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Faraway Friends - music in India

Julian Pircher


Faraway Friends: Music For Clean Water

A trio of musicians from Austria, Germany and India are highlighting the social impact of India’s worst ever water crisis through catchy and powerful music.

Von Chris Cummins

In Austria, we wake up, turn on a tap and have a ready supply of clean and safe drinking water. We are so used to this, that we no longer see it as a luxury. But in India, according to a recent report, more than half the population has no access to safe drinking water and about 200,000 people die every year for lack of access to safe water.

„The Worst Water Crisis in Indian History“

water in India

Julian Pirchner

It’s a crisis caused by poor management; excess extraction, poor storage, as well as climatic change. Seasonal rainfall is becoming more erratic and droughts are becoming more frequent as well as more widespread. In other words a bad situation is only getting worse. The World Resources Institute has described „water stress“ as „extremely high“ in India and the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) has described the current situation as “the worst water crisis” in India’s history.

“It’s such a huge crisis because a lot of the water supplies that exist are all polluted,” says Ditty Veena, an Indian singer and songwriter based in Delhi, who provides the vocals for a new music project called Faraway Friends that has been highlighting the situation. “All the rivers are dammed so they don’t flow like they used to.”

Drying Up And Polluted

The lack of piped water means that water-borne diseases are rife and the pollution levels in the water are frightening. UNICEF calculates that chemicals contaminate the water in nearly 2 million homes.

Ditty’s concern about the issue has led her to get involved in Faraway Friends. It is a musical trio made up of Ditty, Austrian producer David Raddish and the German rapper Keno, frontman of the band Moop Mama.

Ditty met David and Keno in the city of Varanasi, an ancient and famously spiritual city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The two Europeans had been brought to India by Viva Con Agua, a charity working in both India and Africa to press for better access to clean drinking water. “It was an instant connection,” says Ditty, “We had so many ideas and so many things to speak about.”

The boys discover water

Julian Pirchner

The album, called „Rain Is Coming“, which will be released on World Water Day on 22 March 2021, is about water but it is also full of water. David and Keno had been taken by Viva Con Agua to some of the worst affected areas, hearing from community leaders and villagers about what water scarcity means for their everyday lives. About 82% of rural households are without piped water supply.

As well as hearing the villages testimonies, David had taken a microphone to the banks of rivers and to wells and pumps and recorded the many different sounds of water with the idea of, on his return, making music inspired by the trip: “I was inspired by all the different soundscapes you can create with water: when you throw a stone into the water it is more like a clap, when you splash a bucket into water it sounds more like a crash, so I explored many percussive sounds and you can hear many of these sounds on the album."

boy in water

Julian Pirchner

That we are talking about an album is down to the instant artistic chemistry felt between the European musicians and Indian vocalist Ditty. “As soon as we met her, we said that we had do something together. At first, we just wanted to do one or two songs,” David laughs, “but then we did a few more and now we have an album.”

The songs on the album reflect the social issues, both alarming and at times uplifting, that David and Keno learned about on their trip with Viva Con Agua. It seems fitting that it’s a female Indian voice that articulates these issues, because, in the patriarchal societies of the parts of rural India they travelled through, it has often fallen to women to do the exhausting work it takes to provide a family with water.

“These women in rural areas sometimes walk miles and miles to get water to bring to their villages, bringing it back on containers carried on their heads” explains Ditty. As well as being arduous, it can be dangerous. Sometimes the women are sexually assaulted during the daily grind or to find water for washing or basic sanitation.

Often it is not women, but girls who are tasked with fetching the water, and that means they often miss out on education because of the time consuming chore.

But the story of women and water told in Faraway Friends’ track Jal Saheli is a story of female empowerment. Jal Saheli means “friends of the water” and is a group of several hundred female community activists from the increasing arid region of Bundelkhand.

After getting training from the grass roots charity Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sangathan, these women, two or three in over 200 different villages, have become active in making their communities more resilient to drought. They have provided leadership on the efforts to harvest rainwater, dig wells, de-silt ponds, build check dams and repair hand pumps.

I’ve visited humanitarian projects with charities in foreign countries and during the time I was a journalist in West Africa. I’ve always found the reporting ultimately rewarding but the experience itself somewhat jarring; the Westerner with a note pad and camera, scribbling and snapping away and holding out a microphone. But as musicians, David and Keno were able to find a way to cross cultural boundaries: “Many times we met musicians there and there was an instant party and people were dancing,” he remembers. “There was an immediate connection. We didn’t speak the language, they didn’t really understand us but through rhythm and music we found that connection."

the band still in action

Julian Pirchner

Ancient Wisdom

Rainwater preservation is a massive challenge in rural India, particularly for agriculture. There are three months of Monsoon rains and then it is mostly entirely dry. Part of the solution to the challenges of the present and future includes harnessing the traditional knowledge of the past.

David and Keno met activists trying to reintroduce simple age-old solutions to Indian communities. “They dig ponds to collect the rainwater during the three months when it rains and then for the rest of the year all the fields around the ponds are nourished from this water.”

Clearly this was an eye-opener for the two westerners in Faraway Friends, David and Keno, but also for Ditty, the Indian singer: “This is a reality that people like me who grew up in the city are quite protected from,” she told me on a Skype line from Delhi. “The rural world is also something that city people don’t really venture out into so much because the realities are quite disturbing. When I met these boys, I thought this was such a great opportunity to actually speak about these things.”

Percussionist and producer David Raddish says he feels he has taken much more from his experiences in India than he could ever give back through the awareness-wakening album. “There was so much inspiration, so many great stories, so many different perspectives on life, and so many people I met who have since become friends.”

the band playing

Julian Pircher

But Ditty too says she got a lot from her work with David and Keno, from their drive and energy. The musicians also proved pre-lockdown pioneers. The Viva Con Agua trip was in September 2019 and, over the winter, the record „Rain Is Coming“ was put together on the internet with meetings on Skype. So, when the first lockdown came in March and, across the world, artists were experimenting with this new recording reality; the trans-continental members of Faraway Friends were already veterans.

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