We woke up at the campsite, post the madness of the previous night’s campfire and jamming, with the hypnotic and primeval sounds from the Nilgiri tribe’s customary invocations at the festival, and rushed to Stage 1 to watch La Pongal, the first act of day 2.
They kicked off with a group of thappattam players performing off-stage, amidst the audience, trying to harmonize with the band performing on the stage. It was a fearless attempt to give the gig a grand start, and though the sync slipped a bit, no one seemed to mind. La Pongal features Anthony Daasan on lead vocals, as much a comic relief as he is a brilliant singer. He made the “welcome” announcement on a megaphone, working up the audience’s anticipation. Dressed in colorful attires, the very look of the band is cheerful, only augmented by their music which is Tamil folk, with a hint of contemporary. The subjects for their songs move from lullaby to romantic flirtations and from a spirited call-out for friends to feisty bullying of rivals. Among the audience, there were some who understood the Tamil lyrics and laughed at the stories being narrated, and some to whom it was just the upbeat music that spoke. La Pongal made the native and non-native speakers of the language sing and puttu-dance along to the beats of drums, thavil, and pambai. A rousing start to Day 2 at Mad.
Across the woods, at the Calaloo stage, Adam & the Fish Eyed Poets played a turbulent, angry set to the largely hipster crowd gathered. Complaining of a hangover and mumbling incomprehensible song introductions, they performed a setlist consisting mostly of tracks from their sophomore effort Dead Loops. Adam & the Fish Eyed Poets ripped through songs like ‘Little Monkeys’ and ‘Barbed Wire’ with a disinterested sneer that I’m sure charmed everyone. The band (intentionally or not) also successfully translated the inherent angriness in their source material and performed with a disinterested air about themselves. Musically they were spot-on and consistent throughout their set. I also noticed that the guitarist was using a custom Les Paul! *lets out low whistle*. Kishore Krishna’s songwriting is honest and he sings about issues that Gen Y folk can identify with. Another testament to young Kishore Krishna’s songwriting is that it’s hard to slot the band into a particular genre. They lie somewhere between post-punk and indie. The songs are relevant, sharp and as far as the Indian indie scene is concerned, important. Judging by the new tracks they performed at MAD, it certainly looks like Adam has a lot more quality material up his angsty sleeve. A quick afternoon beer (to the utter disappointment of all beer lovers, the price of beer had been revised from a healthy Rs.100 for a 650 ml serving to the slightly unhealthy figure of Rs.200 late on the first evening) later, we were off to catch Goa based world fusion act, Kundalini Airport.
Kundalini Airport took the stage after La Pongal’s impressive performance on the Blubaloo stage. The contrast between the two acts was apparent right at the outset. The outfit led by Frenchman, Paco Rodriguez, gets together in the mostly non-monsoon months in Goa, since the last 4-5 years. The sound check seemed inordinately long with respect to getting the levels right, especially on Mr. Rodriguez’s Sitar and Mandolin levels. Several people in the crowd were seen walking away towards the Mad Bazaar and the Calaloo stage even while Kundalini Airport were trying to get their sound right. An announcement by the band in which they claimed that they’re mostly chilled out people and are not used to being rushed, didn’t really help either. Into their opening track, the one thing that immediately struck the audience was the terrible sound. While the bass was nice and groovy, the drums were comparatively inaudible and the mandolin levels were a little too high, with too much reverb on the vocals that were already dominating everything else. The guitarist had some nice guitar solos to insert into an otherwise monotonous song. Things picked up from there somewhat, with their next song, an ode to Lord Shiva, that left some people in the audience slightly amused. The band sounded much tighter on this track, the issue with the individual instrument levels also sorted out. Their next track was in French, an interpretation of Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’. Featuring yet another groovy bassline (incidentally, the bassist played with a bass stand and a stationary bass, see pictures for more detail). The audience seemed to enjoy this slightly more settled sound as well. ‘Allah Hu’ was yet another interesting track performed by Kundalini Airport. All in all, their brand of fusion seemed a little forced rather than integrating seamlessly, like the ones several other acts pulled off. Post their set, we set off for a spot of indulgence at the excellently positioned Mad Bazaar/Bar, before catching Agam at the Calaloo stage.
