The South Asian Bands Festival is the annual festival held as a part of the SAARC regional integration through culture, organised by ICCR. In its seventh edition, this is one of those festivals whose sound gets lost in the din of the mainstream, alhough there’s a certain edge TSABF enjoys over the rest. The amazing cultural diversity, the stellar Purana Qila as the venue, and of course the free entry undoubtedly takes the cake.
Delegates and alike filled up the VIP seats and the crowd started gathering around the stage on a pleasant evening. With balloons kicking off the first day of the South Asian Bands festival, the evening at first seemed a quiet one. The line-up for the day included Barefaced Liar and Circus from Delhi, Biuret from South Korea, LRB from Bangladesh and ZnG from Bhutan.
With no entry charge for the festival, one would expect a lot of people attending, but the numbers looked scanty. Barefaced Liar opened the act and enlivened the atmosphere at Purana Qila which was lit up in warm red and pink lights. The stage was full of colours and flags of all the nations were pinned up. The band showed immense energy and eventually called their newest member Darshan who joined the band with his mesmerizing violin. By the end of their list, the crowd had ‘woken up’ and had started singing and swaying in joy.
LRB from Bangladesh was next and started their list with heavy guitar-chugging. Their act included a couple of Bangla originals and they mostly did some covers of popular numbers including ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and ‘We Will Rock You’. They sounded a little rusty, however they managed to make the crowd jitter and shout out almost all of the songs that they played. Well done Bondhu!
The Bhutanese band ZnG was a nice change as they started out with mellow and soft music followed by some rock as well. The vocalist had a soothing touch to his voice and all the members were wearing traditional clothes which resembled the Scottish kilts.
The boys from Delhi, The Circus, jumped right after ZnG and caught everyone’s attention with their non-stop loops and excellent sound mixing. The band started off with their usual and popular cover of Nine Inch Nail’s song ‘Wish’. This was followed by their original tracks including ‘It Feels Good When the Medications They Kick In’ and ‘Bats’. The crowd was loving it and surprisingly singing along to the songs.
The show took a HUGE turn when the band from South Korea, Biuret arrived at the stage. The lead vocalist was a pretty girl with long hair and a Fender guitar in hand. The crowd suddenly seemed to have doubled out of nowhere. While the band sounded like typical South-east Asian band, the act seemed to pull a lot of attention. The lead guitarist, Happy Jackson, was super enthusiastic and kept shouting the words ‘Namaste’ and ‘Dhanyabaad’ after every song. The band also covered well-known songs like ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Lady Marmalade’
The performances did not disappoint. We even bumped into people who had travelled from other cities just to get a glimpse of the festival. All in all, a warm and soothing atmosphere covered the evening on the first day of the South Asian Bands festival.
By the time we made it to Purana Qila on Day 2, Stigmata, the Sri Lankan band that had started the evening’s proceedings, were wrapping up their set. We were filled with anticipation, for Papon & The East India Company were playing that night, as were Strings, the melodic phenomenon from across the border. But before that, Eman’sConspiracy from Maldives took to the stage. Eman Thawfeeq, the band’s eponymous vocalist, asked the Delhi crowd if it was ready to rock. And boy, did they rock! Right from the first track, they showed they meant business. Lots of energy, all the right moves, and a chorus with a great vibe, with a guitar solo thrown in for good measure – yes, this was a good start, by any standards. The band then moved to a song about a girl called Rezna, who’d allegedly been a bad, bad girl. Again, very tight, with a solid groove and catchy chorus, the song inspired much dancing and headbanging.
Oh, and did we mention that the band was not singing in English, or Hindi? Yes, all their songs are written in Dhivehi. Even though not a word was understood, a brilliant time was had, because, like Eman Thawfeeq put it after the song, you don’t always need to understand the words, because music is a universal language. The conspirators then followed it up with a heavily funk-driven number, reminiscent of RHCP’s ‘Walkabout’. A lazy rhythm, underpinned by fluid basslines and Sunday-afternoon-repose drums, was rounded off by a wah-pedal solo, making everyone sway. Changing gears, they moved on to a song about tickling. Yes, you read that right. And what an amazing song that was. The bass held a frenetic rhythm, as the high energy song chugged on. Every member of the band was on overdrive. The vocals holding the high notes comfortably, the twin guitar attack unceasing and on target, and the rhythm section churning out a serious groove. The song ended amid hysterical laughter from all band members. One couldn’t help but marvel at the connect that the band had built up with the crowd, which was swelling by the minute. The fact that these guys are gifted musicians individually is beyond dispute. But there’s more to them than that – they are great performers. They traded witticisms with the crowd, acknowledged the roars of approval, and put on all the correct Rock-God poses. Swell, especially when one considers the fact that they are a fairly recent unit, having come together only in August this year for a gig. After they completed their last song, they promised to come play in India again, and we hope to see them live again. Eman, you’re right, music is not restricted by barriers as inconsequential as language.
