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The Little Hamlet in Arunachal Pradesh That Hosted a Most Genre-Bending Music Festival

An adventurous trip to the village of Dambuk was worth it for its scenic beauty and the community-centric Orange Festival that was held in December

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Sanjiv Valsan Jan 03, 2016
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The second edition of Orange Festival in Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh, seemed at first a bit random in its promise ”“ it was pegged as a mix of competitive 4X4 off-roading, Buddhist chanting, rock, rap, electronica, river rafting and camping in remote Himalayan orange orchards. Really?

The Real Adventure: Getting There

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The endless road from Dibrugarh to Dambuk

Like most festivals in the Indian Northeast, and any story involving Arunachal Pradesh in particular, half the adventure about the event was about getting to it. To reach this remote village on the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Dibang river, you need to take a flight to the closest airport, drive up to the Brahmaputra river, load your car on a boat, and once you’re on the other bank, rock and roll through endless white sandy stretches of rocky river banks. The ground hardly resembles a road and your car is most likely to leave behind a cloud of dust thick enough to blind the driver in the vehicle behind you. The consolation: Stopping occasionally to snack on freshly fried river fish at riverside joints while waiting for ferryboats to take you and your car to the other side. All this can take around six hours.

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This is the easy way to get to Dambuk, mind you. During the wet season, which is a big part of the year, the Dibang river goes crazy and overflows, islanding the area and cutting off road access to the outside world. The only way to get across to the village is on elephant back. Orange Festival is held in the winter to avoid this trouble.

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A fisherman shows off his catch of the day from the Dibang river

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Staying in a traditional Adi tribal house can be an unforgettable cross-cultural experience

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Roasted pork, tribal style to go with copious quantities of rice wine

Understandably, not everybody makes it so far to experience a place like this, and the exotica is mutual — most people in Dambuk still live in bamboo houses, grow their own food, weave their own clothes and have never experienced international music or even met outsiders before, let alone having hosted a big festival. That’s what makes Orange Festival an interesting exchange between so many different worlds and peoples — musicians, visitors, media and locals. The four-day party is united by genuine bonhomie, live music, campfires by the banks of the Dibang river and a delightfully infinite supply of the local rice wine, locally known as apong.

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Always time to exchange smiles

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Schookids at the local school in Dambuk pose for a picture

Making friends with the local Idu Mishmi and Adi tribals of Dambuk is ridiculously easy, and it’s more of a rule than an exception to receive invitations to stay over at homes of people you’ve just met and hit it off with, and end up in situations as diversely enchanting as community bamboo house building parties, hand weaving and rice wine-making tutorials, treks through orange orchards and fishing by the riverside.

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The Show

Program-wise, the Orange festival was as bipolar as promised. The gigs were held in the evenings, while the offroading and adventure sports took place during daytime.

The music lineup opened with the Grammy-nominated multiphonic chanter and Buddhist monk from Arunachal Pradesh, Lama Tashi. Something of an oddball and a ”˜secular’ monk, Tashi routinely performs monastery music at rock shows to bring the monastery arts to new audiences, though in this case the performance seemed a bit too short to take the depth of it all in. The highlight of the festival was expectedly American singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, one of the most extraordinary one-man bands you will ever catch live. Arthur stomped his foot for percussion, simultaneously launched layers of live guitar samples, power chords and loops, even as he sang and played the harmonica. He even managed to use a spare hand to sip on rice wine while he was at it. In his happy apong-inspired lucidity, Arthur even confessed somewhat half-seriously to a multiple personality disorder that helped him do all this. Oh, and he also painted a face on a canvas sometime during this multitask.

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American singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur performed an awe-inspiring set

An interesting find at the festival was the Arunachali band Soul Rebels that dare to play only reggae in their Bollywood-crazy state. Delhi-based rockers Menwhopause had something of a new sound at their performance, collaborating with freestyle Hindi rapper Faadu, who was a massive hit with the Hindi-speaking local crowd. Four days meant a lot of music and the festival featured artists across the board, from Manipuri folk singer Guru Rewben Mashangva to veteran rocker Lou Majaw [Shillong], singer-songwriter Alisha Batth [Ludhiana/Berklee], rock band Yesterdrive [Delhi/Arunachal Pradesh], alt pop act The Ganesh Talkies [Kolkata] and French psychedelic folk singer Mathias Durand, who’s also part of Tritha Electric, a Paris/Delhi-based three-member fusion rock-folk-mystic-punk band that performed as the final act on the day three of the festival. The motley lineup actually worked pretty well overall; the overall positive vibe seemed to transcend genre preferences.

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Thritha, vocalist of Paris/Delhi fusion/rock act Thritha Electric

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Mumbai electro act Your Chin

Assamese ”˜protestpop’ band Digital Suicide, known for their provocative lyrics that trespass linguistic, taboo and political lines and songs about everything from blowjobs and porn to beef, were also on the lineup. The band was quite the riot, not just on stage in costume, but also in the endless after-hours nocturnal jam sessions, the kind that would break out every freezing evening by a bonfire.

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French psychedelic folk musician Mathias Durand

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Idu Mishmi men from Dambuk perform a traditional dance

It is this collective energy coupled with wanderlust and music that made the Orange Festival really special. Currently, it may be a low-key event by festival standards with a somewhat sparse audience, but it has already carved a niche for itself as a travel/experiential outing where both artists and attendees come for more than just the music. Bookmark this one for next year!

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All photographs by Sanjiv Valsan

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