Agam peg themselves as Carnatic Rock, and while they sound more Carnatic at times and rock some others, by and large, their music is probably best described as Carnatic ragas built around a distortion infused rock core. It was very evident from the outset that this 7-piece band is exceptionally talented (unfortunately, their keyboardist couldn’t join them at the Mad festival). The vocals are delivered in the Carnatic vocal style and the vocalist/violinist, Harish, is very rooted in the Carnatic tradition. Their songs have a strong bassline with the mustachioed bassist providing raga influenced grooves. The lead guitarist, T Praveen Kumar, was especially brilliant, particularly in the track ‘Boat Song’. ‘Swati Thirunal’ thillana in Raga Dhanashree’ was pulled off in some style, with the band sounding very tight through the complex rhythm passages. Agam ended their almost hour long set with an extended, and quite entertaining jam, between the drummer, Ganesh, and the percussionist, Shiva, in the track ‘Malhaar jam’. Agam is a band which will be liked by all – they are nicely heavy enough to appeal to the youth inclined towards hard rock, classical enough to make the traditional music lover go weak in the knees and virtuoso enough for guitar freaks to whet their appetites.
Meanwhile, at the Blubaloo stage, a crowd had begun to gather to catch one of the more popular bands out of Kerala, Avial. Waiting for them to kick things off however, was the start of a slow and wrenching heartbreak. Avial’s performance at the MAD Festival was subpar. Many of us swear by Avial’s debut CD, going to the extent of calling it the best and most fulfilling product being sold in Indian indie scene. Anandraj Benjamin Paul (ex-lead vocalist) was sorely missed by anyone who knows about legacy-Avial. What we witnessed was the butchering of something so dearly cherished. After a wait (read, long sound-check) of more than 45 minutes they decided to play a set of 20 minutes, which would have been alright, if their act lived up to people’s expectations. It didn’t. They started with two of their latest singles, with Tony clearly struggling to achieve and sustain the highs. They decided to wind up with the crowd favorite ‘Chekele’, which was a disaster not to be missed if you want to hate a band you once loved. Mithun on drums started the song with a lower BPM than the original, Tony struggled with getting the key right, and Rex kept strumming, uninfluenced. The only saving grace of this show was the full-blooded solidarity for the language and love for good-old-Avial, which showed in our desperate attempts at trying to enjoy this debacle. The Ooty sun and the performance led us to the cool shade of the “in-the-midst-of-tall-trees” Mad Bazaar for some respite and refueling. The one big crib by this time for nearly everybody at the festival was the sub-optimal choice and quality of the food that was on offer.
Some hops, a skip and a jump later, we caught The Bicycle Days, playing as a 4-piece act and sounding more cohesive and tight as compared to their earlier avatar as a quintet. The change seemed to have worked to a large extent as TBD played a great set at the Calaloo stage. The classic ’27′ kicked off things with vocalist Karthik and guitarist Rahul turning the psychedelia all the way up to 11 just before the spoken word second-half of the song kicked in. TBD made use of heavy vocal processing and vocal loops to create haunting soundscapes that added up to the ambient psychedelic sound. Also included in their setlist was the mellow ‘Teledrug Zombies’, a song whose title wouldn’t be out of place in a Flaming Lips discography. ‘Conundrum’, a track heavily inspired by Radiohead (especially the falsetto-ish voice) was also part of their set. TBD occupy a rather unique place in the Indian indie scene as purveyors of the psychedelic-electronic-rock sound and it was great that the band stuck to their guns even with the premiere of their new track ‘Vicious’. I’ve generally maintained that a TBD gig is best enjoyed at an indoor venue (their legendary Kyra gig 2 years ago), but the tight performance at MAD has swayed me in relaxing that opinion a little bit. Things had picked up in terms of the crowd numbers and energy levels with the next act on the Blubaloo stage, Papon and the gentlemen he had for company.
Playing their familiar and much loved brand of electronic folk fusion, Papon and the East India Company kicked things off with ‘Rain Song’, speaking of the culture of the hills, with the main man launching into fits of undulating vocal patterns typical to his homeland. The second song began with a shot of thunder (electronic effects were thanks to Brin) that was ominous at first but later registered as majestic as we were taken through the length of the song. After ‘Jiyein Kyun’, from the ‘Dum Maaro Dum’ soundtrack, was given new life, the band moved on to a cover of an Assamese folk song. ‘Boitha Maro’ was riddled by samples from Papon’s laptop, a funky bassline (Dipu) and slide guitar parts by Krishna; it had a fair amount of dramatic pauses and clashing re starts – a tad jolting compared to its predecessors – and had the musical tenor of something much more progressive than the band’s genre. Papon’s commentary about the folk song, its roots and the story it tells was particularly engaging! A cover of popular oldie ‘Mast Kalandar’, complete with table (Kirti) and samples from Papon’s laptop was next! The penultimate song in the set ‘Banao’ with its obvious Ganja references and backstory – had the crowd singing along with raucous spirit before the band brought their performance to a close with another Assamese folk song whose quaint lyrics (trans: If I was a bird, I’d fly to you) were accompanied by the Djembe from Kirti, a wah wah guitar effect and running commentary and translation by Papon.
