Kathmandu: He researches folk songs but doesn’t want to be known as a music researcher. Traveling to new places, and gathering and singing folk songs of those places, has become his regular gig. He has given renditions of folk songs from various countries. He regards folk songs as the ‘songs of the soil’.
He is Arko Mukhaerjee. Mukhaerjee, a native of India, has covered many Nepali songs. Although he resides in Kolkata, he actively studies Nepali folk music. His cover songs, including renditions of such classics as Resham Firiri and Timro Nai Maya, are widely popular on YouTube.
Mukhaerjee calls himself a traveling musician. “Research is an academic task and I think I am not a researcher because I am not academically astute about music,” he says, over a WhatsApp call. “But I love music. Making art academic is an important thing.”
Mukherjee was born in a musical family. His parents were classical singers. His father used to sing about the hardships of a working-class group. His mother, who came to India as a Bangladeshi refugee, also used to sing about similar subjects.
“I grew up listening to the songs by my parents that were sung in different places,” said Mukhaerjee. “They used to sing folk songs. They taught me to love the songs of all the places equally.”
Mukhaerjee, who was attracted towards folk songs from his childhood days, later considered devoting his time to it. He added a little bit of modern touch to it but didn’t let it degrade its originality, its essence.
“Folk songs include stories of the people. I love to tell the stories of the people,” he said. “Folk song is a kind of a song that represents a particular land.”
At the age of 9-10, when Arko came to Nepal for the first time, he met one Arjun Sherpa in Sandakpur, in eastern Nepal. Sherpa made him listen to Resham Firiri for the first time. Arko was bewitched. He traveled to Nepal every year after that. A friend named Binaya Moktan of Kathmandu introduced him to many other Nepali folk songs.
In 2016, when Mukhaerjee was in Nepal, he was intrigued by a Nepali tune being aired while traveling across the allies of Kathmandu in a cab. He immediately asked the cab driver about it, “Whose song is it?” The driver didn’t have a clue. He just said the singer is an old artist.
Mukhaerjee remembered two words from the song; Timro and Maya [You and Love]. He searched the song on YouTube by entering these two key words and also asked many other friends about it.
That song was ‘Timro Nai Maya Lagdacha Saili’ by Jhalakman Gandharva. After knowing about the song, he started finding more information about Jhalakman, and one day he found one of his albums.
“I have probably listened to that album for over two hundred times. Jhalakman’s sound has a total Nepali essence. His voice tells the story of Nepali land,” said Mukhaerjee.
‘Folk songs include stories of the people. I love to tell the stories of the people. Folk song is a kind of a song that represents a particular land.’
Along with Jhalakman’s songs, Arko has also sung many other modern songs. His cover version of Resham Firiri has crossed over 5 million views. Similarly, his cover version for Jhalakman’s ‘Timro Nai Maya’ has been viewed over 4.8 million times.
While performing Nepali songs Mukhaerjee remembers the beautiful melodies of a folk song sung by his parents when he was a child. He never expected that his songs would get such huge popularity. The audience unexpectedly loved the Nepali songs sung in a foreign accent.
“Folk songs keep evolving, they never disappear,” Arko says. “These kinds of songs do not stay in the same place, they keep migrating along with people.”
Mukherjee has sung in 21 different languages that range from Spanish to Russian and many other languages from South Asia.
Mukhaerjee has just a few original numbers. Most often he has sung folk songs collected by others. Two years ago he released his album ‘Bondhur Bari.’ The album includes three Bengali folk songs; another one is originally composed by him and one other is a Nepali song. Bondhur Bari means ‘Friend’s home’.
He says, “I released this album for all my friends who listen to my music. This album has one Nepali song ‘Bala Jovan’ by Jhalakman Gandharva.”
Mukhaerjee does not think that it is important to have one’s own original song.
Citing the example of Pete Seeger, popularly known as the father of folk songs, he said, Seeger in his entire life sang and recorded 12 hundred songs. Among them, 98 percent were folk songs.
“I do not have any kind of fear that I will be unpopular or lack self-identity if I just sing folk songs collected by others,” Mukhaerjee says.
Currently, Mukhaerjee is in his homeland, India. He is busy practicing. He felt suffocated during the lockdown that was imposed to curb the pandemic. He again wanted to go somewhere else. From there he wanted to tell the story of the soil of that particular place through folk songs.
“I will start another journey soon,” said Mukhaerjee. “I plan to come to Nepal and sing the songs of its soil, once again.”