Sheikh Raj is a 14-year-old boy, bony and tall. There’s a slight lisp as he speaks of his family—father is an autorickshaw driver and mother a maid working in several homes to provide for a family of four children living in the slums of Park Circus, Kolkata. But when he deftly starts playing the keyboard—fingers moving surely and confidently, mind focused on the sounds—one can see his world shift and realign.
“When we began the SlumJam programme with the kids at Responsible Charity, the children wouldn’t be able to take the keyboards home for practice because they had no electricity, or space to keep it. No fixed home, since most parents are labourers and tend to move around a lot. When an entire family is crammed into one room, every square inch is utilised, and musical instruments can take up space,” says Deep Banerjee, known as Deep Phoenix in the Kolkata music circuit. This 25-year-old musician and guitarist of Whale in the Pond has been the director of the SlumJam programme since 2017.
SlumJam is a one-of-a-kind initiative by Responsible Charity, a nonprofit founded by Hemley Gonzalez in Kolkata which now has chapters in Mumbai and Pune. Born in Cuba, Gonzalez’s family migrated to the US when he was 13. After a successful career in the Miami real estate, he faced the economic setback of 2008.
He is hence familiar with failed administration, political persecution, corruption, poverty and crashing economies. During a backpacking trip to India in 2008, Gonzalez volunteered at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. Responsible Charity was born in 2010 out of the need for a transparent and accountable organisation to help the needy, providing fully-funded education to poor children as the only way to break the cycle of poverty. “During frequent jamming sessions with musicians, I could see it light a spark among the kids and realised that a programme would be hugely beneficial,” says Gonzalez.
The first phase of SlumJam includes competitive games among 6-10 age group.
The top performers can then opt for the music programme, acceptance into which is based on passing an exam after a one-month induction. Music, as one often believes, is a therapeutic medium, specially for children living in squalor and extreme poverty—but that’s a one-dimensional view. Music can and has degrees of utility in the lives of practitioners, and this is the potential that SlumJam seeks to harness. “Music is not only about developing talent or keeping the kids occupied and off the streets. Every kid hated the first month when they had to sit quietly and listen to music. Most would choose football over music. But in class, even the rowdiest child had to first understand music and learn to respect the instruments, learning discipline, focus and responsibility. They learnt that music isn’t playtime, and donated instruments are a hard-earned privilege,” says Banerjee.
Music for the children of Park Circus slum was a novel exposure, a luxury for those below the poverty line, whereas the rest of world takes it for granted. “Initially, the children’s lack of exposure astounded me. They would ask me to explain ‘strings’ on a guitar—words we take for granted—and couldn’t differentiate between a violin and a saxophone,” says Banerjee about the initial-day challenges of teaching.
The programme focuses on all aspects of music—history, language, techniques and then performance. No genre is favoured over the other, and though children are exposed to all kinds—western classical, jazz, hip-hop, heavy-metal, beat-boxing and even rap—they have the freedom to experiment and choose. Currently, the boys and girls are fine-tuning their rendition of ‘Believer’ by Imagine Dragons. The children are also exposed to stage performances and interactions with professional musicians. With students like Raj jamming with musicians of all nationalities and genre, some have taken to social media and YouTube.
There’s a sense of accomplishment for kids that comes with performing a difficult piece, understanding the musical lingo at par with professionals, or in braving the digital world. For Banerjee, his job satisfaction is on a daily basis—from answering their queries, taking them to concert backstage and seeing a video online.