Jennifer Shaheen Hussain
On World Music Day or Fete de la Musique, singer-composer Joi Barua in a tête-à-tête with Pratidin Time discusses his journey from Assam to the iconic Abbey Studios in London – being an exemplar of dreams do come true, and avers that music is not something he has been doing, but it is something he chooses to be with.
It is believed that a man is defined by the moments he creates while pushing boundaries and kindle a sense of awe. While rewinding the virtual chinwag I had with Joi Barua, I comprehended the man not just shared the brilliance he creates in a studio but he spoke for far more complex challenges of human nature he has been discovering in his pursuit of music. Perhaps, his spirituality and unfeigned love for nature which is at the core of his art and of his life, is what enables him to be so grounded, detached, and unassuming.
The world already knows Joi for his iconic song ‘Tejimola’ and lending his voice to many Bollywood classics. Embarking on his musical wayfaring from Assam to London, Joi recalled where it all began.
“The journey began unknowingly. I always had a flare for music,” he said.
Before Joi could sing, he started playing a violin gifted by his father. Growing up in a family of music enthusiasts, Joi grew up listening to music legends like Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika, The Beatles, and Western Classical music. But it was his sister who pushed him to enter a singing competition at school, where Joi discovered his love for singing.
“I started playing violin before I even attended school. It has been a constant companion in life. During junior school, I was pushed by my sister to enter a music competition where I learned a Cliff Richard song and performed on stage. I discovered that I probably loved singing”.
As he continued exploring his musical sensibilities, besides singing and playing the violin, he picked up playing the guitar and keyboard as well.
When I asked him, what were the challenges he had to face while entering the music landscape especially as he had no formal training in music, and despite all the challenges why he chooses to make music, he said on his association with music, “I discovered a skill but I discovered love too. I love doing music. That’s what I had kept on doing. I was good academically but there was no high like doing music. My relationship with music is not that of a skill, it is of love. Rather than a talent I’ll take it as love”.
“I don’t see music as a challenge or as something I want to do, but I see music as something I want to be with. That has been the central thought from day one to day now,” he added.
Although Joi discovered his passion for music, his young heart was muddled thinking if he could pursue music as a career.
“I went to Delhi for post-graduation studies, and I was extremely confused what I wanted to do. I spent almost three years in wilderness. I didn’t know if I could make a living as a musician and I didn’t know what else to do. Therein was the dichotomy. I realized I was failing at whatever else I was trying to do,” Joi said.
“I was disappointed,” he affirmed.
“I didn’t know what to do, no body counselled me what to do. I just knew I loved a certain thing and I was trying my hands at everything else. It was time spent in darkness and it was like walking into abyss without knowing what was ahead,” he stated.
However, Assam’s megastar musician-actor Zubeen Garg did support Joi during the hard times.
“Luckily just before going to Delhi I met Zubeen and we became friends. I gave a panic call to him seeking his help and he called me over to Mumbai”.
While, Joi recollects Delhi as a “harrowing experience”, his exit from Delhi also led to his entry in Bollywood.
Bollywood on the other hand was ready for Joi Barua.
“We were a part of a different gang of people who brought in change in terms of vocal arrangements, singing styles and even in advertising”, adding, “To my complete bewilderment, I found work within the first ten days. I found a supportive group of people, I found my ecosystem, and for the first time I felt like I was with my tribe”.
Explaining “the tribe”, he said, “These were the people who believed what they wanted to do. And they infact they did what they wanted to do. I was missing this so far. With Zubeen being there, Jatin Sarma, Partha Goswami, Dhrubojyoti Phukan, Saswati among many others; I finally found my tribe in Bombay”.
“For the first time I was in an ecosystem I could thrive in and I felt I was doing nothing wrong,” he added.
On Joi Barua’s Journey To Abbey Studios
Amid the grim situation of the Covid pandemic outbreak, perhaps for Indians especially for the people of Assam it was a moment of pride, when the singer took to Facebook in March this year and wrote: “The Fantasy of Companionship between Human & Inanimate – the animation film which has our songs played by the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices, wins the award for the Best Soundtrack at the Cannes World Film Festival”.
Reminiscing on that experience, Joi shared how it felt like working with such an ensemble and composing music in a studio, where iconic artists like The Beatles and Pink Floyd produced global hits.
A dear friend Ibson Lal Baruah and Joi were ideating in a story that was based on a set of events that happened in the last century to Kalaguru Bishnu Rabha and his close associate Gaji Rabha. The act turned into a song and that was the turning point in Joi’s life.
Moreover, both the friends were fascinated with telling stories that have not been told and so on a rainy evening where they decide to use this event and develop it into a song.
