Where Have All the Flowers Gone? A first-of-its-kind music festival in Manipur, this is inspired by the songs and environmental activism of the late American folk singer Pete Seeger. The event is an attempt to create awareness on environment through the medium of music. Seeger’s song evidently is the fest’s inspiration but it will not come across as a surprise if the audience fails to recognise the event
After conquering the challenges that the terrains in the Northeast present, one is guaranteed to come across some fine food and refined music. For those who have been living under a rock, the Northeast has always been upheld as the bedrock of music, especially western music. Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival leads this cohort.
Every year in December, Kohima decks up to host the biggest domestic rock fest. The other leader is the multi-genre NH7 Weekender, which will be touching down in Shillong on October 27.
Featuring the likes of Steve Vai, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Vishal Bhardwaj, Indian Ocean, Carnatic musician TM Krishna, The Ram Sampath Experience and more, it remains one of the most anticipated fests in the Indian calendar.
But apart from these two fests, the region has got a lot of (good) music in its soul. It might be largely unheard and underappreciated, but it’s there. Unfortunately the geographical remoteness of the region hampers this musical prowess. Even for Hornbill, despite its huge success in terms of turnout and enthusiasm, sponsorship still is a concern.
Over the Rainbow The region buzzes with an assortment of musical talent that more than meets the ear. One such event is the Ziro Festival of Music (ZFM) in Arunachal Pradesh that kick-starts on September 28. Artists and the Apatani tribesmen join in to produce an extended weekend that showcases the best of independent music. The line-up this year varies from Israel’s Alaska Snack Time to Nagaland’s Alobo Naga, from Gujarat’s as we keep searching to Mumbai’s Burudu. The festival has been well supported by the state government and is expecting footfalls of around 6,000. Anup Kutty, co-founder of ZFM and guitarist for Delhi-based rock band Menwhopause, however, rues the hesitance of sponsors to invest in the event. “Even after six years, funding is hard to come by, with most corporates citing distance from the mainland as a deterrent, without realising that it’s the very point of the festival.”
A 12-hour drive from Ziro will take you to Dambuk, a quaint village known for its orange orchards — and the Orange Festival of Adventure and Music every December. Claiming to be the country’s first adventure and music fest, its fourth edition is slated for December 15-18. Backed by the Arunachal Tourism Department, it was headlined by Swedish metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen last year. Formed in 2014, the event also hosts a number of adventure and motorsports events. “Our event is pan-India but we do try to give special representation to the Northeast,” says Abu Tayeng, director of the Orange fest. “With support from the Arunachal Tourism Department and ticket sales, the revenue generation was pretty good.” The basic idea of having this festival is to put Dambuk on the world map. Till 2015, this village had no electricity, mobile connectivity coming even later. Transportation is still an issue. Come summer, one has to choose between a chopper or an elephant ride to reach Dambuk. But that has not deterred the organisers. With the Incredible India campaign pitching in, the festival gets an audience of about 4,000.
Influences of the Korean Wave and other South Asian countries are evident in the region’s music. It is commonplace to come across covers of legendary and popular acts like The Rolling Stones, Beatles, Hoobastank and Coldplay, along with bootlegged concert videos often smuggled through Myanmar.
Manipur was one of the early states in the region to embrace Western pop culture in the early ’70s.
In sync with this western influence, Akhu Chingangbam conceptualised Where Have All the Flowers Gone? when Seeger died in 2014. Projecting itself as a completely independent event, Akhu points out that the last edition saw a gathering of more than 10,000. “For us, it’s an art and music event focusing on indigenous Manipuri culture and the environment around us. Funds would definitely help but then we will have to compromise a lot.”
The onset of the two-day festival is marked by a handful of social activities in connection with environmental protection and preservation of the region’s culture.
For Pure Music The quirkily hot-panted Lou Majaw has always endorsed the potential of the region through his music as well as politically charged opinions. “We have many so-called music festivals all over the country but I have yet to see a fest that is purely about music. What’s the point in mixing everything? If it’s a western music fest, let it be… if it’s a cultural fest, let it be. But it has to be pure, just for the respect of the art,” says the 70-year-old.
In the mid-70s, Majaw formed The Great Society, considered one the greatest rock bands of the country. Although global acts — from the Scorpions, Firehouse and White Lion to Mr Big and MLTR — have performed in the region in the past, the northeastern festivals serve primarily as a platform for up-and-coming bands and singers to showcase their talent. Trek to the high-altitude town of Sohra in Meghalaya in December, and misty weather welcomes its audience. The calm is distinctively captured in the Shine a Light Music Festival: Voice of the Silent Hills, through its variations from folk to country, rock to reggae, grunge, and metal or any form of independent/ original performing music. A gathering of bands from across the country over three days in a 60-acre venue, the event provides an opportunity for interaction, exchange and learning, and encouragement for new musical buds. “We are a little low-profile and never really wanted to be a commercial event. We are just a group of like-minded people making some good music,” says Rocky Gogoi, co-founder of the festival. Over the last three years, the fest had participants like The Soulmate, Angie Swan (US), Jean Davoisne (France), Still Waters, Khayal Groova, White Mug, Da Primitive Future, Plague Throat and Lucid Recess.
The challenge to arrange funds by bridging the geographical inaccessibility remains. “Arranging funds is a lot tougher than what it sounds. Unfortunately, sponsors are not too interested when we say Cherrapunji,” rues Gogoi. “Names might not be as big as they are supposed to be, but their music speaks a lot.
So I think our fest hits the right note,” he adds. Also hitting the high notes is The Euphony Rock Contest in Guwahati, founded in 2009 by Eastern Fare Music Foundation, a collaborative artist retreat for emerging professionals and celebrated artists. “As a performance and community-based festival, we are giving a platform to small-time bands of the Northeast that are exceptionally good. We are not into hosting big names but providing a platform to the up-and-coming talent of the region,” says Jim Ankan Deka, founder of the Euphony fest.
Rather than a large-scale festival with hot-shot names and massive crowds, this festival serves as a musical interaction among musicians of different stature and genres.
The annual Hornbill Rock Contest offers a handsome purse of Rs 10 lakh to winners and has included a music residency with UK musicians handpicked by the British Council as part of their Folk Nations initiative. But not everyone is impressed by the commercialisation.
“The amount of money that went into a festival in Guwahati was huge, but why it was even conducted was beyond me. Thousands were left homeless due to floods when we had people dishing out crores in the name of a festival. It’s a shame. It’s not a festival, it’s a farce-tival,” says Majaw.
Home to myriad influences and preferences, the Northeast has an illustrious musical reputation. “The Northeast has much more to offer than what we see or read in the newspapers about insurgency and violence. Slowly but definitely, we are catching up,” says Tayeng of the Orange fest. Political unrest and natural disasters aside, try hitting the unmapped roads of northeast India if Justin Bieber’s “blah blah Despacito” and Ed Sheeran’s much-hyped gig in November are not your poison.