Bridging Troubled Waters | Verve Magazine
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December 03, 2020

Bridging Troubled Waters

Text by Uday Kapur

One of India’s most forward-thinking new musicians, Jharkhandi producer and MC Sumit Singh Solanki aka Tre Ess, is bringing attention to the affairs of his state through his music while showcasing its local young talent on a national stage

“More than any political party, I’m afraid of what my extended family could do to me,” says Sumit Singh Solanki. “I wish I could tell these stories more freely because they’re an open secret. I could try and reason with them, but in their eyes, I’m still a child.”

Solanki, who hails from Ranchi, is one of India’s most exciting young artists. The 23-year-old produces and raps under the moniker Tre Ess (it came about when he was trying to abbreviate his name) and has fast established himself as a key figure in the movement to create and push forward-thinking alternative music rooted in tradition. SoBo BonoBo, Solanki’s latest album, is a delightful juxtaposition of modern rap and local instrumentation. Wonderboy, the lead single, features an animated video that is meant to represent the trials of everyday life in Jharkhand, Bengal and Meghalaya.

Sipping Off Troubled Waters, his March 2020 debut full-length album, explores a complex history, addressing issues such as tribal rights, the arrival of the Adani Group and its impact on the state’s natural resources, and the political violence and turmoil that has plagued the region for decades.

Solanki is unable to ignore the legacy that he was born into. His extended family is allegedly the inspiration behind Anurag Kashyap’s career-defining Gangs of Wasseypur series. Set in Dhanbad, the films are a riveting account of how a sophisticated and powerful criminal enterprise came to dominate the region’s mining towns. “I can pinpoint exactly whose story Kashyap picked up for the movie,” claims Solanki, whose cousin Neeraj Singh, the former deputy mayor of Dhanbad, was shot dead in 2017. “Every major plot twist can be traced back to someone in my extended family. You can ask any person in Jharkhand, and they’ll know the names. These are stories that deserve to be told and not from the perspective of moral superiority or judgement. It’s not as simple as portraying things in absolute binaries – Jharkhandi society lives in the murky shades of grey where everybody does what has to be done due to the circumstances that they have been dealt.”

Sumit Singh Solanki aka Tre Ess is creating the future sounds of Jharkhand

The debut album was supposed to be a part of a three-part narrative arc where Solanki dived deep into his family’s and the state’s history at large. “I realised that my family would not be happy with me telling it, even though it’s a part of my story,” he says. “My words would have real consequences. The album evolved into me trying to showcase Jharkhand, not just through the narrative but through the sonic landscape that I created. It had to tie my experiences as a Jharkhandi with the conflicts that are taking place in our local communities every day. That’s how a song like What Do Kids Know from Sipping Off Troubled Waters – which brings together trap music and Jharkhandi percussion – came to be. The album became a statement piece. This is what alternative hip-hop would sound like if it had been born in Jharkhand. Remove the lyrics and, at the base of it, this is what hip-hop would sound like if it came from Ranchi, Ramgarh or Dhanbad.”

Eschewing the now-common narrative of personal struggle pursued by Indian hip-hop artists, Solanki instead turned the spotlight onto his state. Aparna, which features Mumbai-based hip-hop artist Gravity, draws on the story of Aparna Marandi, a cultural activist who was falsely accused and imprisoned by the Jharkhand Police for the murder of ex-CM Babulal Marandi’s son in 2012. But Indian hip-hop’s audiences have gotten used to listening to the music made in service of manufactured beefs between the country’s biggest artists, and they often overlook a contextual or sociopolitically relevant album such as Sipping Off Troubled Waters, despite the critical acclaim it gathered. Though the album, as most of Solanki’s work, is written in English, it’s the aural soundscapes through which he brings in Jharkhand’s rich array of sounds. Troubled Waters, the final track on the album, is an amalgamation of off-kilter blues guitar and synthesised tribal polyrhythms – a complete outlier in the existing landscape. “I do write in Hindi, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the sonics for me,” he says. “English just fits in perfectly for the soundscapes I’m creating right now. Tomorrow, that may change. It’s always about what the song demands rather than me forcing an agenda onto it.”

Kids with no guidance forced to be their own man

Hurt people hurt people, that the old way

Or you can wait on shallow government programs

Now I can’t wait in shallow government

Krishi Kalyan Cess for finding a private jet

Compare that to amount of debts

Can’t begin talking about deaths

RIP Gauri Lankesh, we aren’t safe in our residence

Adani coming for the rent

Birla tryna be the next aye

What you mean an artist can’t be speaking about your crime

Would’ve been illegal if another man tried

But you got these faces in your pockets for the ride

Non-tribal leaders for a tribal population

For whatever reason if they see it fit, your land get taken

Subtle segregation like my man is Desi Reagen

Waving off loans old tactics of the law

Government killed more farmers than the mothafuckin drought

We got some Troubled Waters for you and we runnin’ out”

– From Troubled Waters

For Solanki, releasing his debut album was a bittersweet experience. “These were songs that I’d been working on for a long time,” he says. “I feel like the album that came out is 80 per cent of what I wanted it to be. There are sections that I wanted to improve on but extenuating circumstances like my laptop getting hacked meant that I never got to do that. Overall, I’ve taken it on the chin and moved on to producing my next project now. I don’t dwell on the past.”