Similarly, after attending a conference in Singapore he met Asia’s first robotic surgeon Dr. Susan Lim and he collaborated with Dr. Lim on ‘Fantasy of Companionship between Human and Inanimate’, a film narrating the story of inanimate futures and artificial life.
“Dr. Lim thought if I could turn a story and concept as abstract as Rabha into a song, maybe I could also work on her story too,” Joi said.
“The story on inanimate objects turning into life became music; the music had to be done in Abbey Studios, and we are working towards making a musical on Broadway,” he explained, while adding that he has been working on the project since last four to five years.
Meanwhile, the London Symphony Orchestra was hired nearly two years ago to give some of the songs a western classical expression.
“It has been an exceptional journey from Bishnu Rabha to London Symphony at Abbey Road and the act one of Allan (chapters of the film) was condensed into a piece comprising couple of songs for the Orchestra,” he noted.
Joi will be working with the symphony in this year again and at the musical in broadway.
It is noteworthy that while there is an entire music industry whose songs are based on glorification of romantic love, most of Joi’s songs are based on issues that could trigger his listeners to consider making a social change in their immediate environment.
On asking Joi, is it a deliberate process to sing songs on social and environment-based issues, he elucidates, “All of us are doing love songs, its just that the nature of the muse is different”.
“My muse is nature,” he asserted.
On Assam’s Music Industry
When I asked Joi, if Assam’s music industry needs reengineering and should it reach out to a global audience, he had a better suggestion, “I don’t think we need to reach out to a global audience, we need to work on creating great songs and bettering our neighbourhoods”.
“Global audiences have global songs for them, and they have songs coming out of their backyard,” Joi said.
Joi stressed that the Assamese industry has evolved over the years. “We have independent thinkers who think differently in terms of social cultural aspects from the songs attached to Bollywood films and translated into songs. I wish we retain the differences and work towards the strengths we have that is ingrained in our DNA,” he noted, while adding, “I wish we cherish and sharpen these aspects, and we work from the strengths of composing music and art based out of our own heritages in the region”.
However, he also reflected that sadly “I see us losing ourselves”, and “we all want to be on the same common platform where we can be seen with others”.
“If that is the primary motivating factor behind producing art, then that could be problematic,” Joi added.
Transition Into Advocacy For Nature
“We are losing the beauty of the nature and our landscapes, and it begs attention,” Joi said, while, stating, “that some of us are in the position to drive conversations and focus on to nature conservation”.
Joi stressed upon the fact that art does not grow in a vacuum, and he was raised reading books of authors and listening to music of artists that had some consciousness and who “cared”.
“They cared about the planet and they encourage their listeners to be more careful,” he said.
This shaped the consciousness in Joi to be aware about the ecosystem and conserve nature, and while Joi supports changes of all kinds for prosperity, he also urges people to understand that “we have only one planet and we have to be careful”.
“At the end, what does art do for us? it raises our consciousness and great art will raise our levels of empathy,” he asserted, and added, “The nature of empathy cannot be a responsibility of a segment of population, it is a collective effort, and what I do to you will affect me and vice versa”.
He tells for instance the pandemic has hit every industry including the music industry as especially the live music scene and independent musicians severely and we as humans have been completely careless in how we treat our environment.
The musician also spoke on his proactive involvement since 2020 in raising awareness on protecting Dehing Patkai Rainforest and the hazards of Baghjan Fire in Assam and why is it the need of the hour.
“I dived in to the cause of protecting the rainforests or saving Baghjan, because I want to see my land green and beautiful and not at the cost of zero development but I want a rational conversation and I plunged into this idea into making people aware,” he explained.
“I wanted to raise awareness from a mind and heart of an artist, I am an artist and I love nature but I have no authority on it” he added.
He also said that there were very few people who wanted to be behind these environmental movements, however, he and like-minded people pushed the movements ahead.
“My friends and fellow artists supported me, and we just came forward to speak about both the issues,” he said.
There were several challenges and criticisms met in the process, Joi said, and he added that it was a learning experience and people driving these conversations including him ensured the discussions are pro-environment.
Talking about one of the experiences on social media, Joi said he was asked to take a backseat on such movements and asked why does he know and why does he care?
But he went ahead and continued speaking about it anyway.
Asking him on World Music Day, is there a message he would want to give out to music lovers and musicians, or a piece of advise to budding musicians, with humility, he said, “I don’t want any one to take my advise! I love what I do and I do it crazily. I would advise them to take my conviction and not my risks”.
Joi also said to, “Wake up! We are doing a disservice to the planet and humanity. We cannot afford to be so careless. So, lets sing the songs and make the music we are meant to do”.