Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Konkani Cabaret

Photo courtesy Sanferd Menino Rodrigues
If you’ve been following my posts so far, you probably know my linguistic roots lie in a small community off the southwestern coast of India known as Konkan. (Konkani is the name of the community as well as the language.) You may also know I’m a complete dud with languages, so it may seem odd that this week I’m sharing some fun stuff from a Konkani dialect I can’t understand a word of.
First, a little explanation. There are at least a dozen regional dialects of Konkani that sound very different from one another, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to understand how they’re related. The same is true of the various subcultures themselves. My family is Brahmin Hindu, which means we hail from the priestly class. We have very conservative, almost monastic roots. Our forefathers were religious scholars. Our meals are supposed to be pure vegetarian (some Brahmins won’t eat onions or garlic because they are considered tamasic, meaning that they could generate worldly feelings). Our traditional weddings are more ritualistic, more stoic than other Indian ones. Of course, all this has changed a lot over the generations, but it’s still a steep contrast from, say, the Goan Konkanis.

Goans like to party. Okay, that’s probably a generalization but one that fits my skewed impression of their Konkani culture compared to ours. Goa is India’s smallest state (and its most affluent), a gorgeous, tropical island with amazing beaches and resorts, one that draws tourists the world over. It has its own unique, vibrant culture, in part because it was never a part of the British Raj. Instead, it was a Portuguese territory until 1961. As such, its dialect of Konkani is peppered with Portuguese, and most Goans are Catholic. On visits to India growing up, I always found Goans most fascinating. I’d never met Indians who’d attended church so right off the bat, that was different. They had names I didn’t know Indians had (mostly biblical, such as Peter and Mary, or else Portuguese ones, like Zabel and Pedro). I’d never seen either of my grandmothers wear anything but saris, yet in India, even elderly Goan women let their legs show, wearing trendy dresses and heels.

Then there’s Goan music. On visits to India, I mostly heard (Hindi) Bollywood film songs or religious ones (Urdu classical or Marathi bhajans). That I know of, only the Goans sang in Konkani, or for that matter, in English. Back then, Goan songs sounded like India’s version of island music, with acoustic guitars and maybe a few mariachis in the background. Being from a linguistic culture that had no script and so no books or media in our language or about us, it was exciting to me that we had our own music, even if I couldn’t understand a word of it. Plus I was amazed that something so exotic, so provocative could really be Konkani.

Lorna Cordeiro is a popular Goan jazz singer, whom fans know simply as Lorna. Her popularity peaked in the 1970s, when she sang in the Chris Perry Band, crooning English and Konkani songs in nightclubs across India, mostly Mumbai. (Chris Perry was a well-known Konkani musician, by the way.) Chris played the sax, and Lorna wore tight, strapless dresses, looking and sounding a little like an Indian Billie Holliday. Check out one of Lorna’s most popular songs, Bebdo (thank goodness for the subtitles):

Nike borrowed the music from Bebdo for one of its international ads to promote its line of cricket gear. This version of the song, Rav Patrao Rav, is sung by Ella Castellino. In the video above, the endnotes say that Lorna is really the voice behind Ella Castellino, and it provides a translation for the Nike commercial that follows (and which happens to feature cameos of two Indian cricketers):

Of course, these days, reams of Konkani songs of all sorts—rock, pop, rap—abound online but since I’m kind of on a Lorna kick, I’ll leave you with a couple more links.

Here’s one of her singing Bebdo in recent years: 

Another one of her classic Konkani tunes, Red Rose 

And lastly, a video that’s a little over three minutes long. Pace yourself—this is a slow song, and there’s an interlude of dialogue from a Konkani film that’s not very exciting (or well acted) but it's different: 

Do you have any music suggestions to share that could expose us to an unfamiliar culture?


  1. Wow, what an incredible subculture barely anyone knows about! I gotta get myself on that island – and party! The videos were most amazing, and what’s interesting - the song and the music didn’t really sound Indian except for the language, but more Spanish than anything, which was obviously Portuguese influence. Same as the topic, I bet. Spanish, Portuguese and Italian men love their wine.

  2. I'm with Lina - I want to go to Goa and see this fascinating culture for myself. I knew that Goa had been a Portuguese colony but never considered how much that history is reflected in the culture and music even today.

  3. So glad you enjoyed them, gals! Goan culture is now more popular in today's Indian culture and its music keeps evolving. And you're right, Lina. The language doesn't sound like other Indian languages to me, not even other Konkani dialects. The few words I can pick up though jar me, because I usually hear them in such a different context! That's why the dialogue in that last clip fascinates me even though it's so cheesy. I didn't even know they made movies in this language.

  4. Wow! That is so interesting! And the music had my feet tapping and the kids dancing around the computer--very catchy! Thanks for sharing such a wonderful, unknown part of India with us, Supriya!