Festival Report: Ziro Festival of Music 2018, Arunachal Pradesh
The destination festival, featuring everyone from Japanese instrumental rock band MONO to a surprise performance by veteran percussionist Sivamani, ticks all the boxes in its seventh year
Considering we last attended in 2014, changes were certainly expected at Ziro Festival of Music. The annual multi-genre Arunachal festival which spanned four days last month took place between September 27th and 30th this time around.
An early realization that dawned upon reaching the verdant valley town was that many things around the festival had changed but the core of Ziro remained resolutely the same. Perhaps this is challenging for most growing festivals, especially ones that cross the five-year mark, but Ziro still gave us a sense of familiarity – the choice of music curated, the views that remained unobstructed, the efficiency of it all – that we’re not sure we’d get from visiting any bigger music festivals after a four-year gap.
The evening/night mainstage Piilo had moved over to a bigger space, now decked with a massive LED screen for visuals, but the day stage Danyii remained its pristine self. Both made from bamboo, the festival almost exclusively used the hollow jointed stem for its stalls, food court, sitting areas and console enclosure. As smoke bellowed out from the dining area and attendees settled on the grass just a little after 1 pm, each day brought together new and noteworthy artists from the North East and the rest of the country, international draws and can’t-fail musicians who can win a crowd any time, anywhere.
Day one: MONOmania
A quick and short start to the festival came courtesy of festival regulars. The Omak Komut Collective, whose eponymous tribal folk custodian did a song and dance even as his band – featuring guitarist Getem Apang – busted out blues, reggae and rock hues. Homegrown rockers Yesterdrive had an emotionally significant set. Frontman Molee Lollen was grateful for the support they had received from the festival and the community at large over the loss of his wife – entrepreneur and Ziro crew member Amung Tadu. As Amung’s warming smile was animatedly played over the LED and put on festival T-shirts, Yesterdrive too joined the celebration of her life, including shimmering new songs like “Jacket” and “Right Now.”
The energy considerably spiked and mellowed after that, starting with Chennai rockers Oorka’s newfound smoldering edge, even as keyboardist-vocalist Bharath Sankar mentioned they survived a near-death accident on their way to the festival. The springing, crunchy riffs from guitarist Jhanu amazed most in the audience, but U.K. saxophonist Nubya Garcia soothed the restlessness, with her playful dexterity, offering just the right amount of buildup smoothly with her band, who took centerstage almost as often as Garcia did herself.
MONO, who were also making their India debut, took their time to get on stage, kicking off with their newest single “After You Comes the Flood,” off their upcoming album Nowhere, Now Here. It made for what felt like the heaviest sound to reverberate through the valley, but the quartet were every bit poignant as they were pulverizing. Songs like “Breathe” and “Halcyon (Beautiful Days)” probably had most in the audience teary-eyed, while another new track, “Meet Us Where the Night Ends” placed the Japanese instrumental rock veterans at their boundary-pushing best. Even if some couldn’t follow or decipher the flow of a band as intense as MONO, you only needed to look at guitarist Takaakira Goto aka Taka, who was headbanging and flailing around in his seat, for directions.
Day two: Diversity Day
With the Danyii stage kicking off in earnest, Ziro could finally be experienced for the variety in its billing. It’s not really a festival crowd in that everyone knows the artists performing – in fact, many were out to make their own discoveries than profess a following for an artist at Ziro – so finding an artist who would win the crowd over by the end of their set was an hourly experience. New Delhi singer-songwriter Ditty was joined by Dhruv Bhola on guitar and bass and Shantanu Pandit on percussion and electronics for a mix of spoken-word and gentle melodies, including material from her upcoming album Poetry Ceylon while Mumbai groove unit Smalltalk presented their debut EP Tacit and psychedelic new material.
But if the audience was waiting to be dazzled, that was Bengaluru-based ghatam artist Sukanya Ramgopal’s job to do. Joined by her group Layaakriti, the Carnatic artist was less about tricks and more about essence. From Konnakol to jugalbandis, they received not just a call for an encore, but also a standing ovation – it takes effort to make all those lounging on the grass to get up and cheer. It sort of made things easier for Agartala folk-fusion act Koloma, who just had to shake off weak starts to lock into a reggae rhythm that brought everyone to the front of the stage.
Over at the Piilo stage, there was a warm-up set by indie rockers Search N Found, honing an arena-rock sound, while the Rage Against the Machine-edged rap rock of Ambush didn’t really offer anything too original. Arunachal-bred, New Delhi singer-songwriter Takar Nabam, who was launching his new album This Home, That Home, spoke of multiple cultural identities and getting married, but his best piece of advice was probably about not mixing different colored beer, for their own sake. If people took their places on the grassy areas surrounding the ground of the Piilo stage, it was Shillong rappers Cryptographik Street Poets who amped the crowd up on their feet, straight up running a hook that went, “Fuck the system, fuck the government” while initiating a takedown of misused legislations such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Israeli jazz-electronic trio Malox took charge soon after, completely changing the mood to become instant party-starters with their mind-bending (and genre-bending) improv set that jumped from jazz to reggae to fusion with an unmatched energy.
