This article must begin with an apology. Due to a historically unprecedented event, and a run of bad luck, this article is nowhere as inclusive as it ought to be. Defying every law of concert experience, the festival started right on time. This is the historically unprecedented event referred to earlier. To make matters worse, Delhi metro, for reasons unknown, chose to make a stop of more than half an hour between stations. This is the run of bad luck, also mentioned above. The combination of these two factors meant that your beleaguered journalist missed the first act of the day.
I suppose I had better start writing in first person now. By the time I made it to Purana Qila, Stigmata, the Sri Lankan band that had started the evening’s proceedings, were wrapping up their set. Gutted and more than a little annoyed with myself, I was nevertheless filled with anticipation, for Papon& The East India Company were playing tonight, as were Strings, the melodic phenomenon from across the border. But before that, we had Eman’s Conspiracy from Maldives took stage. Eman Thawfeeq, the band’s eponymous vocalist, asked the Delhi crowd if it was ready to rock. To the loud cheers of ‘Yes!’, he said, ‘Alright! So let’s 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 I mention that the band were 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 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.
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 I fervently 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 guitar, but Jeenti Dutta handled the six string department with equal parts aplomb and finesse. Papon’s mellow vocals perfectly suited the sensuous song about love and longing. As the song ended amid a thousand waving arms, the only word I 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 one of my personal favourites – ‘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, I 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 inspired much dancing. Next, Bilal took on the vocal duties and sang ‘Sar kiye ye pahar’ which was one of Strings’ earliest hits in India. I’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. I have been to four of their gigs so far, and every time I have enjoyed how the band interpret their songs differently in a live setting. But most of all, it’s how they bond with the audience which is the most striking feature of their shows. Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to seeing them on stage again.
Well, that’s it. Day two of the South Asian bands festival was a fantastic experience. I was filled with regret that I’d missed day one and would have to forego day three, but this one evening made for some great music, and sure gave some good memories to take back. Live, I always feel, is how music ought to be.