The instruments are made of wire, clay and metal. The musicians sing or chant. The music they play is thousands of years old and has been passed down for 37 generations in an oral tradition. For the most part, they cannot read or write. They are the Merasi—musicians drawn from the “untouchables” of India.
On Saturday, a small troupe will present a concert of their traditional folk music at One Ocean Yoga in Bridgehampton. The performance is part of a month-long tour designed to preserve their musical heritage and to raise money and awareness to help secure their future.
Besides the social station that generates it, Merasi music differs from classic Indian music because of the instruments. They are banned from using the same instruments as those in higher castes, and are not permitted to play sitars or instruments with strings made from any part of an animal.
Instead, the Merasi developed their own instruments made from found objects. Wire is bent and molded into a string instrument that sounds like squiggly lines wiggling. A clay water pot is used for percussion when it’s tapped with a ring or as a wind instrument through the breath of the musician. Bamboo sticks are rapped against the edge of a metal pan filled with water. Mouth harps and hand cymbals are used. So is a harmonium made of natural materials.
Instruments are passed from performer to performer. A single female dancer helps weave a sense of joy into the sounds. Balancing metal pots on her head as she moves would not be unusual. The troupe dresses in bright colors and traditional ceremonial garb.
Back home, members of the Merasi learn how to hum even before they speak, said Karen Lukas, executive director of Folk Arts Rajasthan, who has organized the United States tour. Traditionally, learning music and the songs of their ancestors has been the only formal training they have had.
Songs are passed from parent to child in an oral history dating back more than 3,000 years, she said. The toys the children have to play with are musical instruments, said Sarwar Khan, the director of the Local Folk Arts Society in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, in India. Music is made with cans, with spoons and with found wire.
“The children learn how to hum before they learn to talk,” she said. “This is how they communicate. Merasi means musicians and they are the musicians of India.”
Sometimes the music the Merasi play is just for them—their songs celebrate rituals of joy when children are born or upcoming weddings. There are songs for female celebrations and songs for males, although it is mostly the men who sing. There are songs for gathering everyone together. The words can be chanted or sung. Voices are raised in solos or in harmony. The music also includes sacred songs sung for their masters, who may be Hindu, Muslim, Sufi or Catholic.
The Merasi music knows no caste and speaks to everyone, Mr. Khan said. The music they play is ancient and sacred and goes directly to the heart of those who hear it. Its power to transform and to uplift translates immediately, even if the actual words are not understood.
“The music follows the heartbeat and is understood by the heart,” he said.
The Merasi (as they have named themselves) live in the desert of northwestern India in Jaisalmer. In their rural location, caste system discrimination is still strong despite laws designed to prevent it, said Ms. Lukas. Most of all, the Merasi hope to be treated with dignity and respect by those around them, and to have the chance to improve their living conditions. Running water, education and knowing they will not be victims of violence because they are “untouchable” are not givens.
“In the United States, there is big freedom and we are treated with dignity and respect here,” Mr. Khan said. “We feel we are human and not animals and we have something to offer. What we have is our music. It has been passed down for 37 generations. We would like to preserve our music and build for our future.”
India’s rapid modernization is threatening the future of their music, Ms. Lukas explained. As the culture shifts, the Merasi’s traditional jobs are disappearing and they need to gain new skills and education, said Caitlie Whelan, the educational director of Folk Arts Rajasthan and the Merasi School. Such lessons might be as simple as learning math skills to calculate change at the market and understanding how money functions.
The Merasi and the Hearts with Hope 2 tour is making a stop at One Ocean Yoga on the recommendation of Jane Umanoff of Amagansett. She met Ms. Lukas five years ago when she was a decorative painter working in the Hamptons. By that time, Ms. Lukas had already been to India, met Mr. Khan and been introduced to the Merasi and had begun forming the organizations that are now in place to assist them.
Ms. Umanoff was already interested in India and was moved by stories told by Ms. Lukas of their gifts, their plight and her friend’s efforts to better their situation. Eventually Ms. Umanoff visited Ms. Lukas and met the Merasi for herself. Like Ms. Lukas, she was touched by their beauty, moved by their music and disturbed by their living conditions and the hatred borne against them.
“They are such beautiful people,” Ms. Umanoff said. “They are so loving and graceful and giving. It’s a traditional life and where they live is gorgeous.”
When the Merasi decided to make a second musical trip to the United States, Ms. Umanoff asked John Seeyle of One Ocean Yoga if he’d be interested in hosting a concert. The spiritual aspect of the music and the humanitarian purpose made it seem like a perfect fit for the Bridgehampton yoga studio, which aims to present programs which lift the spirit and enlighten to all who care to join.
The Merasi Hearts With Hope 2 Tour will have a performance on Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. at One Ocean Yoga Center, 264 Butter Lane, Bridgehampton. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Call 537-5522 or visit www.oneoceanyoga.com to reserve. Information on the Merasi and their ongoing tour, visit www.merasi.org or www.folkartsrajasthan.org. Donations are gladly accepted at either website.
The Hearts with Hope 2 Tour will continue on Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Sacred Songs at Trinity Sunday at St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The musicians will also appear on May 22 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan at 7:30 p.m. The tour concludes on May 24 at the Wheaton Arts & Cultural Center in New Jersey.
The tour kicked off in April with a performance at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. Concerts were also held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Brown University, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine and other venues.