Tappa music: romantic outbursts of the Punjabi camel riders

All music seeks in some way to summon feelings of forward motion and momentum. But the tappa genre, derived from the folk songs of Punjabi camel riders, does this in a more literally than most – vocalists ‘jolt’ and ‘bounce’ their way through its twisting melodies, as if still sitting on the animals themselves. Here, the ‘momentum’ of the music is an imitative, representational element as well as a more general, abstract metaphor. 

Tappa songs are famed and feared by Indian musicians for their rhythmic irregularities and rapid, rolling tangles. In the words of critic Shuchita Rao, “khayaldhrupadtaranabhajan and abhang…seem to be the safer choices. Very few artists can pull off a tappa and win the hearts of the listeners”.

The style originates from the daily routines of the Subcontinent’s Islamic camel riders, who would sing to each other as they guided their animals around the Punjab and Sindh regions (near the modern Pakistan border). In the words of Shashwati Mandal, a noted tappa exponent from the Gwalior gharana, the music “followed the gait of the camel. The camel riders had high-pitched, flexible voices. The ‘tappe’ they sang were marked by a fusillade of short and quick melodic taan patterns that moved obliquely, in conjunction with a 16-beat rhythmic cycle – creating a unique flavour”.

Listening to Shashwati’s own tappa performances, such as the one below, is an immediately intriguing experience, full of fresh tensions and ambiguities. The steady tabla groove allows her to manipulate syncopated lines, shaped by sharp intakes of breath and sudden moments of release – I can really feel the jumps and jerks of the camels. But I’m never sure if I’m marvelling more at her extraordinary melodic command, or at how her reckless melodic abandon makes everything sound just a little bit out-of-control as well…

Tappa is said to have been imported from folk settings into Hindustani classical music by Shori Mian, master musician to the Nawab of Awadh in the mid-18th century. It is claimed that he was unsatisfied with the vocabulary of khayal singing, and first became enchanted by the songs of the Punjabi camel riders while travelling around North India on a quest for fresh ideas.

In subsequent years, tappe were sung in royal courts by the baigees (no, not the Bee Gees…although they certainly loved their high notes too). Lyrics, mostly in Punjabi, commonly depicted themes of romantic separation, dramatising the passionate, animalistic outbursts of jealous, cuckolded lovers. 

Ramnidhi Gupta later helped to develop a distinctly Bengali variant of tappa, known for comedic lyrics and sharp mistranslational wordplay – and Malini Rajurkar of the Gwalior gharana became a national tappa icon in the 20th century, elevating the music to greater levels of respect. Many ‘mainstream’ khayal stars of today have regularly visited the style – see, for example, Girija Devi’s extraordinary performance below.

The genre has recently helped catalyse several fresh Hindustani innovations and fusions. Pandit Shekar Borkar’s Tarankaar Baaj sarod style draws heavily on tappa – and many consider Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee to be the first sitarist to capture its knotted, vocalistic subtleties. Shashwati has also collaborated with British guitarist Derek Roberts for some global tappa fusion. I wonder what the camel traders of centuries past would make of their music’s new global reach? (And for that matter: how do the camels themselves feel about all this? Why are all the humans making such strange noises?)

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