Post the high-energy act by Papon, we traipsed back to the Calaloo stage for some Mellowdrama and a change in tempo courtesy Sulk Station feat. Movement Artist Archana. Playing tracks off their debut album Till You Appear, the proceedings were kicked off with the opening tracks of the album, ‘Pause’ and ‘Downlift’. Sounding nearly identical to the album, the gadgetry of Rahul Giri and the vocal talent of Tanvi Rao were in ample evidence. However, the station had some more mellow moments than expected when sound issues required a restart of ‘Confessions’, not once, but twice. The pick of the setlist however, as well as our pick from the album, was ‘Bindya’, a well done track that moves and wavers with ambience at the backdrop of the song and Ms. Rao’s vocals at the forefront. The movement artist though, didn’t add too much to the act. This setlist would’ve also been much better appreciated either at a later slot post sunset, or indoors. All in all, we would’ve liked to see Sulk Station go well beyond the contours of what they’ve defined in their debut album. Some more experimentation with sound and stage act would be welcome. By this time, fervent discussions had erupted over which of the two days of the festival was better. While we were debating the issue, we could hear the faint strains of Rajasthani folk music emanating from the Blubaloo stage across the woods.
The Manganiars were up next. While they didn’t have too much of a crowd as compared to the other acts happening around on the evening, the audience present there were given a delightful little performance. Kicking off with ‘Kesariya Balam’, their set was replete with the traditional folk instruments that one was looking for. The highlight of the performance for us was a brilliantly fun percussion jam especially incorporating the Khadtal – a traditional instrument with two wooden blocks manipulated by the fingers, and the Morsing/Morchang – a jaw harp commonly used, interestingly, in Carnatic music as well as Rajasthani folk. The Morsing player even indulged the crowd by incorporating some beatboxing in the middle of a traditional jam. Among other notable pieces that these performed was a rendition of ‘Mast Kalandar’ that didn’t pack as much of a punch as we were expecting. The Manganiars were a pleasant contrast to the electronic and ambience filled music happening over at the Calaloo stage. However, we left to indulge ourselves with some more electronic elements with Schizophonic at the Calaloo stage.
The mantra with Schizophonic is that you either hate them or you love them. There’s no in between. The set suited the weather to the tee (subjective as that statement is). Starting off with a World War II style siren (Artillery Road?) that’s gradually scratched over, dissonant piano notes and echoing notes of a rattle-like guitar patch, two contemporary dancers swathed in a white sheet fought to rise matching chaotic movements to the haunting musical backdrop. Percussion pieces shortened and randomly looped until they sound like gunshots pepper the steady beat as Arjun (in his trademark shawl) and Aman layer guitar solos interspersed with dramatic piano sections. As the piece (song is too layman a word to use) progresses, the sound rises to a half crescendo by electronic additions and then stripped down again to focus on a piano solo by Aman; he has two keyboards splayed before him and shuffles between them to produce the required sound. Trying to make sense of the chaos of sounds that assault you is a deconstruction that sets itself up for failure. If it’s your type of jam, then you’re going to enjoy the almost arrhythmic nature of Schizophonic’s music. The band’s performance explores every range of emotion in delivering its performance; Arjun guitar sounds ranging from raunchy guitar sound over it as the piano receded. The guitar and piano work is intricately timed and interspersed with the samples, they take the audience on a slowly elevating experience. It’s a tad long for our liking but entertaining nonetheless. The dancers reappear on stage after a short break and are more macabre this time. Robotic movements to match the choppy music are increased and their expressions range from intense to conciliatory. The piano changes to a deeper resonating tone and then returns – all this within an hour long set that has the crowd gazing in first-hand wonder at the technicality of the seemingly random elements that made up the pieces in the set.
A feeling of a slightly underwhelming finish to the day had begun creeping in while we made our way to catch Auroville band Emergence. Their performance could be summed up easily in just two words: “Dat Bass”. Adopting a clean, no-frills sound setup, the band sang multilingual pop songs advocating the use of organic farming and the advantages of growing your own food. Bassist Mishko M’ba was clearly the star of the band as he, with his lovely bass tone dazzled the relaxed crowd at the Blubaloo stage. They kickstarted their set with ‘Banner in the Open Road’ dominated by singer-guitarist Krishna McKenzie’s acoustic strumming before moving to the Tamil song ‘Pasumai’ which had a lovely bass solo. Despite the fact that two of the band’s 4 members aren’t Indian, they seamlessly fused Tamil and English lyrics into their songs ‘Ta Ka Di Mi’ was next, a soulful song inspired by the concept of self-sustenance. The slot given to the band was a little suspect as on the previous day, Raghu Dixit Project and Indian Ocean had the audience dancing to their music. Emergence, unfortunately did not have the same effect on the decreasing audience on Day 2. They upped the tempo with a lovely Ska number featuring some seriously boss slap-bass before they ended their peaceful set with ‘Nambikai’ and ‘Afghan Rose’. One minor gripe though: Emergence were hell-bent on making our job harder, introducing the wrong song on two occasions.
