Barcarole and other songs of the boatman

Civilizations, over the earths history have flourished along coasts, or by the banks of rivers. The Sumerians, Egytians, Greek, Vikings, Assyrians, Indus valley civilization and so on. And where there is water, there is a boat. And where there is a boat, there is a boatman. And where there is a boatman there is a song. There is something quite mysteriously magical about the songs of the boatman. The lure of a voice far across the open waters, perhaps through the distant mist, tinged with a melancholy unknown, keeping pace with the ebb and tide of the river or sea. In its element, it is so universal that is it possible to trace its footsteps across various civilizations and geographies.

Belle Nuit, Nuit d’amor …

First, the barcarolle, a folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers, or a piece of music composed in that style. It is characterised by  a rhythm reminiscent of the gondolier’s stroke, almost invariably a modest tempo 6/8 meter. The most famous barcarolle featured in an operatic production has to be Offenbach’s Barcarolle from the Tales of Hoffman. The piece is featured in the collection below and you can listen to its Amazon samples.

The opera itself, Tales of Hoffman, explores the blurring of the conscious and subconscious mind through the author’s twisted memories of three women. The barcarolle was used by Offenbach (actually posthumously) in the third act when the stage of the opera shifts to Venice.

O Majhi Re…

Haunting melody, that takes days to get out of your head, is a quality also shared by yet another style of music from a land far far away (actually so far away from Venice that it is right in my backyard). Among the mighty rivers of the Himalayas emptying their waters into the bay of Bengal, which legend has it descended from the heavens above, are the Bhatiali and Sari singers. Closely related in style and substance are the Goalparia singers from Assam, songs of the river folk.

These songs are written and composed by the boatmen who sing the songs during their long river or sea voyages to dispel the boredom and to fill the air with music. These folk songs have gained tremendous popularity because of their enchanting yet simple musical compositions. The beautiful rhythmic composition and the beats of these songs gave the boatmen the required energy and vigor to draw the oars of the boat. This style thrives on an open-voiced and outdoorsy exploration of the higher octave. It suggests drifting and philosophical acceptance. Indian greats like R.D. Burman and S.D. Burman before him, have borrowed from these styles and given us masterpieces like “O Majhi Re” and “Mere saajan hain us paar”.

Romp and stomp of the ocean bound …

Jumping from the philosophical to the practical, far across the oceans to Scottish and British seas. In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard a ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled at repetitive tasks. They also served a social purpose: it alleviated boredom and lightened the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages in those days.

Johnny Depp reportedly developed an interest in sea shanties while filming Pirates of the Caribbean. As a result, in 2006 he helped facilitate Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys.  On this collection you can listen to the iconic “Mingulay Boat Song” as well as contributions like “Shallow Brown” from Sting who also shares an interest in sea shanties.

Its time for Africa…

And last but not the least, from the land of rhythm and beats, Africa. African natives have long carried the tradition of work songs, whether on their native land, or on slave ships or in the new colonies while they helped build new tomorrows. They had a rhythm for every motion. And while David Franshawe, composer, ethnomusicologist and explorer has archived the sounds of the Nile in his brilliant collection of original recordings, apt here is the “Sound of the river”, chants with the same heave and pull rhythm of the oars.


Across centuries, and continents, and cultures, the boatman through their common love of poetry, melodies and the heave-ho bio-rhythm are bound to the same brotherhood. It is as if the song of the boatman, not only helped synchronize their oar movements, but also a global movement in music. While I hop around exploring these styles of music, do you know of more such examples from other parts of the world ?

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