The atmosphere had built up and reached electric levels by now, and there was a deafening roar as Papon & The East India Company started their set. Over the last few years, Papon has built up a massive fanbase, and Delhi welcomed him with open arms. A small sound glitch at the beginning of the set was resolved quickly, and for the next hour, Papon & The East India Company had everyone present at Purana Qila under their spell. ‘Khumaar’ was easily one of the best performances of the evening. The rapt audience hung on to every word, arms waving, singing along. This rendition was as good as, if not better than the Coke Studio version. One definitely missed Kalyan Baruah on the guitars, but Jeenti Dutta handled the guitars with equal parts aplomb and finesse. Papon’s mellow vocals perfectly suited the sensous song about love and longing. As the song ended amid a thousand waving arms, the only word we could come with to describe the experience was ‘Sublime’.
Up next was another Coke Studio hit, ‘Dinae Dinae’. The band played a different, faster version of the song, with Papon taking on both the Assamese and Punjabi vocals. After some banter with the crowd, Papon regaled the audience with ‘Kyun’ from the soundtrack of the film ‘Barfi’, and had everyone singing along. This was followed by ‘Tokari’, from the previous season of Coke Studio. This is a traditional song from Assam, which talks about the antics of Lord Krishna. Combining the traditional vibe with modern pop and EDM sensibilities, this is a song that one can’t listen to standing still. The feet move, the head bobs, and the arms trace patterns in the air, all of their own accord. Keeping to the Coke Studio theme, the next song was ‘Tauba Tauba’, a vastly improved version as compared to the one with Benny Dayal. ‘Jiyein Kyun’ was another highlight, a song with so much soul. It conveyed pain, sorrow and nostalgia in a heady mix, brought to life by Papon’s magical voice.
Here is a man who sings from the deepest part of his heart. If you haven’t heard him yet, ladies and gentlemen, we urge you, please do. Deciding to infuse some frolic into the proceedings, Papon gave into the crowd’s demands and launched into ‘Banao Banao’. Now this song has become an anthem of sorts, with references to how green the, ahem, grass, is. Papon recounted his days in Assam, his college life in Delhi and his quest for making music. A fictional ‘Babaji’ apparently espoused the virtues of grass (ahem again) as the cure for all of life’s tribulations. The gifted raconteur that he is, Papon weaved his tale as the crowd lustily sang ‘Right Now’ to the ‘Banao Banao’ refrain. That was to be the last song of their set, but such was the crowd’s demand for an encore, that the band obliged with ‘Pak Pak’, a breezy Bihu song. One felt again the universal language of music – this song was entirely in Assamese, but looking at the crowd who were lapping up the dance party and folk fest, all in one, one would never guess. Papon tutored the audience on Bihu dance moves and invited them to join him. The band deserves a special mention, seamlessly blending folk instruments with new age music and rock riffs. Birthday boy Tanmay on the drums, Kirti on various percussion instruments, Deepak on bass, Brin on keyboards and Jeenti on the guitars provided a perfect foil to Papon’s vocals.
It was time for the final act of the night. Having been around for years and boasting of a long list of hits under their belt, Strings really need no introduction. They have played a number of shows in India and their melodic tunes and thought-provoking lyrics have won them many admirers. Their first song of the evening was ‘Naa Jaane Kyun’, and it was followed up by the upbeat ‘Koi Aane Waala Hai’. Two things were immediately apparent – in guitarist Adeel the band have a virtuoso, and Faisal seemed to be holding the vocals back for some reason. This is not to say that anything was amiss with the music that the band was dishing out. ‘Anjaane’ was delivered in a new avatar, segueing into the riff of ‘Sweet child o’ mine’ and then to ‘Socha Hai’ from ‘Rock On’ before ending back where it started.
Special mention must be made of Aahad, the drummer. Looking like a young Mike Portnoy, he matched the legend in terms of his energy on stage, and treated the crowd to a fantastic double bass drum solo. Adeel, meanwhile, showed his guitar prowess in every song with racy, melodic solos. Faisal took the crowd back to the yesteryears, making them sing along to ‘Ye Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge’ and ‘Jaanu Meri Jaan’, altering the latter’s lyrics slightly to bring forth the friendship between India and Pakistan. It was a theme throughout their set, and Strings emphasised how much they appreciate the love they have received in India. Faisal, always humble, effused warmth and invited those present to visit Pakistan and partake of their hospitality. Ah! Such great ambassadors of friendship music gives us!
