This festival in Delhi brings together the best of music from Southeast Asia. Any guesses?
A mega music festival brings together the best of singers and bands from ASEAN countries in a dramatic open-air setting, Delhi’s Purana Qila
To every musician on the face of the planet nothing compares to the thrill of playing live to an audience at an open space. Though albums and records are milestones in their own right, the stretch of road filled with cheers, the dampness of sweaty underarms and vibrations originating from the ground up coupled with a sense of belonging to the moment, every artist prides himself on having played that one memorable performance. But the economy of the gig – as the live performance is popularly known – has been crumbling in India. Open spaces are at a premium and bars and pubs have taken over as venues with their pre-packaged serving of music as the ‘other’ offering. At a time like this, the opportunity to not only witness music, but learn of it, at a sizeable historic venue, would sound like a thing of fancy. But this weekend, at the Purana Qila in Delhi, the Asian Music Festival will do just that.
Being organised in conjunction with the Asean summit that will be held in Delhi in January of 2018, the festival is a rare opportunity to discover, more than anything else, the music of Southeast Asia. Besides headline acts by Indian artists like Papon and Shankar Ehsaan Loy, perhaps the most interesting segment of the festival comprises the various bands that are slated to represent Asean’s member countries. And the tableau here is made up as much of musical delicacy as of historical and cultural intrigue. Representing Thailand for example, will be the Asia7, a band that mixes jazz with traditional Thai folk. The measure of tradition can be estimated by the fact that members of Asia7 play on exclusively Thai instruments. “Saw Duang is a two-stringed instrument used in traditional Thai music. The sound is produced by the bow made from horsetail hair which goes between the strings made from silk. The bow has to be tilted to switch from one string to another,” says Tontrakul Kaewyong, member of the band. The other instrument is the Phin (the Northeast Thai lute) a type of stringed instrument made out of hard timber like that from a jackfruit tree or Siamese rosewood.
With instruments so native, it is a bit odd that the band calls itself Asia7. “We wanted our music to be Thai in style initially. But we realised soon enough that it was broader, it was really Asia in its language. So we decided on the name Asia,” Kaewyong says. In a way the band captures the essence of the festival. Artists from as far as Cambodia and little-explored places like Brunei and Vietnam are coming together on a stage and mixing it up in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural fiesta. Language is something that Raghu Dixit, one of the headline Indian acts at the festival, knows a thing or two about. “I have songs in six different languages and at the festival itself, you’ll hear me sing in four of those! I think in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society like India, singing in multiple languages is not something unique, it’s a necessity,” Raghu says. Dixit who has most recently composed music for the upcoming Saif Ali Khan starrer Chef, says that there is nothing like the experience of the performance and being able to create it through your own music. “I keep telling everyone at my shows, just being able to breathe in thin air and then throw it out as a song, itself is a reward. I absolutely love what I am doing. There is nothing better for me than to wake up every morning and be able to make new music.”
As far as genres go, there is plenty on offer, from rock through punk to folk. A curious addition in the mix is shoegaze that though immensely popular in the west, is yet to find its footing in India. Shoegazing was a term coined in the late ’80s by the British press to refer to bands that performed in a motionless, staid manner. “There are many post-rock and shoegaze bands in the Indonesian side-stream scene. Even if it’s not big, it’s still pretty popular amongst youngsters these days. There is something adventurous and cinematic in post-rock music. You can see or listen to post-rock music in popular movies, TV drama series and documentaries. We think that’s why the music has now emerged as a well-known genre in this country,” Herald, vocalist of Indonesian band L’alphalpha said. The key to understanding shoegazing, as Herald puts it, is in the way it assists film and affects our perception of an image(some even call it dreampop) which is why it has become hugely popular when it comes to composing music for indie films and cinema in general. L’alphalpha has also opened for the hugely popular Scottish post-rock band Mogwai.
Coordinating a festival of this scale, bringing in artists from Asean countries, and putting together a show at one of the most iconic venues in Delhi takes some doing. It is natural, therefore, that it be done by someone who knows how to strut his stuff. Sanjeev Bhargava, who founded Seher, the group behind the festival, back in 1994, is the man pulling all the strings. “God is in the details for me. I am a part of everything that is planned. We have to look at everything from security to the sound. You cannot have ten thousand people at a venue and not have the best sound design available. Even the lighting on the Qila will be curated by a light designer. There is a fine line between putting up a fine show and one that no one will remember,” says Bhargava says. If all goes to plan, and in the hands of an experienced man like Bhargava, it should, the Asean festival won’t be one to forget.