Festival Review: Orange Festival 2017
How a tiny festival in the rolling hills of Arunachal Pradesh accommodated everything from car rallies and rafting to performances from veterans like Richie Kotzen and Uday Benegal
After a 16-hour road trip from Guwahati, I found myself once again at the orange orchards and rolling hills of Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh last December to catch the Orange Festival of Adventure and Music. I had reached a day late and was told I missed the previous day’s headliner, Tangerine Dream, a German band known for pioneering electronic music as we know it, back in the Seventies.
But I wasn’t particularly disappointed—festival or no festival, Dambuk is already an experience by itself with its interesting mix of rolling hills, white sand river beaches, bamboo forests and quaint tribal villages. Besides, with a total line-up of almost 20 artists performing at this four-day festival, there’s lots of room to slow down, skip a few gigs and soak in the place, especially if you know what you like.
I started out on catch-up mode with Paperboat, a New Delhi-based funk and blues band who cover an impressive range of social issues their music, from communal violence and cow politics to objectification of women and racism against Northeastern Indians in the mainstream. With their bold, confrontational, groovy songs, they set the tone for the night. Aizwal alt rockers Avora Records and Kolkata’s Fiddler’s Green also packed in a punch while Pune-based ska collective Riddim Funktion brought in grassroots-style rebellion with catchy Afrikana beats. Veteran American punk/grunge band Five Eight maintained the night’s lyrically expressive streak and added a super-sweaty, high-energy guitar-heavy performance. We had traversed some five or six genres in one evening without anybody even noticing—an indication of the festival’s curatorial success– plus the local homemade rice wine seemed to be doing its thing and putting everybody in the right mood!
At the Orange Festival, there was also the aspect of an extreme sports scene at multiple venues simultaneously. You could pick between rafting, dirt biking, car rallies, mountain runs, all-terrain vehicle stuff by day and rock shows by night, so in theory, there was never a stretch where there wasn’t something to ‘see’ or ‘do.’
But in a place like this, sometimes you just want to ‘be’ and meet people, so the next day, I gave the shows a miss and went for a spin through the countryside to Poblung, a tribal hamlet. The impressively neat and clean tribal bastis (settlements) are really a showcase of how humans could live in harmony with nature using systems that actually work. People there smile easily, grow their own food, hand-weave their own textiles and build their own bamboo houses. And since this was house-building season, we got to stop for a cup of chai and chat with a group of locals who were preparing bamboo and cane for a house they were about to build soon.
The tribes of Dambuk can build a whole house in two or three days by hand and round it off with a huge house party at the end of it. What makes this possible is a strong sense of community. When anybody needs to build a house, the whole village helps out. The hostess meanwhile keeps the kitchen going and rice wine brewing for everyone constantly. From a very young age, every young man learns bamboo craft by helping his neighbors and sharpening his expertise in the process, while women become expert vintners, having done it so many times in life.
When I returned to the festival ground, it was plain that all this expertly made rice wine and local food flavored with bamboo shoot was going down real fast at the food stalls. After the easy pace of the basti, I was already feeling an odd contrast between tradition and modernity; I couldn’t help but wonder how many people routinely came for such festivals but missed the real essence of the place hosting them—not to mention how local people must perceive our lifestyles and taste in music. It seemed to be going pretty well on that front for the moment though: musicians, tribes, visitors, organizers… everybody was effortlessly mingling.
The headlining artist was American singer and guitarist Richie Kotzen. He has been part of many of the commercially successful rock bands that people of a certain generation (mine) grew up listening to, like the American rock band Mr. Big and the glam-rockers Poison. Not to mention a prolific stretch as a solo artist, with more than 20 album releases. While we had an international rock star at the festival—and he predictably put on a good show, no doubt—the way I experienced it, there was no single show-stopper. Equally impressive, apart from the bands I mentioned earlier, were Uday Benegal (frontman of Indian rock band Indus creed), singer-songwriters Mali and Aarifah Rebello (both from Mumbai), Bengaluru-based band Thermal and a Quarter and Chennai alt rockers F-16s, who were one of the best performers at the festival.
I was particularly impressed, however, by a group of singers, dancers and percussionists from the local Mishing tribe who came to perform on one of the days; they were easily as good as (if not better) than any of the ‘modern’ artists on the lineup. There was also an interactive session on the traditional Ponung song and dance by the local Padam tribe which I happily joined, along with many others from the audience. It’s this whole ecosystem of genres, roots, styles and late-night after-hours jams that makes the whole musical experience at the Orange Festival special every time. Hopefully, the organizers will be able to keep all this intimacy intact as the festival grows.
Of course, I had to stay back in the mountains a few days longer, and spend a few more days in the village with some of my new friends. As I write this, I’m still in Arunachal Pradesh, and for many of us who choose to move this way, festivals like these can begin with a love of music and lead to deeper experiences in traveling.
All photos by Sanjiv Valsan