It was December 2008 and Sunburn, the annual electronic dance music festival held in Candolim, Goa, was in its second year. The tourist season in the country had been tense following the November terror attacks in Mumbai, and authorities everywhere had been busy tightening the screws on events which expected large crowds and travellers. The buzz around Sunburn had been wary, but once the festival got under way the sombre mood seemed, for a time, to have lifted. Then they shut it down.
“It was five past eight, and someone used a noise pollution law to shut us down,” remembers Nikhil Chinapa, festival promoter. Suddenly, everything was dark and silent. The crowd, mostly young people who had ignored their parents’ advice against going to Goa that year, was taken aback. But, Chinapa says, “not a single person complained or left.” Not knowing that the organizers were making nervous phone calls to figure out the problem, they sat on the sand and waited. At 9.30pm, the show started again. The lights came back on, and the DJ, John Fleming, started up a song. At the first sound of the muted kick drum on the track, people got up and came running in droves towards the stage.
“My greatest memory of Sunburn, ever, is the roar that went up at the 1-minute mark, when the track finally kicks in,” Chinapa says. “Maybe you had to be there, but my hair is standing on end even as I’m describing it to you.”
It is 2012, and India’s music calendar is now as full of “you have to be there” festivals as it has ever been. Some events, like Sunburn, have expanded their calendar to include smaller sets and gigs in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, to give listeners a taste of what to expect at the “home” event on Candolim Beach. Others, like the three-year-old Bacardi NH7 Weekender, which describes itself as “India’s happiest music festival”, has expanded: Its three-day-long programme in Pune will now be three weekends over October, November and December in Delhi, Pune and Bangalore.
Music festivals are, of course, about line-ups, musical taste and fannish passion. The moshpit would never have been invented otherwise. But festival season, which unofficially begins today with Weekender’s Delhi leg, is also a time for dilettantes to travel, meet up with friends, and soak in the atmosphere. That’s why, in addition to the fact that Anoushka Shankar and Megadeth will play the festival this year, it was important for the organizers of Weekender to start planning by making a checklist of all the things that annoyed them about other music festivals, and then working to make sure they didn’t repeat those mistakes. That’s why, when asked about Sunburn’s line-up this year, Chinapa says, “For me, the DJs aren’t as important as the fact that you can stand there, with your feet in the sand, forgetting about everything else.”
Good music festivals give their acts the freedom to transport you. Delhi rock band menwhopause, who played a superbly fun set at Weekender last year, ended with an unplanned performance of their jam Kaatil Sardar because the mood got to them, and the crowd thrilled to it. “As an artiste at Weekender you don’t have to worry about anything,” says menwhopause guitarist Anup Kutty. “The vibe is just something else. To do something on this scale without everyone involved getting into a fight is unprecedented.”
This weekend, menwhopause play on home turf—Ground D of the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. “I walked in and thought, ‘This is petrifying’,” laughs Sumant Jayakrishnan, who is designing the venue. “It’s one large, empty space.”
But the Buddh International Circuit’s unromantic concrete expanse portends good things for Delhi’s music scene, regardless of city fans’ reputation as something of a tough crowd. “Delhi fans can’t catch a break sometimes,” says Vijay Nair, CEO of Mumbai-headquartered Only Much Louder, which organizes Weekender. “But the ‘happiness quotient’ of the festival depends on who comes to the gigs, and in my experience some of the best events I have ever seen have happened here. Culturally, no other city in India comes close to Delhi.”
Some of the country’s loveliest venues also light up because of music festivals. Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, has hosted the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) since its inception in 2007. RIFF, scheduled around Sharad Poornima every year, presents folk performers from different local and international traditions. Spanish flamenco artistes might dance impromptu with kalbeliya dancers, and beatboxers jam with classical musicians. Older listeners come dressed in silks and sit on chairs, while youngsters who ration their showers float about closer to the stage. The evening concerts go on until late into the full moon nights, and end with sunrise performances at the Jaswant Thada, a marble memorial not far from the fort.
Its tourist attractions don’t disguise the fact that RIFF is one of the most experimental folk music festivals in India today. “This year’s festival focuses a little less on melodic textures,” says festival director Divya Bhatia, “and more on rhythmic textures.” The themes develop organically. While past events have featured musicians known to casual listeners, this year’s line-up has few celebrities. People will come to see artistes like Colombian plains musicians Grupo Cimarron, and Mark Atkins, an Australian artiste of Aboriginal descent who plays, among other instruments, the didgeridoo. This year, the festival adds the new Jodhpur desert park, just outside the fort walls, to its list of venues.
The focus, though, remains the Rajasthani performers, from various musical and devotional traditions. This year’s line-up will feature, among others, Meghwal musicians from Marwar, the bhopi singers Bhanwari Devi and Patashi Devi, and jogia sarangi player Babunath Jogi. “Rajasthani folk is not just a genre,” Bhatia says. “It’s a living culture, and the festival is a place where we can convey how music here emerges from something real.”
Over the last five years, he says, “there’s probably been more written about Rajasthani folk music than there has in all the years before that”—a fact he won’t hesitate to attribute to RIFF’s carefully curated foreign exchanges. The zenana courtyard can get pretty crowded on concert nights, but RIFF does not burst to the brim with festival tourists, either, and Bhatia prefers it that way.
“We specifically want people who will come to the festival with a real awareness of the experience,” he says. “We want them to understand where this music, and these artistes, are coming from.”
The Bacardi NH7 Weekender (nh7.in/weekender) will be held from 13-14 October at Ground D, Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida; the Jodhpur RIFF ( www.jodhpurfolkfestival.org ) will be held from 26-30 October at Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; and Sunburn Goa ( sunburn.in and www.facebook.com/SunburnFestival ) will take place on 27-29 December at Candolim Beach, Goa.
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It’s a date
A guide to the season’s festivals.
16-18 November, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
What to expect: Tents, sand dunes, rock, world music and electronica
Amarrass Desert Music Festival
1-2 December, Zorba, New Delhi
What to expect: Musicians from desert regions around the world, including guitarist Bombino from Niger, Turkish folk rocker Baba Zula and Sidi musicians from Kutch.
Blue Lotus Festival
13-18 February, Pushkar, Rajasthan
What to expect: Indian folk. The line-up includes Punjabi Sufi singer Raza Khan, ‘kalbeliya’ performer Mohini Devi, and Gujarati ‘bheth’ musician Mustafa Ali Jat.
Konark Dance & Music Festival
19-23 February, Konark, Orissa
What to expect: Classical and folk dance and music from around India, held in a replica of the old Natyashala of the Sun Temple.
World Sufi Spirit Festival
22-24 February (Jodhpur) and 25-27 February (Nagaur) in Rajasthan
What to expect: Sufi musicians from around the world playing at he gorgeous Ahhichatragarh Fort at Nagaur and Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh.
TIP: Music company NH7 just unveiled a new phone application that tracks festivals and events around the country. See nh7.in/festivapp