The Manganiyar are completely dedicated to music and have been for generations. The best performers play for the Rajput maharajahs and are known as alamkana, the musicians of the king. They are Muslim, like 28-year-old Amin Khan. Khan has played with Malians in Paris and flamenco musicians in Barcelona, and felt a strong affinity for both. He lives in the artists’ colony below the fort, with four or five hundred other Manganiyar families. While I was visiting his compound, various male members of his extended family dropped by to play. Khan sang in a passionate, quavering voice that wandered up and down all kinds of strange and wonderful scales I had never heard before, most of them consisting of widely spaced half-tone clusters rather than the familiar Western melodic sequences. The fingers of his right hand flew over the keys of his harmonium (his left was doing the pumping), and various kinsmen played the dholak (a type of drum) and khartal (flat wooden clappers flicked together with incredible speed and syncopative dexterity; they may well be the ancestors of flamenco castanets).
A lot of Khan’s repertoire was Sufi, and he played and sang in a semi-trance, his eyes rolling, “a little out of mind, but not fully,” he explained. One song was in the classic blues scale with the flatted fifth. I had no trouble getting into it with my Guitalele. A dozen other tunes were ear-openers for my musical sensibility, rooted in standard Western harmonic progressions.
One afternoon I drove into the desert with Magh Singh, the Deepak Rest House’s general manager. Passing white goats with black heads and veiled women on their way to a wedding in another village, we stopped in Kanoi, 20 miles from Jaisalmer. The elders were sitting on carpets in an open-air covered patio with carved sandstone pillars. They all had turbans and handlebar mustaches that looked as if they had been pasted on. We spent a few hours listening to local singers, including an eight-year-old boy with a piercing, high-pitched voice, and an extraordinary performance on the morchang, or jaw harp (or Jew’s harp, as it is called in the States). It’s one of the world’s oldest instruments, with many names in different cultures, and the sounds that this man got out of it—he had three different tracks going on at once—were astonishing.
I took a bumpy camel ride out on the dunes in Sam, and then continued to the village of Damodra, where some nomadic Kalbelia people camped in the desert performed for us. They are snake charmers and go from village to village, begging and trading cobra venom. “They are always on the move,” said Singh, who has great affection for the Kalbelia. “They have no solid house and sleep under the stars.” Two young women named Marua and Midja danced with unfettered joie de vivre, exulting in their vibrant beauty, writhing like cobras, their voluminous skirts swirling and ankle bangles tinkling, while a fakir in an orange turban played a reedy double pungi clarinet and another man slapped out a rhythm on a plastic jerrican. The pentatonic scale was the same as the one used in a Celtic reel.
Back in Jaisalmer, I wandered the streets below the fort. At the maharajah’s residential and administrative palace, a couple of German shepherds poked their heads out of ornately carved windows on the top floor. Two elders were sitting under a tree in the courtyard. I joined them. One was named Hasan Khan, and he was the alamkana, the musician of the royal family. A genial-looking man in his late fifties (my vintage), he didn’t speak English, or his ears would have turned red from what his friend was telling me: “Hasan Khan is the tiger of singing. All the others are copiers. He sings songs about the maharajah, he performs the king’s morning puja, his waking song, his leaving song, and his welcome song, his drinking song, and his wedding song.” The Manganiyar, Hasan’s friend explained, “followed the camel caravans to Iraq and Persia centuries ago and became the alamkana in the courts of the shahs and the caliphs there.”
That night I went to the Gorbandh Palace and heard Hasan Khan perform; he was sitting on a carpet on the rooftop restaurant with two of his sons backing him up, while a full moon came up over the fort. It was a scene that I imagine has not changed much in a thousand years. The following morning I went down to Hasan Khan’s house and listened to a bhairav, a morning raga that had many exquisite melodic variations. He played me one of his own compositions, which I would have guessed was a good-time northeast Brazilian accordion dance tune had I not been where I was—hearing it live from the harmonium of the alamkana of Jaisalmer.