Technologies have changed immensely since I first began carrying around a notebook, small tape recorder, headphones–and sometimes a camera–to singing sessions in Kangra, or visiting singers in their homes. My earnest recordings were a source of amusement. I usually transcribed a song’s words at the time, asking for help from singer or singers. Sometimes I listened again through headphones, transcribing afresh and when I was overwhelmed after long events, I got help from assistants. I then translated the songs in the form that they appear in the book. There were opportunities for error at every step, especially when I was writing too fast and didn’t listen closely enough, and when singers dictated different words or organized verses in a slightly different order than what was sung.
Here are a few examples of songs that are in the book, organized by chapter. You might want to read to the end of this page before you first listen.
These recordings are set in everyday contexts, with conversations going on, tea being served, children running in and out, cows mooing, the pounding and clang of cooking in the background. Between chatting, women might suddenly burst into song and so I quite often lost the first words as I rushed to start recording. In some recordings there’s a pause between lines as I flip a 90-minute cassette tape or replace batteries. My equipment was quite basic. All along, I was interested in the poetic stories that songs revealed and so recordings were more a way to think about how songs connected to singers’ lives than intended for professional-sounding reproduction.
Unlike catchy Bollywood tunes and Punjabi music that enchant younger generations, these songs are mostly slow and meditative. All the songs here highlight women’s voices, and are unadorned by instrumental accompaniment. The songs’ structure invites participation, with a repeating melody and often repeating lines of text or refrains. This welcomes every listener present to join along.
In ritual settings, these songs bring good fortune to singers, to listeners, and to whoever is undergoing a ritual transition. In everyday life, the songs nurture the singers. Even though women with lovely voices were admired, generally, matching the right song to the occasion and the brains to recall long songs were more highly valued than tuneful and aesthetic performance. When I listen to each song, I follow the story, yet the repeated melody often inscribes itself so powerfully in my ear that the song seems to continue singing inside me even when the outer voices have fallen silent.