Ground Ziro

When you get bumped up to business class on a 3+ hour flight at the start of a long journey, you can’t be faulted for wearing a silly grin on your face and thinking nothing can go wrong. I would have bought a lottery ticket right then if it was on sale. Thankfully for me, contrary to what often really happens after such a surprisingly pleasant start, the rest of my trip to the far North East of India to attend the Ziro Festival of Music in the state of Arunachal Pradesh and back retained that happy tone.

I had been meaning to make it to the festival for the last few years but it took a message from my good friend, Anurag Tagat (who is a journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine, The Hindu, Firstpost etc.) that legendary Japanese instrumental rock band, MONO would be playing at this 7th edition for me to turn intent into action. Ziro valley, inhabited largely by the Apatani people, where the festival is held is not easily accessible. It’s often a good 24 hour journey (including wait time between multiple legs of the trip) from most parts of the country – by flight, train and inevitably, road on the last segment. The wretchedness of large parts of that final road segment are mostly offset by the spectacular lush green scenery en route. When Anurag and I reached the campsite run by Kite Manja (there are quite a few others but this one is the oldest) which was to be home to us for 4 days, I felt a sense of tranquility envelop me. And it did not let go of its hold over me in all the time we were there.

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Having gone all the way there, I would have liked to have explored the region but given the paucity of time I stuck to focusing on the festival experience. Each day, Anurag and I would make our way walking through beautiful pine forests from the camp to the festival site, eat lunch from an extremely limited but quite tasty vegetarian menu (no lack of variety for meat-eaters though), and watch and listen to every one of the bands performing on the 2 stages – Danyi (Sun in Apatani or the Day Stage) and Piilo (Moon or the Night Stage). Unlike at a lot of other festivals, the languid pace here allows you to watch entire sets of each band should you choose to since there are no parallel performances (quite as the stage names suggest) on the 2 stages.On Day 1 although there was no performance on the Danyi stage, we still went early enough to get a sense of the festival space. For Anurag, this was his second visit but for me, the first.

I have never seen anything like it. Gently rolling terrain overlooking green and straw-yellow fields of paddy, stages tastefully constructed of bamboo, mostly cloudy skies but with a relieving absence of precipitation, a pleasant mild breeze that played right through, and in the distance, forest-covered hills that encircle the valley. The lay of the land creates a natural amphitheater at the Danyi stage. Sitting or lying on the grass and listening to excellent music in that idyllic setting made for a soul-stirring experience. The Piilo stage on the other hand commanded a flatter, more bare terrain in front of it with lush grass on the verge. Made sense since this was the stage which featured high-energy performances with more people attending in the evenings.

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I cannot speak for previous editions but this one had top-notch programing for sure. A lineup remarkable for its variety yet shorn of a jarring note. Most importantly, at least for me, there were many bands – and really good bands – that one normally doesn’t get to see and hear at other festivals. So much joyous discovery. In a resounding reiteration of music being its own language, the bands sang in a wide assortment of languages, the lack of familiarity with which, however, did not prevent the audience from  appreciating and grooving to the music.

I’m not a big fan of the singer-songwriter ilk but there are a few that I love. I found a surprising number that I liked at the Danyi stage – Ditty with her easy, unaffected style, the earnest singing of Ady Manral whose nervous awkwardness between songs only served to add charm to his songs, and the mind-blowingly dark magic that Frenchman Mathias Durand wove around and over us. Smalltalk from Mumbai introduced their exhilarating blend of psych-rock and R&B to a mostly new audience (not us though) through the most electric set on that stage. Koloma and Sam Paa added a lot of folk colour. I was most impressed with Sam Paa with their lilting melodies and instruments that they modified/created themselves. There is a building trend of Indian Classical Music practitioners performing at festivals in India that normally are showcases of contemporary forms. The Ziro Festival saw India’s first woman Ghatam (claypot) exponent, Sukkanya Ramgopal and her all-woman group, Layakriti hold the audience in thrall as they brought to us the percussive joys of more than one unusual instrument. There was too the ever-delightful Madou Sidiki Diabate from Mali on the Kora. I had met this member of the 71st generation of Kora players a few years back when I was managing his stage at the Ode To The Blues Festival and so it was a pleasure seeing and listening to him again here.