‘Yeh Hai Meri Kahaani’ was welcomed with a thunderous applause and given the full crowd singalong treatment. ‘Chhaaye Chhaaye’ was reinvented for the stage, and the song’s infectious groove insiped much dancing. Next, Bilal took on the vocal duties and sang ‘Sar Kiye Ye Pahar’ which was one of Strings’ earliest hits in India. We’ve always thought Bilal to be the better singer of the two, and he didn’t disappoint at all. The eager crowd was clamouring for their favourite songs and shouting for ‘Duur’ and ‘Dhaani’. Reassuring the gathering, Faisal said ’Itminaan rakhiye. Itni duur se aaye hain, saare gaane gaake hi jayenge’. ‘Duur’ was received with much cheering and singing along, and ‘Dhaani’ of course, was a huge hit. This was followed by the band’s introduction, with every member wowing the audience with his dexterity. After Aahad’s breathtaking drum solo, Khaled on the bass and Haider on the keybaords acknowledged the cheers with a display of their talent. But the showstealer was Adeel on the guitar. He played ‘Saare Jahaan Se Achcha’ to wild applause and marched on to showcase some deft runs on the fretboard, putting the whammy bar to liberal use. It is a testament to the band’s popularity that the crowd sang along to every song, often singing the whole verse while the duo held out the mics to them. This is a band that always touches a chord with the audience. Needless to say, we’re already looking forward to seeing them on stage again.
Day two of the South Asian bands festival was a fantastic experience and made for some great music, and sure gave some good memories to take back. Live, we always feel, is how music ought to be.
What’s in the Name was the first band to go on stage and boy they sparkled! These wacky boys (with even wackier get-ups) from Mumbai set the stage afire with their brand of straight-outta-school alt-funk-rock, albeit with an added chutzpah. Their energy was oozing out and perhaps the lead singer’s ankle bore the brunt when he twisted it in an awkward fall. They sang kitschy numbers like ‘Hey Bhabhi!’ and finished their power packed set in half an hour. All in all, a pretty good warm up for rest of the evening.
Men from Afghanistan followed and they were called- Pardis. Inherently Persian in nature their music relied more on rhythm. They sang in Hindi too and it was an absolute delight when accompanied with their thick Pashto accent.
The crowd though was getting increasingly impatient and were vociferously cheering ‘Al-ba-tross, Al-ba-tross’, who were to perform later in the evening. We are not talking about Mumbai’s Albatross here. This was the band from Nepal, the most anticipated act by the crowd by far. There was still time for them to take the stage. And when Susmit Sen walked out with his band on the stage, we could sense a palpable anguish amidst the Albatross fans. Though The Chronicles were rather unperturbed and their performance was an epitome of serenity. Definitely that calmed the junta for a while. Flavours of jazz, folk and the ever organic Indian classical when blended together always work as a great therapy. This was the first time we watched the Chronicles perform after Susmit quit Indian Ocean and devoted attention fully for the solo project. Our curiosity and expectations were both satisfied and they sounded way tighter than they had before. The Chronicles are surely evolving but there’s the stereotype of ‘sounding like Indian Ocean’ they would certainly like to get away with soon.
Next up – Albatross. And then a mad rush ran through the crowd. This is what they have been waiting for and the sizeable Nepali contingent at the venue had revolution on their minds. They sang their lungs out, they jostled, and they moshed (even to the mellow numbers) and at times misbehaved with women too. Everything in their unbridled excitement. The ever-aggressive Delhi was out again and now wore its heart on the sleeve.
The emotions calmed down ostensibly (for the good) when the maverick from Bangalore – Raghu Dixit took the stage. He stuck to the promotion of his latest album Jag Changa much to the dismay of the crowd who demanded his more popular numbers. That was not disappointing though for we got to hear the new numbers that were equally vibrant. Raghu eventually did give in to the popular demand and ended his stellar set with ‘Mysore Se Ayi’. Which meant the curtains fell for a final time at this year’s TSABF. It had been truly magnificent and the mix of different types of music from all over Asia hit the right notes and honestly, this year’s South Asian Bands festival was been bigger, better and well organised.
Deep Chakraborty, Shubhodeep Datta and Kunal Khullar