Perhaps the bar was set too high by the previous instalments of the Fireflies Festival of Music, but this year the festival seemed slightly less successful. It was probably because everyone went into a state of panic as the clocks neared 10 oclock, rushing the last few bands and generally leaving everyone feeling a little confused. As the festival was for a much shorter duration this time, there were fewer people this year and the line-up lacked the big names of previous years. However, the line up of artists was, if anything, more eclectic and more esoteric than ever.
This years event, which took place on the 10th of February, started about three hours late, which is sort of in keeping with the record set in 2012. For the longest time, there was a sizeable crowd left waiting with nothing to do but eat and smoke. Yes, we did have a few gripes with the festival this time but the music and the ambience more than made up for it. Despite the public whine that the festival was not an overnight affair anymore, Fireflies Festival of Music remains a much-anticipated event. The magical setting of the Pipal tree at the center of the amphitheatre promised a host of profound and stirring experiences, and one wasnt really let down.
This year too, the event was hosted by Akshat Jitendranath, who has become the face of the festival. The first act on stage was Sangeet Sadhana – a Hindustani troupe. Anindita Mukherjee kicked off proceedings with her rendition of Bhor Bhayee, which rang many bells in the audience because of a certain Bollywood adaptation. This was followed by a duet in Raga Basant Bahar, and by the popular Rajasthani Mand Kesariya Balam, performed by Poulomi Dutt. There was then a surprise: a Rabindra Sangeet in Dadra style fused with Raga Bageshri to produce a magical duet – the soaring male vocals on this one hit the spot.
Ka Karoon Sajni, Aaye na Balam in Raga Sindhu Bhairavi was next. As fans of the thumris, this rendition did not let us down. The violin embellishments were delicious. Ghir Ghir Aaye Kari Badariya in Raga Pilu was next, followed by a tarana in Raga Darbari. The male duet, culminating in a tabla-tabla jugalbandi was a happy inclusion in the short set! Riteshs silk smooth vocals stole the show, as did Anindita Mukherjees unique style of delivery.
The second act on stage was supposed to be Vedanth and Bindu, but to our surprise, the band seemed to be missing one half of the band Bindu! Vedanth and Bindu was quickly changed to Vedant and Ananth as Bindu could not attend because of reasons not made known to us. This Fireflies regular teamed up with old friend Ananth Menon – yes, Ananth Menon of Galeej Gurus and By 2 Blues fame – to produce an eclectic set of modern day blues, pop and Kabir hymns. Vedant and Bindu are a Chennai based duo that specializes in Bhakti music and Anant Menon is a blues guitarist and vocalist but this odd mixture did produce some pleasant surprises.
The first surprise was the sound check, O Come, O Come Emannuel in two part harmony. With the sun shining bright, Vedanth went on to sing a few hymns by Sant Kabir. This is where we shamefully admit that we were not very knowledgeable about Sant Kabirs hymns so Vedanths explanations helped. The first hymn, as he explained, was about a young newly wed pining for her husband, which he followed up with a Malvi version of another Kabir hymn describing the temple that is the human body. In this mix of Kabir songs, Vedanth quite unexpectedly sang a cover of The Times They Are A-Changing a Bob Dylan classic. The performance was lackluster, perhaps due to the fact that one guitar and one voice was trying to hold the attention of hundreds of people for a span of four songs
Ananth then joined Vedanth on stage to belt out Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan, followed by Jheeni Chadariya, this time embellished with Ananths blues lead guitar. Never before have we heard Kabir Blues, but were not complaining! He was my Brother – a Simon and Garfunkel cover, followed this. They closed the short half-delightful set with a blues rendition of a keertan – Bhajo Re Bhaiya Ram Govind Hare.