After an opening song by the Popi Sarmin Society on the Piilo stage on Day 1 to informally open the festival, the Omak Komut Collective got proceedings at the Piilo stage into gear. The songs they performed are traditional pieces in Arunachal that act as instruction to young ones in the community using music as a teaching medium; powerful. The Ziro Festival doesn’t normally repeat bands that have played in the past but one of the rare ones that have played at more than one edition is almost a permanent fixture there 🙂 I have seen Yesterdrive play once before in Delhi what I thought was an inconsistent performance. But this performance that I saw on their home-ground showed how good they really are. There were more terrific performances from Takar Nabam Trio and Avora Records, both of which I was very happy with; maybe just a bit more with Avora Records with their little math-rock flourishes. The beautiful singing and electronica work of Tarana Marwah and the incredible drumming of Suyash Gabriel makes Komorebi a potent musical combination and the duo owned the night. In a contrast of sorts, there was the more traditional but equally compelling blues rock of the rather predictably named Blue Temptation. I love jazz and I was grateful to the organisers for having UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her band on the bill. It was wonderful how much space she allowed her band members and yet very confidently proclaimed her own immense talent through her proficiency on the sax. Israeli trio, Malox gave such a rollicking performance as to make sure the audience would have a tough time going to sleep at night, adrenaline-buzzed as it was.

There were a few bands that did not excite me much. I found Search And Found quite lost in drearily familiar territory even though they played competently. Func, to me, was frankly boring with its unmemorable synth music. That’s a band that can surprise you when main man, Randolph takes to the guitar but this was not one of those nights. Ambush had some hard-hitting lyrics but every one of their songs seemed a rip-off of a Rage Against The Machine tune to the point that Anurag and I had a game going identifying the RATM tune. Dewdrops played a style of reggae that was initially arresting but my interest waned after a while when monotony set in. Featherheads seem to hold a lot of promise but they like Dee En had the misfortune of a problem-riddled soundcheck. Both those bands have potential and I hope they realise that over time.

A festival that has an audience mostly comprised of people from the North, East and North East might perhaps not be expected to cheer a lot for musicians singing in the Southern tongue. But that thing one says of music being its own language took completely over when Oorka from Chennai and Oorali from Thrissoor performed. The fact that Oorka had barely survived a near-fatal head-on collision on their way just the previous day did not show at all as they played a raging belter of a set that had the crowd going wild. After an uncertain, off-key start Oorali seized the audience heart, body and soul with their socially relevant songs set to folk-rock music. One of the best surprises for me was Gauley Bhai, a new Bangalore quartet singing in Nepali, playing their first proper gig and blowing everyone away with one of the most assured performances of the festival. Hip-hop blared its presence at Ziro loud and clear with the no-punches-pulled verses of Cryptographik Street Poets who I thought were a just bit off-form but still powerful enough, the mad energy of crowd-favourite K4Kekho, and Prabhdeep who everyone in the Indian hip-hop ‘scene’ is talking about, for good and for bad ‘coz what’s a ‘scene’ without bitching. I could see why the man is rated highly by many though. He was to have closed the 4-day festival but for maverick percussionist, Sivamani stage-crashing without apparently so much as a “May I?” 🙂 He happened to be in that part of the country, heard about the Ziro Festival, drove up on the penultimate day, and told the organisers quite simply “I’m here. I want to play”. And so play he did on the last night to bring the festival to an unexpected but very good end.

But going back to what catalysed my attending the festival – MONO. From what I read, India is the 57th country the band have played in. They came here just for this one gig before heading out for a very busy UK tour. There have been many efforts in the past, including a couple that I was involved with in the background, to bring these legends to this country but none of those worked out. But were we rewarded many times over when we finally got to see and hear the band play live! I was crying a bit at one point, and I know many others were too. It’s hard to describe a MONO live performance. Perhaps, the cliched but simple ‘intense’ comes closest. Their schedule constraints meant that they played on the very first evening of the festival. For me, after that everything was a bonus; I did not have expectations. Over the subsequent 3 days, though, I received some of the biggest bonuses of my 48 years of life!

A truly beautiful experience this was. But for it to remain so for everyone, a lot of care, sensitivity, and consideration have to be shown by all concerned. We must respect the land and its people; these are proud folk, and rightfully so. Already there is concern among the Apatani of the ills of their youth taking to excessive drink, about the amount of litter that gets created. The festival organisers recognise these issues and have been fiercely dedicated in reducing the deleterious effect of a horde of people suddenly descending on an otherwise quiet space. There is a conscious, and I’ll say a quite successful effort at keeping plastic off the festival site. A big part of the existence of the Ziro Festival of Music is to create and nurture a healthy bond between the Apatani and those of us from outside and to promote safe, clean, sustainable tourism. But the organisers cannot micro-manage the behaviour and attitude of everyone that comes there. Thankfully so far, the festival has largely remained the experience that it is meant to be. A continuance of that requires fierce determination, unflagging dedication and no small amount of love.