In April 2019, Solanki and his creative partner and mentor, Rishabh Lohia aka The Mellow Turtle, played a pivotal role in the creation of Dil Aziz by students of Ranchi’s St. Michael’s School For The Blind. Written by 15-year-old Subhash Kumar and sung by 16-year-old Dheeraj Kumar Gupta, the song earned widespread critical acclaim and commercial success after being released in partnership with Artist Originals (AO), the in-house label of music streaming giant JioSaavn. Dil Aziz was the culmination of a three-year-long collaboration between Solanki, Lohia and the students; Lohia started teaching guitar at the school in 2016 after returning from college in Bristol in the same year, and he roped in Solanki when the two met each other at a studio in the city. “The studio owner, Jayant ‘JayDawg’ Doraiburu, played me some of his [Lohia’s] music,” says Solanki. “I was completely blown away – I was expecting a metal musician because that’s what the Ranchi scene was about at the time, but here was this beautiful blues musician. We ended up collaborating on his 2017 EP Elephant Ride, and the relationship just grew from there.”

Rishabh Lohia aka The Mellow Turtle, and Solanki (right) at VH1 Supersonic in 2020
Photographed by Sudhir Dasgupta

Lohia’s guitar classes eventually blossomed into Taal, an initiative spearheaded by him and Solanki in collaboration with the Ekastha Foundation, which runs the school with the help of donations. “These children are just amazing,” says Lohia. “Music plays a therapeutic role in most people’s lives and, for me, being able to have this experience of interacting with these kids and connecting through music really did have a cathartic effect. We never set out to provide a formalised education to these kids but instead encouraged them to use the fundamentals we had taught them to write their own songs.”

Within two years, students at the school began showing promise as songwriters and composers. Kumar, the lyricist behind Dil Aziz, wrote the song and got Gupta to sing it in front of Lohia, who then took it to Solanki. “One of the things that I’m always going to be grateful for, is the opportunity to work with such amazing young talent and help shape the music they put out,” says Solanki. The duo produced the song and brought on AO as a partner with the help of their own label, nrtya.

Dil Aziz’s success brought tangible change to the lives of many associated with the school. Kumar and Gupta earned their first big pay cheque, and the success of the song attracted sponsors to the Ekastha Foundation, which provides music education and career opportunities to visually impaired children through the school. Because of Dil Aziz, the foundation was also able to sponsor the schooling of 10 visually impaired children up to class 10 as well as build a state-of-the-art recording facility on the premises of the school. “These guys now have access to one of the best recording studios in eastern India,” laughs Solanki. “Even I don’t have that!”

Tre Ess, along with The Mellow Turtle, is working towards building an independent and socially conscious music scene in Jharkhand

Years ago, Solanki had talked about his ambition to develop a thriving music community in Jharkhand to highlight the state’s young talent. Is this how he imagined doing it? “Not in a million years,” he says. “But this is how I always wished I’d be able to do it. The work we do at the school is having a real impact on our society. We’re mentoring talent who will always be associated with this school and this region – the language we write in and the tales we speak of in our songs all reflect the local culture and what goes on in our lives here.”

Solanki’s work with Ekastha has more immediately influenced another aspect of his life: his relationship with his father. “We fought about Ayodhya two hours ago,” laughs Solanki when asked about it. “Even though he doesn’t say it directly, he’s seen the impact we’ve had after visiting the school. He saw the way the principal treated us and the relationship that I’ve developed with the kids over there. We don’t fight about Tre Ess or music anymore, but we have moved on to fighting about other things.” Solanki says that the people of Jharkhand are fighting for validation in a country where the music scene only caters to artists from metropolitan cities, where politics and media only cater to “stories and people that are either rich enough to matter or can be used as a proxy for someone’s agenda”. Jharkhand has never mattered in the bigger picture, and their goal is to change that.

Through their work at Ekastha, Solanki and Lohia hope to recapture and repurpose Jharkhand’s rich cultural tapestry. To ensure that the success of Dil Aziz is not a one-off, the duo is in the process of bringing together their students from St. Michael’s in a folk band, one that will incorporate the local Santhali language and instruments along with elements of blues, hip-hop and electronic music. “There is a sense of pride now,” says Solanki. “Locals who moved to Delhi or Mumbai and pretended to speak with an accent are now returning to Jharkhand and saying that they belong here. Having a small part to play in that is a great feeling, you know? Having someone tell you that your art is the reason they’re proud to be from this incredible place, that’s special.”

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