Story and photos by Claire Bourgeois
The very first time I met Priya and Bhagya Ramesh, it was at a spoken word open mic night.
I was serving at Koi at the time when the sisters took to the stage. They played a backtrack through the stage sound system and blew everyone away with what they were putting down.
While there may have been confusion as to where two female rappers fit in a typically chilled out Monday night poetry reading, it was impossible to deny their talent.
Fast-forward to about a year later, and Cartel Madras have traded open mics for sold-out shows. In 2018 alone, Priya and Bhagya (stage names Contra and Eboshi) along with music producer Tristan Ryan (DJ Egglad) have achieved more than what many local groups could hope to do in an entire career.
A headlining spot at Sled Island, a spot at Slutfest Montreal, opening for rapper Cupcakke, and an Alberta Music Spotlight at the National Music Centre are among the trio’s greatest successes, not to mention the release of their debut mixtape, Trapistan.
When we met up at Two Penny recently for a chat over cocktails, I had the chance to learn what it is that makes them so successful. The group place a huge emphasis on the live performance, an art they were practicing long before the creation of Cartel Madras. Given the group’s reputation for high-energy, groundbreaking performances, this didn’t come as much of a surprise.
“We go to a lot of shows and that really does let us know what we like seeing and what we don’t like seeing – and what keeps our attention. We all love music. But we love to get lit at a show and have a fun time.”
This is not something the trio take lightly. Everything, from the cadence of their performance to the style and types of songs on their mixtapes, is informed by the vibe they’ll be able to create at the show.
“We write all our songs thinking about how they’re going to go live, and everything longer than three minutes had better be good or its gonna drag,” they explained of the decision to keep all songs on Trapistan below the four-minute mark.
Rather than hinder their artistry, however, they insist this guideline does more than improve the vibe at their shows. In fact, it actually improves their musicality and writing ability.
“It really makes you write better. Because it’s like, ‘Can you condense what you want to say from five minutes into two?’ Two minutes is a song. Five minutes is an essay.”
When it comes to where and when they play, the group also has a very specific set of personal guidelines to ensure success; the first being to never play an early show. The reason for this is the type of energy and audience buy-in required for the show to be successful. They rely heavily on audience participation, calling for the crowd to get into it and forget the outside world at their shows.
Such shows aren’t always easy to come by, though, which may explain their unusual approach to events. In 2018, Cartel Madras organized two ticketed house shows in partnership with Fireside Music. The series, aptly titled Sans Fuccs, was created to fill a gap that some venues here in Calgary didn’t always satisfy.
Having attended a Sans Fuccs show myself back in September, I can confirm the energy that goes into these performances. The group jumps around the stage spitting verse after verse, commanding the room with their presence and empowering lyrics – touching on topics from relationships and misogyny, to the party lifestyle, to their Indian heritage.
Contra and Eboshi aren’t the only ones who’ve cultivated quite the following this year, however. Though no one expected it, DJ Egglad has himself caught the favour of their audiences. All three at the table couldn’t help but laugh as they discussed DJ Egglad’s quick growth in popularity, chuckling as they remembered a particular audience in Montreal who urged him to take his shirt off mid-set.
“An audience hasn’t experienced a sister hard-rap group yet and it helps to have somebody there who fucks with it. It lets other white dudes know that they’re allowed to like this too.”
At the Sans Fuccs event, I met a group of people who had driven from Lethbridge just to see Cartel Madras perform. They had seen them once, months ago, and were so blown away by the performance that they knew they had to come down for this show.
This is representative of the intense following Cartel Madras have garnered over the course of this year. People hear their music, and feel excited. They awaken something in all of us here in Calgary, as many of us haven’t experienced anything like this in our home city before.
Perhaps the reason Cartel Madras have found such success here has less to do with their music – though that shouldn’t be disregarded. Perhaps, it has to do with the emotional reaction they elicit from people here who experience a show. The way that they can transform a room with their energy and vision.
What Calgary sees in Cartel Madras is something we are beginning to see more and more in our city: a group of empowered, diverse and unique musicians bringing something new to the table, just as Calgary undergoes a cultural renaissance unlike anything we’ve seen here.
Bold, unapologetic, and heading straight for the top.