Coming to the fag end of the day’s proceedings, we decided to stop over (again), for a spot of beer and head over to the Calaloo stage. State of Bengal had come in to the festival with a promise to feature Paban Das Baul, bringing together connoisseurs of genres as different as London break-beat and blissful, quirky Baul music. For most part of the show though, the DJ/Producer Sam Zaman seemed to have lost his way. He presented a repetitive mish-mash of the thankfully good music he is known for with pointless run-of-the-mill rap, a misspent (even belittled) Paban Das Baul, and totally unnecessary contemporary dance routines that ran parallel on stage. A few numbers to begin with were tight, with funky percussions, and soulful electric violin. Even the rap seemed interesting before getting monotonous. When Paban Das Baul took the stage, State of Bengal switched to a much welcome minimalist arrangement which lasted three songs and 20 minutes. Soon thereafter, the poignant spell ended with an overdose of more rap, more hip-hop moves, more break-beat, and an ill-practiced performance with Papon. Paban Das Baul returned on stage, to be brushed aside, then again be called back to play his gabgubi so far away from the mic, it was almost unrecognizable. People didn’t seem to mind though – the name State of Bengal and music that makes you want to dance is as if all you wish for to end your day.
But the end wasn’t quite there yet. While several people had already left the building, there were some Curious George types who stayed behind to catch the Krar Collective, the Ethiopian ensemble who were the final act of the evening. They didn’t really raise a blip on our radar when the Krar player (Temesegen Tareken, a.k.a Tem in this review) and the percussionist (Robel Tesfaye), who played traditional Ethiopian Kebero drums, walked on stage to greet the sparse audience; they looked innocent enough. The “Krar” in Krar collective is in reference to a curiosity of an instrument that is actually a lyre native to Ethiopia. Tem strummed notes rapidly with an elongated pick (seemingly at random but more likely with expert ease) only a few inches from the fingers of his other hand that was anchored in the lyre’s strings. The individual notes during sound check sounded like a guitar tuned up a couple of scales but Tem used a patch that morphed it into a rich, organ-like sound. While Tem fiddled with the Krar, dancer and singer Genet Asefa walked onstage in an elaborate costume to much applause. The quavering tone to her voice was given center stage on the first song, a traditional Ethiopian thanksgiving ditty. The percussion was interesting, not so much anchoring the song with a steady beat than peppering it with consistent solos.
After a graceful “Thank you”, the band then moved into a song called ‘Wello’. Still blissfully unaware of the virtual tornado of shock and sheer bewilderment that was about to ensue, the audience moved closer to the stage in genuine curiosity as the dancers made it to the stage. The audience was like a waking giant – taking cues from the increasing tempo and the scene unfolding onstage – as the dancers fell into some sort of mating dance, standing a healthy distance apart (for now) while the singing was interspersed with hollering, timed hissing and even some suggestive breathing in perfect timing with the beat. ‘Rominja’, a song from the “east and central” part of Ethiopia, featured an increased tempo and fewer items of clothing; the prudes in the audience were a tad uncomfortable but continued watching nonetheless at this point. But not for long… the increasingly primal dancing mauled the delicate sensibilities of some of the audience members while entertaining the rest of us immensely after it progressed into over-the-top, bawdry mock almost-lovemaking on stage, complete with straddling and wide eyed expressions (us and the dancers). At one point, the general atmosphere of shock and awe was compounded by the male dancer air-cupping his partner’s rear several times and making throwing gestures towards the audience members (several of whom ducked instinctively). Dancing aside, the music was miles from anything we’re accustomed to. We were particularly taken by the lyre’s versatility and the fact that a performance by two instruments and one vocalist had us from the words “We are the Krar Collective”. The day ended much like the first at Mad – us begging for “one more” song, milling in large groups discussing the highest highs of the day, and the lowest lows (mostly of the valley below the campsite). Yet another impressively organized day that ran pretty much like clockwork despite some rescheduling and a light drizzle, meant that we were full of praise for the organizers and performers once again.
People were still talking about “that graceful dancing lady”. A lot of mini table tennis was played, little boys captained foosball teams and gave Anil Kumble type looks to people who didn’t do well on their side. Stalls were visited, wines tried, cupcakes eaten, slightly more expensive beer gulped down, a lot of walking done and a general feel good factor settled in as we headed back to more bonfires and jams back at the campsite.