefully, and with a touch of despair, she tells me: “Unfortunately, I don't think we will see the demise of these groups and attitudes in my lifetime.”
Words: Satvika Kundu
Image: Missy Malouff