Monday, February 25, 2008

Fireflies Festival of Sacred Music 2008

It truly was a night to remember. Friends, families and strangers gathered and vibed to one soulful beat - that of music.

The 4th annual Fireflies Festival of Sacred Music on February 23, at their inter-cultural center in Dinnepalya Village, Bangalore housed an approximately 1000 strong audience in an enraptured trance for the promised 12 hours, well worth the entrance fee. Despite stifling delays between acts, a dozen artistes led us through a cavorting blend of Indo-Western, Western and Indian folk, classical and fusion music.

Some bands may not be remembered; but most will stay on in memories for years to come. It began with the Nadaswaram performance – the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument, a good start to the evening. Kaman Singh and group followed that up with an interesting repertoire of Portuguese and Brazilian music using the guitar, recorders, flute, and voice to transport the audience across continents. They played a fado, a French/Creole song and a couple of others to encapsulate the world under the banyan tree. What they lacked in technical virtuosity was well made up by their songs satirizing the World Trade Organisation and government policies. They were the only troupe to actively voice the theme of the evening – tribals and adivasis – through their lyrics. Kaman Singh had the whole audience in splits with adivasi-style language, both Hindi and English.
People of all age groups and backgrounds filtered in through the night, making themselves comfortable on the granite steps with mattresses, pillows, and bolsters. The piece of advice from the organizers “stay in your seats; you’ll regret it if you move” held throughout the event with the amphitheatre crowded to capacity and more, giving people just enough space to tap out the ragas and talas.

Although the Qawwali performance by Salim Bhai and Group was by far the most popular, the Veena recital by Sri R K Padmanabha and the Folk songs of Kabir from Malwa by Shabnam Virmani and Dipta Bhog were the soul-stirring performances of the night. Virmani provided a small background to each song and then blew the audience away with powerful vocals. She appeared to be enjoying herself more than anyone else and gladly threw in an encore much to everyone’s delight. R K Padmanabha’s solos were breathtaking. Moments when the veena’s bass rhythms were interspersed with Indian melodies sounded like a fusion between Western and Indian music, and the jugalbandi between the accompanying ghatam and mridangam had even Padmanabha tapping away. Salim Bhai held the crowd in a wild chorus of singing and dancing, screaming for more. An impromptu performance by a trio from the audience was thrown in while everyone else cheered them on.

Oikyotaan, the Baul (Bengali folk) musicians, celebrated the spiritual and proved to be a well-known and well-loved group. Voice control was amazing and although most couldn’t really understand (since it was in Bengali), the expressive singers made enjoying the performance so much easier. Representing Western classical and jazz was Glen Rogers with mesmerizing finger work on pieces like Traveller and self-composition Captain Caterpillar, and Karnatak Folk by the Puje Kunita group provided immense entertainment. The energy of the musicians suffused through the ambience and came to rest on all ensuring they enjoyed every bit of their performances.

Despite the food being over-priced and the coffee not worth its name, the delightful night passed with camaraderie between strangers established only through music. The performances stripped the word bare of the commercialization we know so well, leaving each one including chief guest Cyriac Joseph, Chief Justice of Karnataka, either reminiscing their childhood or wishing they’d found this sooner.


There's this ashram 9 kms from where we live called Fireflies Inter-cultural Centre and on Feb 23-24, they hosted this Sacred Music Fest. It was a dawn to dusk event (6pm to 6am) and although I was the unfortunate victim of Subramaniam's review-writer choice, I wanted to go check it out. Smartly, I forgot my sweater, so I froze while enjoying myself. If it wasnt for several others who caught up with me there, I'd have become a permanent fixture under the huge banyan tree.

I made it there with 5 minutes to spare for the opening act. People came in with mattresses, pillows, the works, all set to spend the night there. I took a book (in case I was early and had nothing to do!!) and my box of crackers (in case I had nothing to eat!!). There were lots of young people, some middle aged, few old and a smattering of the quintessential 'phoren' blood hanging about smoking. Initially, I wasnt sure I would enjoy it. I'd simply heard there was a jazz act and wanted to check it out. But when I got loaded with the responsibility of writing a review, I had to spend that 250 bucks on the ticket. Only a couple of acts were devoid of the Indian element, and interestingly I enjoyed almost all of them.

There was a woman, Shabnam Virmani, singing folk songs to Kabir, a Rajasthani-Gujarati kind of music which was just awesome. I was dancing and swaying to a veena recital, qawwali songs, world music, indo-western fusion and a mix of classical and jazz. It was unbelievable. The ashram itself is a nice place, though they could do with alot more dustbins, at least at the time of the festival - by the end of it, there were plates, cups, bottles (of booze and other stuff), packets and what not strewn around the place. It is dotted with little cottages, its got a lake right next to it, and this small sit-out; very peaceful place, reminded me of home and Chandor!

The food wasnt worth it though and I realized why the regulars kept dipping into their bags for another packet of munchies. They were serving chicken and veg biryani with this minuscule dollop of raita, outrageously expensive brownies, and the worst coffee you have ever tasted in South India. Besides this, they had stalls selling overpriced (obviously!!) handicrafts, including some really pretty jewellery. I'd have bought some for mum and A Lee if it wasnt so far out of my budget.

I stayed awake through the entire event, and it wasnt because the music was loud. I enjoyed every minute of it, maybe with the exception of a few bands trying very hard to please both Indians with no knowledge of Indian or Western classical, and foreigners with no knowledge of Indian or Western classical, both classes of whom were absent! It was a treat to listen to M K Padmanabha, the veena player. If I'm not wrong, the veena is a different version of the sitar; its got more bass and is not as twangy. When you play the bass strings it sounds very close to a guitar, and has a really rich sound. I havent seen anyone play a veena before, but he sure played like a maestro!!

Frankly, I've been itching to go out and enjoy myself, and since pubs and clubs shut shop at 12, there's no way to get back home (they wouldnt let me sleep there either!!). Besides, you can enjoy a concert when you're alone; you dont really need to be with someone.

And so I did! Three cheers to Siddharth and company of Fireflies!!! You guys did a great job!

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