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Surviving in New Delhi, India’s capital city, is no easy feat, especially considering its dismal air quality. The realities of modern life (crop burnings, idling cars, industrial emissions that often go unenforced), combined with certain geographical and meteorological misfortunes keep the city constantly in the red zone; on many days, you can’t make it too far without coughing or wiping your stinging eyes. It is against this backdrop, with his harmonium at hand, that producer-singer Lifafa, aka Suryakant Sawhney, opens his second album Jaago (which means “wake up” in Hindi). His diagnosis is less than optimistic: India is drowning not just in atmospheric toxicity, but existential dread: “Doob raha hai / Yeh desh yahaan,” which translates to “This country is drowning out here.”
Lifafa is not trying to be dramatic. He’s just looking inward, drawing from years of experience recording and performing in India. His classically-styled crooning, forged in the country’s alternative circuit as part of the psychedelic/gypsy/waltz band Peter Cat Recording Co.—has prompted comparisons to a young Frank Sinatra, not to mention respected Indian singers like Mohammed Rafi. Less than a decade later, both Peter Cat and Lifafa have begun gaining a cult following in India and overseas.
The eight-track Jaago, released on New Year’s Day, makes it easy to understand why. Multiple eras of music spring up with every added layer in every single song, intermingling with unexpected ease. Across the record, Sawhney dabbles in Auto-Tuned experiments (“Chaku Chidiya”), slow-dance-ready chillwave (“Mere saath”), and seductive synth-pop (“Nikamma”). The instrumental “Candy,” featuring fellow Delhi producer Hashback Hashish, contrasts his harmonium jams with futuristic techno loops, while ”Din Raat” and “Ek Nagma” take cues from ’80s Bollywood disco.
For all of its latent chaos, Jaago is ultimately the sound of Sawhney in survival mode, preaching love as the solution for psychological and sociopolitical turmoil—and standing by it. Addressing a would-be lover on “Nikamma,” he makes a promise: “Kabhi mat rona / Jab mein chahoon / Duniya sajaaon” (“Don’t ever cry / When I want to / I’ll adorn the world for you”). The future might be dark, and the air poisonous, but somehow, he manages to bring out the silver lining.