What do you get when you mix Telugu folk songs with reggae -- a musical genre that originated in Jamaica? Perhaps a crossroad, a culmination of two cultures and two musical genres that seem worlds apart at first glance, but have more in common than one thinks.
This definition best encapsulates Chowraasta, a Telugu band singing folk songs to a reggae beat, that has captured Telugu audiences by storm on the internet, with millions of views on their YouTube channel.
The beat and the groove is infectious. With their songs like Oorellipota mama, which captures the angst of a person who wishes to return to the village he once knew after moving to the city, and Raita, a song that talks about farmer suicides in the country, the band is also not shy to talk about social issues.
Though it was formed less than two years ago, the band, comprising Yashwanth Nag (Vocals, keyboard and composition), Ram Miryala (Vocals and Flute), Bala (Vocals), Akshay (Drums), Anant (Bass guitar) and Srinivas (Rhythm guitar), have managed to capture the attention of a mainstream audience with its music.
Speaking to TNM, Srinivas and Ram discussed the origins of the band, the music-making process, the phenomenal response they received and the road ahead.
Srinivas and Yashwanth, who had worked together for a radio station in Hyderabad, had been the first ones to talk about forming a band in 2018.
"In October that year, the two of us decided to take this seriously, and we invited Ram and Bala, both of whom had also worked for the same radio station, for Telugu and Hindi vocals. There were four of us and all of us come from different ideologies and different music tastes. That's where the name of the band comes from," Srinivas explains.
'Chowrasta' means crossroad and reggae is deeply linked to the 'rastafari' religion. With a simple play of words, the band decided to go with Chowraasta.
"We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to create our own unique selling point," Srinivas adds.
Ram says that while he learned classical music, he was drawn to reggae.
"When I started listening to reggae, I felt very comfortable writing music and lyrics with that beat. It is an easier way of expressing yourself and to indulge in storytelling," he says.
Asked about the translation of Telugu folk songs, which are often played with a dappu over an Indian beat, into a reggae beat, Ram says, "All folk music in the world is similar. I never found the translation to be a challenge. We were fortunate enough to make it work."
Speaking about their song-writing process, the band members say that there is a constant debate among them on whether the music should drive the lyrics or if the lyrics should drive the music.
"It is more of an emotionally-driven process. It's not that we pick up an issue and write about it. It's not a conscious effort from our side. For example, 'Oorellipota mama' is a song Ram is deeply connected to. I am extremely moved by farmer suicides in India and that's how 'Saagu Bharuvayena Raita' came along," Srinivas says.
The band also constantly collaborates with Anand Gurram, another long-time friend, who helps them with the lyrics.
"Anand has a great grasp of Telugu. But we understand that we need to connect with today's audience. So around 80% of the lyrics will be colloquial language. Anand helps us in this way with each song," Srinivas says.
"Me and Anand have a good understanding and we are comfortable with our collaboration. It will go on for sure," Ram says.
The band initially played a few gigs without drums or a bass. They tried experimenting with a programmed drum track, but they found it limiting.
"It was a very constraining factor that we just had to stick to the beat. We were not free to play and had to stick to the programmed beats. We couldn't stop and speak to the audience in between," Ram says.
The drums came in around January 2019, and the entire dynamic of the band changed.
"When we were playing once, I didn't understand the lyrics. Ram began explaining the words, even as Akshay and I held the groove. This has now become a staple during our live shows. We turn it down a notch as Ram explains the lyrics, with guitar and drums in the background. Once he does, he sings the verse again, and the entire crowd registers the essence of the song," Akshay said.
The band has also met and worked with popular poet Goreti Venkanna, whose songs they cover themselves.
Speaking about this, Ram says, "He is an inspiration and an influence. His writing is the reason we started singing. His writing is full of sharp satire and he asks the right questions. We have worked with him and have a lot of respect for him."
As of now, the band plays mainly at the Moonshine Project in Hyderabad besides a few other venues in the city.
"The way I see it, is that there is a lot of responsibility which has been put on us. We know that we can do a lot of socially relevant songs. The idea is not to find a solution because we don't have one either. But we want people to ask the right questions and be aware of what's happening around them," Srinivas says.
"We are not here for popularity. We are asking questions and hoping that people will think about it. It is an ongoing process and we will speak about issues that are close to our heart," Ram says.
The band also has plans to expand beyond Hyderabad and sing songs in several languages, while also taking Telugu folk music to the next level.