Preserving Assamese culture: 1,000 regional songs to be released online
Vintage vinyl records and cassettes are of immense value. Nothing can beat the touch and feel of a vinyl record spinning peacefully on a gramophone, or the incessant turning of a cassette with a pencil to roll back its tape. However, in this digital age, the way for preservation going forward is electronic. Not that going electronic is a bad thing, having an infinite playlist on one’s phone is not only convenient but also very impressive, technologically.
A similar impressive technology is being used by Axl Hazarika, Archive Head of Jyoti Chitraban Digital Archiving Department, who is on a one-man mission to digitize and re-master old Assamese tracks that seem to have been lost, but not forgotten.
“This is a relatively new department. It was officially launched in 2017 and the campaign actually started with chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, who digitized the first track, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla’s Gosai Gosai. And now, after two years, we are ready with almost 10,000 tracks that we will slowly release on YouTube,” said Hazarika, speaking in an excited manner.
Turning a one-dimension audio into a multi-dimension audio is essentially what the process of digitizing comprises of, he explained.
“First, it depends on what kind of audio we have, either in a vinyl form or a cassette. If it’s in a vinyl, we use a gramophone player and if it is in a cassette, we use a cassette player and then record on DAW- digital audio workstation,” mentioned Hazarika.
Following that, the mastering of the song is done. The song goes through editing, where layers are separated such as guitar layer, bass layer, vocal layer etc and then everything is filtered individually. After that, a compressor is added or multiple compressors are added, essentially whatever the track requires and then plug ins, mostly universal plug ins are used.
Hazarika, exhaling after explaining the whole process said, “It’s not so easy to describe the entire process in lay terms, but these are the basics.”
Through the month of April and May, Hazarika and his department, which mostly consists of him, will release close to 1,000 songs on YouTube in an effort to preserve and create an online accessible library of sorts.
“In the beginning when we started with this project, finding vinyls and cassettes were difficult as there were so few of them available to me and I wasn’t even listening to Assamese artists and musicians. But, when I passionately got involved in the entire process, I realised that Assam is a treasure trove of great music,” said Hazarika, talking about how he got started with this project.
He does go on to mention that even though there was this great music available, proper re-mastering of this music had not been done.
“Since I am also a musician and from Assam, I don’t want to just digitize these records and keep it, but I want to properly re-master it and share it with everyone,” he added.
Speaking of the challenges related to this project, Hazarika mentioned that there were three main hindrances. First, it is extremely time-consuming to edit, mix and re-master these songs. These songs have separate layers and different textures in different frequencies.
“I have to perform various ‘surgical strikes’ during sound engineering, and filtering has to be done. Just for mixing and mastering a song it takes 5 hours and right now, it’s just me,” he explained.
Collecting vinyls and cassettes is a whole other story, he added. Some people who are record or vinyl collectors, don’t like to part with their collection and often ask for financial compensation or such, he mentioned.
“This becomes difficult because we cannot provide that. We are a government organisation that is not even directly seeking money from the concerned authorities, so we cannot provide any kind of monetary remuneration” said Hazarika.
Speaking of how he meets people with records, Hazarika said that it is generally through word-of-mouth and contacts.
80 percent of these records, vinyls and cassettes are recovered from Assam and the remaining 20 percent are found in states like West Bengal and New Delhi, especially in Kolkata, as earlier, all vinyls from this region were produced there.
“This one is a funny anecdote. I have found a lot of records in the chor bazaars, flea markets of Kolkata. One time, there was a stack of old Assamese vinyls just lying around. 10 rupees for a piece, can you imagine? A bunch of Assamese greats, found in the nooks and corners of old Calcutta,” he exclaimed, recalling the incident.
The third problem that he faces is that people often mistake his archiving as a music museum. Hazarika’s aim is not to create a museum, but to make a digital archive that stores these re-mastered songs so that they are accessible to all, even in countries as far as the United States and United Kingdom. He wants to create a sharing platform, not a viewing platform.
“I want to spread the music digitally, that is the initiative. It is for everyone, not just one person. It will be available in Jyoti Chitraban’s website, my website. You can also download it and spread it. We have to spread and share Assamese music, that’s the initiative,” he said passionately.
Currently, the department has collected approximately 10,000 pictures of film personalities from Assam and they are also in the process of collecting and archiving Assamese films, music, photographs and literature.
Hazarika mentioned that he wants to mix all of these together and make a platform where everything from Assamese culture is available in a single place. His aim is to make the platform like Netflix and Spotify - a mixed version of that.
“I have an appeal for all musicians, sound engineers, archivists etc of the region to take initiative and volunteer for this project. Maybe in one month, one album could be digitized and this would also help a lot. Also, if someone has a vinyl or cassette, if it is digitised or not, please send it to us or if not, let us come to your place and we’ll digitize it. This is for our culture,” said Hazarika in closing.