Sufi and Qawali singers from Kutch were up next and they were the epitome of humility. Brought to the festival by an NGO working for the empowerment of women in the Kutch region, the joy of being in Bangalore and playing their music in front of a large gathering of city folk was evident on their faces. The band manager of this six-member group was more than happy to explain every song and his enthusiasm was highly infectious. Each song was tinged with melancholia and sadness and was beautiful, even though most of us did not understand any of the lyrics. The most memorable moment of their set was when one of them decided to play the double flute. Completely novel, passionate and intricate; the performance of the flautist got a standing ovation and rightly so.
After a high energy and thoroughly enjoyable closing song by the artists from Kutch, came the Irish band Bahh Band, who had waited three long years to get to Fireflies. Probably one of the better artists of the night, they brought with them an unconventional yet pleasantly surprising set of songs that were a mix of Indian classical and Irish folk. Throughout their performance, their uber-charming sarod player Mattu, kept up a great rapport with the audience. They started the set with Spirit Gift – a song dedicated to the festival and the Pipal tree. The track started with an unhurried sarod dominated intro and progressed languidly as the percussions kicked in without being too overwhelming.
They moved onto their version of Face of Love, originally sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder. Although the overzealous smoke machines fogged up the stage and the vocalist was barely audible, nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of the band and the execution of the track was spot-on. Following some more chit-chat with the audience where they took a dig at one of the most famous exports from Ireland Snow Patrol, they decided to play some lively Irish folk songs although slightly Indian-ised versions of them. Sexy Leprechaun was probably one of their best songs of night as their percussionist Brain Fleming, was absolutely riveting on the Bodhrán a handheld Irish drum. Fireflies was a great learning experience for any music lover first we heard the double flute and then the Bodhrán!
Filled with intricate and enthralling Bodhrán solos, the song was a treat for the ears and the eyes. Between songs, Mattu managed to advertise their CD and impress the audience with a few Tamil words that he had picked up. As the sun set and the Pipal tree was lit up with colourful lights, the Bahh Band performed their final song an Irish folk song called Blacksmith, where the vocalist managed to channel Enya and give us all an ethereal performance.
Floyd Fernandes took the stage next with two other musicians from Mumbai. As one of the best Jazz guitarists in India; his set was flawless and thoroughly entertaining. Although fatigue had set in and most in the audience were visibly tired, they had no problems grooving to smooth jazz, funk and blues that Floyd was belting out. They even danced along during Floyds rendition of Bobby Hebbs Sunny which thankfully sounded nothing like the Boney M cover!
Talavattam was the next band to take the stage but hunger and fatigue took over and we were forced to skip their performance to get some much needed refreshments. Although we were missing from the amphitheatre, judging from the loud cheers and shrieks from the crowd they were definitely one of the most popular bands with the audience at the festival.
What happened next was probably the lowest point of the whole night. Emam and Friends a bunch of world musicians from well unsurprisingly all over the world, took to the stage after what seemed like an eternity to set up. With utter miscommunication between the artists and the sound tech team, problems escalated and some comical diva behaviour ensued. Finally, they began with Guru Mantram and it would have been memorable in a good way if the vocalists were absent. Not only did they distract from the talent of the percussionist and sarod player, but their amateur singing of powerful shlokas, bhajans and kirtans and the accompanying jig were very unsettling. The only high point in their performance was when Brian Fleming from the Bahh Band joined them and Emam and he went crazy with the bongos and Bodhrán respectively.
Midway through their performance, they were informed that their set had to be cut short due to time constraints and Emam went full on diva on the crowd and organizers demanding why the headlining act was being treated so badly. We all seemed to have missed the memo about them being the headlining act awkward! They sulkily ended their set with some badly sung kirtans and left the stage with barely concealed rage. No matter how much Emam thanked the wonderful audience, his disappointment with the organizers was very evident.
The last band on stage was Dutch Jazz group and another Fireflies regular Spinifex. Their style of jazz fused with metal was so loud that they must have definitely blown out some eardrums and woken up slumbering citizens miles away. Given – the music was quite outstanding with a few hiccups and the venue was absolutely magical. However, we could not help wishing for the glory days of the Fireflies Festival of Music as we walked away from the ashram.