Ziro Music Festival, a carnival of rhythm, returns on the ground

Ziro Music Festival, a carnival of rhythm, returns on the ground

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Dateline: September 14, 2012. Hapoli, a picturesque village in the Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, was gearing up to host something unprecedented: a music festival. Until then, the villagers, predominantly from the Apatani tribe, had never experienced anything remotely close to a concert, let alone an outdoor music festival. But what transpired amidst the hamlet’s lush green meadows over the next three days charmed its way into their hearts and they have continued to host it ever since: The Ziro Music Festival (ZMF) was born.

On September 29, the quaint village of Hapoli will yet again echo with the strains of music from across the globe and melomanes will flock to it to be a part of ZMF’s ninth edition after a difficult, pandemic-induced, two-year-long hiatus.

Global music collaboration

“The pandemic did affect our plans, but at the same time, it also pushed us to explore how to merge technology and music when organising music festivals. For instance, in 2020, our team got to work on an international music collaboration project called Ziro Focus, where we partnered with Focus Wales, a multi-venue showcase festival in the Wales,” says Lubna Shaheen, programme director of ZMF. The project was supported by the British Council and the Arts Council of Wales. “That way we got lucky, but the last two years have been a learning curve for us at many levels,” she adds.

Scenes from a previous edition. Photo courtesy of Ziro Music Festival

One fascinating aspect of ZMF is that it doesn’t discriminate against attendees on the basis of their musical affinity. Be it rock, punk, metal, electro, folk, fusion, Indian classical, outré, avant-garde or any other unfrequented ilk — the festival welcomes music aficionados swearing by all genres, and cutting across geographies. In the past, many international artistes have made it to ZMF’s line-ups and considering their attendance this year, the festival is set to be a worldly confluence. Musical ensembles and acts from Lithuania and Japan seem to have struck a chord with ZMF’s curator for quite some time (especially, since the last edition in 2019) and this year, attendees will get to groove to their music with Lithuanian pop artiste Leon Somov and Dileta and Japanese/Greek rocker duo Pinky Doodle Poodle on stage.

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“Our curators are always on the lookout for exciting sounds and bands from across the world. It’s not a mere month-long process, but takes days to curate a stellar line-up,” says Randeep Singh, a curator of ZMF and a member of Delhi-based alternative rock band, Menwhopause. Shaheen adds that ZMF has been recognised in countries such as Australia, Israel and the United States and that the visibility, too, helps the organising team in scouting new and unique talents.

Indian independent artistes

Since its initial few editions, Indian independent artistes have always been the festival’s USP and the 2022 edition has them in plenty. From Indi-pop wizard Rabbi Shergill, electro-rockers Laxmi Bomb, veteran metallers Motherjane, Indian classical slide guitar maverick Dr Kamala Shankar and promising qawwali troupe Rehmat-e-Nusrat to bluesy quartet Dr Declan Oppenheimer’s Polyphonic Experience (Dr DOPE), ZMF’s line-up this year underscores why it continues to be a haven for artistes who are off-the-Bollywood-trail.

“This year would be Laxmi Bomb’s second visit to ZMF after 2013. In fact, I had performed in the first edition as well, but with a different band called Aftertaste. So, we are both excited and nostalgic about getting back to the Northeast. Moreover, we are cutting our second full-length album soon and our performance this year will mostly revolve around new tracks from the album,” says Levin Mendes, drummer of the band, over the phone from Mumbai.

Over the years, the ZMF has evolved a lot. In its first edition, the festival featured about 21 musical ensembles uniformly spread over three days. In 2022, that number has gone up to 40 across two stages. The subsequent rise in the number of non-musical attractions in the festival’s four-day itinerary is another case in point. This year, storytelling sessions, dance and movement classes, yoga sessions and Apatani flute-making from paddy straw workshop, among others, are expected to offer attendees a lot more out of an outdoor music festival.

Beyond music

“All our teams work in tandem and we brainstorm about how to bring in new things to the itinerary. Keeping our audience’s requests and desires in mind, we tend to add new attractions that involve the local populace. The idea is to go beyond music and make festival attendees learn about the culture, tradition and lifestyle of the people of Ziro. In short, the motto is to foster a meaningful exchange between the locals and people visiting the place,” says Shaheen.

A performance at a previous edition. Photo courtesy of Ziro Music Festival

Talking about meaningful exchanges, ZMF’s literary wing — the Ziro Literary Festival (ZLF) — too has garnered satisfactory response from attendees since its inception in 2018. This year, ZLF is organising creative writing workshops in collaboration with Saint Claret College, which will focus on graphic novels and poetry. Shaheen asserts that the principal of the institution, Father Allwyn Mendoz, has been instrumental in facilitating the initiative.

“The focus of the literary festival is not just to invite a bunch of panelists to deliberate on their opinions and creations, but to get voices from Ziro to the world. After the workshops, the participants’ (mostly students) works will be displayed at this edition’s ZLF venue on the first two days of the festival,” adds the programme director.

Pricier tickets

The hike in the price of tickets for this year’s edition, however, may put a hole in the pockets of some festival-goers. Compared with Rs 7,000 in 2019, this year’s pricing of tickets (Rs 9,944 — with taxes) is a bit steep. Shaheen blames it on the cost of living which has sky-rocketed, with things having worsened after the pandemic. “To pull off a festival of ZMF’s magnitude in a remote village such as Hapoli has a lot of logistical challenges. The vendors have hiked their prices and we are left with no options,” explains Shaheen.

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Some things, however, are sure to remain unchanged. Much like the festival’s previous editions, the four-day affair will continue to have two stages: Danyii (sun) and Piilo (moon). Keeping in line with ZMF’s tradition, the Danyii (day stage) will yet again feature artistes practising genres such as folk, fusion, Indian classical, hybrid genres and mostly acoustic sets, while Piilo (the evening stage) will stick with its spectacle from popular acts and ensembles. With old-timer Baba Sehgal also part of the line-up, the excitement levels are high among some quarters.

Going by the itinerary of this year’s ZMF — musical and non-musical — it promises to be a carnivalesque four-day affair. The scars of the pandemic years may still be fresh in our minds, and the world’s festival circuit may have been adversely affected, but music — ‘the language of the spirit’ which opens ‘the secret of life; it brings peace, and abolishes strife’, as Kahlil Gibran put it — can set us all on the road to healing.

(Debarun Borthakur is an independent journalist based in Assam)

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