The collaboration between the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and Seher, an organisation dedicated to arts and culture, brought the seventh edition of the annual South Asian Bands Festival (SABF) to New Delhi’s Purana Qila (29 November to 1 December). The Festival started out as a platform for some of the best music acts from the SAARC countries. However, what was once a landmark rock event, has strayed far from the ideals it set out with at its inception in 2007.
That first year began with mind-blowing performances by Soulmate from Shillong, which was just making a dent internationally. It had performers such as Anusheh Anadil, possibly one of the finest voices in contemporary music in South Asia. Alas, the festival, with it’s promise of something new, is now, at best, another free event at the end of the month when wallets are thin. The fact that the recently held NH7 Weekender was headlined by much bigger acts is another reason for the slim pickings at the ICCR and Seher’s weak attempt at putting up the SABF.
The festival’s offerings seemed too familiar, the acts had been present at previous editions. However, Korea was a new addition, even though it is not a member of the SAARC (its current status says observer). The Korean band Biuret gave one of the few fantastic performances. It is the winner of Sutasi, the Asian American Idol event. Frontwoman Hyewon Moon, gave a power-packed performance, well-backed by the band. Guitarist Gyo-won Lee won the audience over because he had learnt some Hindi but forgotten everything save Dhanyavaad, which he kept throwing at a cheering crowd whenever he ran short for words. The band also covered a medley of Abba’s Dancing Queen and the Chicago OST. Its style is essentially punk rock along with some funky grooves thrown in by the rhythm section.
However, fan loyalty for known names held strong, and, predictably, the three main acts to move the crowds were Strings, The Raghu Dixit Project and Papon and the East India Company. Strings’ was not much of a performance, it was the Bollywood flavour of their music that seemed to have drawn the crowd. Vocalists Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia strangely kept the pitch low, and let the crowd do most of the singing for them. The final day headliner The Raghu Dixit Project did bring some of its A-game, sporting at least two new members. With a new album (Jag Changa) out on the racks, the band experimented with the new songs and even got the crowd singing to one in Kannada.
However, Strings and Raghu Dixit have become pretty much fixtures for the SABF every year, sidestepping several bands from other countries. The rest of the Indian repertoire was disappointingly Delhi-heavy, as if it were also the capital of the country’s music scene.
This slide downhill of the festival finds an echo in what the ICCR seems to have become. It’s supposed to promote Indian artists outside the country, yet, as art critic Sadanand Menon pointed out at a recent lecture in the city, it is now known better for getting artists to India than taking them abroad.
To damn it further, a member of a band empanelled with the ICCR for international performances spoke up — “Getting empanelled with the ICCR is tough. We had to go through a major process to get it and that too because one of our musicians’ parent is in the government.”
It seems as though problems of the parent body are slowly killing one of its best ventures.
‘I have always written positive and happy music’
A six year wait ends as the new age folk band The Raghu Dixit Project release their second album. With a power packed performance at the South Asian Bands Festival under his belt, Raghu Dixit talks about the stories behind his songs and the journey from album to album
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What’s gone into this second album?
This is the combined product of everything we have done in the last six years. We haven’t spared a thing to make this album happen. It took so long because I wanted to bring it to a stage where I was ready for the world to hear it. We scrapped and recorded the entire album three times. There is more interest and awareness and, hopefully, with effective marketing that’ll mean a wider audience.
How was it born?
There comes a point where your material has grown with you over the years and is ready to become an album. We reached that point two years ago, but wanted to show a definite growth and direction to our music. How each song came about is a story in itself. This is a brand new phase in my musical life and a marked improvement in the band’s sound.
What are the lyrics about?
I have always written positive and happy music. This album is not too different. The title track, Jag Changa, is about how this world is so beautiful despite everyday’s negativity. I wrote Amma for my mother — I realised I hadn’t written about her at all, even though she is my pillar of strength and inspiration. Kodagana Koli Nungitha and Lokada Kalaji are songs based on the poetry of my favourite Kannada poet-saint, Santha Shishunala Sharif. They talk of self-confidence and a positive attitude to life, but in a fun way. Parasiva, the album opener is about the angels that change your life. I am a living testament to that fact. Yaadon ki Kyari, a song I am grateful to Ankur Tewari for writing, is about my childhood memories of Nasik.
Yours is one of the few ‘produced’ performances with lights, sound effects and even dancers. How do you ideate and direct them?
You’re referring to our launch show, which was a dream show for us. We thought up a visual spectacle, and Mayuri Upadhya and her fantastic team from Nritarutya made that a reality. We worked out different ideas for each song to be brought to life by the dancers, and other artists.
Has the recording industry changed since your last album?
Of course. More people are putting out music and some really interesting genres have come up. The record labels are finally looking at indie music. There is the usual rant about people not buying music and record sales dying, but this is an opportunity for people to come up with more interesting business models.
‘Exploring new things wasn’t possible with Indian Ocean’
Guitarist Susmit Sen has cut the umbilical chord from the band Indian Ocean and is on his way to launch the second album for his solo project, The Susmit Sen Chronicles, which played to a packed audience at the South Asian Bands Festival. He speaks about new collaborations after wading out of the Ocean
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
How long has this project been waiting in the wings? How is the music different?
I formed this band a year ago but certain things had long been in place. Even when I was with Indian Ocean, I worked on my solo project. After releasing an album, I realised I needed a band to perform with. Though these are new compositions, I can’t change my guitar style. However, the presentation is different. The music is impossible to describe, but I will say that it is very organic.
Why not make this music with Indian Ocean?
In a band, 23 years is a long time. One needs to explore different things — compositions, band members, new concerts. That was not possible with Indian Ocean. It is difficult to continue in two different setups. But I’ve been saying this from before Asheem Chakravarty passed away — if we created a legacy, younger people need to carry it. I thought Nikhil Rao could probably, after a point, do the job better than me. The decision to split did not happen overnight. It’s always difficult to leave a band that is at its peak.
What’s it like playing with young, skilled musicians such as Nikhil Vasudevan?
These guys think differently about music. Because I’ve been doing it longer, I probably push them in a certain direction. They might be happier with electronica but I press for something more organic. I didn’t start out as skilled as them; they give their skill importance. But I remind them that skill is not expression. Music is a language. If you speak a language thinking only of grammatical structure, it won’t come naturally.
What other projects are lined up?
I am concentrating on the new album; it is being mixed and mastered with the release due next year in a special package that I will reveal soon. I will invest time in tours, festivals and public gigs, which will also involve collaborations. The album has a collaboration with a Hungarian piano accordion player called Zoltan. He brings in a gypsy flavour and his experience of playing with jazz bands.
What about your shift to music production?
I produced for Harpreet, a young composer. I am producing an album for a couple called Vinay and Sarul, popularly know as Loknaad. They write on social issues — child labour, human rights, RTI. They perform with just a duff and ghoongroo. I had to be minimalist to ensure that their performance doesn’t suffer from overinstrumentalising the recorded music.