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A Musical Meeting of Hearts and Minds

It would be fair to say that the music scene in the North East of India is a treasure trove in itself, where myriad soundscapes, sonic mines and terrains await exploration and due exposure. Over the past few years various concerts and festivals have been instrumental in increasing the visibility of this wellspring of music

Neha Sharma Nov 08, 2010
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It would be fair to say that the music scene in the North East of India is a treasure trove in itself, where myriad soundscapes, sonic mines and terrains await exploration and due exposure. Over the past few years various concerts and festivals have been instrumental in increasing the visibility of this wellspring of music. Playing catalyst to this steadily evolving synergy between the North East and the rest of the country’s indie music scene are people like Theja Meru, founder of the Rattle & Hum music society. With an endeavour like the Handshake Concert, not only does one get a glimpse of Meru’s vision but in a small way starts to share it.

This edition of the Handshake concert, held on the 21st at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, was a fantastic lesson in cultural interaction and genre-inclusive musicology. Just before the concert, at a press conference organised to share the panel’s views, the vice chancellor of Nagaland University, Professor K Kannan, impressed on the “innate musical quality” people are endowed with in the region and also on “the need to dispel damaging generalisations and perceptions about the Naga, youth especially in cities like Delhi.” Grammy award winner and creator of the Mohan Veena, Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is a patron of the Rattle & Hum Society and active in its effort to promote Naga arts and culture. Bhatt is also looking to collaborate with young Naga musicians on an album. There is a driving sense of ambition and aspiration here; Kannan even suggests that not very long from now Nagaland might produce a Grammy award winner. But Meru stresses that the aim of the concert is not just to provide a platform for bands from the North East but to bring the entire community of musicians in the country together to celebrate this shared musical heritage.

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The Tetse-o sisters – Azi, Mercy, Kuvelli and Aliine – opened the evening with a snatch of traditional Chakhesang Naga folk songs sung in the Chokri dialect. Their lilting harmonies, touched up only by the delicate twang of a one-string fiddle, the tati, gently wafted through the auditorium. In sharp contrast, the next performers brought a grimy beat and funk-pop verve to the proceedings. Winners of Hornbill 2009 OFF, short for the Original Fire Factor, took it away with power pop gems strung to simple yet sincere emotions in songs like ‘Free Me,’ ‘Save Me’ and ‘Mr Selfish.’ The young and bratty trio wrapped up their electrifying performance with a spunky reggae spin on ‘I Just Have to Go.’ The band managed to translate their energy to the audience who were a little restrained by the fact that it was a sit-down concert.

Cultural Vibrants, comprised of the three Mechulho sisters, fused intricately woven, well-layered melodies subtly recalling the delicacy of the Cocteau Twins. Mumbai boys Medusa followed them and, like OFF, felt a slight disconnect with the audience. While vocalist Raxit Tewari did allude to the awkwardness of playing to a sit down audience, the band didn’t let it get in their way for long. Playing many of its bass-tempered electro-rock standards like ‘Hill Top’ ‘I Become I’ and ‘Anti-Coke Ganpati’ Medusa struck a trippy note.

The classically-trained duo of Asin and Nise opened their mini opera set with their renditions of numbers culled of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the Phantom of the Opera. Soprano Asin assumed the singing voice of prima donna Christine Daaé and Nise of the Phantom in a performance that wasn’t glass shattering, but deeply stirring and mesmerising all the same. Shillong blues-rockers Soulmate took the stage next, driving the energy up another level. The duo of Tipriti Kharbangar and Rudy Wallang busted out scorching blues, scaling the highest of highs with Kharbangar’s feisty gospel-like vocal oft recalling Janis Joplin’s bellowing growl. Playing songs like ‘Back in Time’ (an original inspired by the Allman Brothers) and Koko Taylor’s ‘Voodoo Woman’ the duo deconstructed, reconstructed and reclaimed the evening.

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Lama Tashi, a Grammy nominee and former principal chant master of the Dalai Lama, has performed at the Carnegie Hall in New York City and with artists like Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe and Ben Harper in the past. Meeting him backstage, he speaks softly with a placid and cheery disposition about him. On stage that tender voice possesses a much graver tonality, and a solemn trance grips the auditorium as it resounds with the deep warbling flourish of long horns coupled with Tashi’s sonorous aria pitched in a heavy baritone. Bhatt plays the final class act with his entourage consisting of a keyboardist, percussionist and guitarist. He starts with an improv piece which he says “shall not be repeated for anyone else.” The table player keeps splendid time with the maestro whose deft fingers pick out complex phrases with admirable nonchalance. Bhatt’s set closes with a unanimous request for an encore, which he satisfies with a bittersweet classic. What was perhaps most commendable through this evening was that the packed hall remained packed until the very end, every act intriguing enough and absorbing enough to keep the audience rooted in their place. The concert is set to woo the South next year as the next edition of Handshake is expected to take place in Bengaluru. The wheels are in motion and this handshake is certainly getting stronger.

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