Day three: Folk Blues and a Homegrown Hero
While the third day of the festival also marked their shot at kicking off a Literature segment – held at the Saint Claret College hall with most students in attendance – it certainly took some time to warm up to interesting conversations around identity, music, freedom of expression and poetry. We’re told that the ones who got the kids a tad more excited was Arunachal rapper K4 Kekho during his poetry session.
Later as the closing performer at the Piilo Stage, K4 Kekho drew the largest crowd – delivering fiery and barbed one-twos on songs like “Struggling,” “No Hate For You” and his most rousing, “I Am an Indian.” Kekho carries himself with a conviction (and a touch of self-deprecation, for all the times he makes fun of his shortness) that starts a party in no time.
That closing performance – and the fact that percussionist Sivamani had showed up backstage to announce he’s playing the next day – was a strange sort of end to a day that had stared out much more idyllic. Bhopal-based Frenchman Mathias Durand (also part of ethno-rock band Tritha Electric) presented haunting looped and layered folk music that ended up causing the speakers to bellow smoke, much to the guitarist’s bemused embarrassment. It wasn’t a problem for the next performer – Malian Kora artist Madou Sidiki Diabate – who was a straight shooter when it came to stage banter and even more direct when it came to playing his hour-long set on a stringed instrument that could bring out bass, melody and more all at once.
It was slightly earlier in the evening than expected when New Delhi lo-fi/psych rockers Dee En started off at the Piilo stage, performing wavy new material and songs from their debut EP Whoopsie Daisy. It got noisier as they went on, but Bengaluru-based Kalimpong rockers Gauley Bhai were in charge of changing the mood, offering temperate funk-folk laced with violin and a solid rhythm section. Considering it was their first major performance, Gauley Bhai shone bright, leading the way for Shillong’s Blue Temptation, performing off their recently-released debut album Tempted. Joined by Robert Lyngdoh on the harmonica and vocals, their set made its mark for feel-good blues.
Mizoram’s critically acclaimed Avora Records brought arena-rock in its real scale at Ziro, with cheeky charm (“Trinity” was rounded off by frontman Stephen Hnamte saying, “That was kinda boring, right?”) and infectious energy on songs like “Artificial Sweeteners,” “After the After Party,” “Signs” and their salute to the armed forces on “Borders.” When you’re as effective as Avora Records, it was only slightly surprising to see the MC on stage get riled up enough to start a “Fuck you China!” chant, which echoed plenty of times through the festival.
Day four: The Heavy Hitters
The Danyii stage wrapped up with a signature sense of sonic diversity – from the somewhat nervous but charming singer-songwriter set by Ady Manral from Mussoorie to a showcase of Manipuri folk traditional music from Imphal’s experimentalists Sam Paa (who braved a few sound malfunctions to finish their set) and New Delhi-based prog-inspired family band Featherheads (who were hurriedly shifted over to the Piilo stage and still managed to sound powerful).
The folk stories spotlight moved all the way to Kerala for an exuberant set by Thrissur’s Oorali. With a hint of dissent (vocalist Martin John C. spoke into the mic to say, “Democracy? Mic check India? Check. Can you hear me?”), Oorali’s set was punctuated by paper planes and little cut-out birds on sticks that spread stories of togetherness, finding oneself and heavier topics like economic development.
The reggae vibe was later carried forward by Rymbai/Shillong-based Dewdrops, but they were preceded by the powerful synth-bending electronica from New Delhi’s Komorebi, who – despite just Tarana Marwah on vocals and production and beast drummer Suyash Gabriel – crafted a massive sound. Mizo rockers Triau Trackx had a crowd-pleaser of a set, but rapper Prabh Deep was having none of it.
He constantly asked the crowd for more energy, which he returned by pouncing around on stage with his DJ, producer Lacuna on tracks like “G Maane,” “Click Clack,” “Suno” and plenty of motivational messages, except delivered in his own devil-may-care style, closing with “Oye Oye” and “Classsikh.” While Prabh Deep pretty much performed like he was the closing act, people still gathered around thanks to regular reminders that Sivamani was the final artist at Ziro, his set a virtuosic showcase of world fusion.
Even as Ziro Festival of Music moves toward becoming plastic-free (and thus even more eco-friendly than most events), there’s certainly many more people who are willing to make the trek. They’re not nearly interested in all the music, but more “the festival vibe” that they can take in with their friends, partners and family. As the festival gains even more global and national popularity, there are a few growth pangs – like questions of how it may affect the local populace and the expensiveness of it all – but ZFM doesn’t look like it’ll slow down any time soon.