Chasing The Mirage: Ragasthan Festival Review
28 November 2012
Part One: Logistics
This post should be about something else.
It should be a post about the many musical acts – some brilliant and others less so – that graced the stages of Ragasthan. And that’s what it was supposed to be.
But then Ragasthan happened.
And now, the attendees seem to oscillate between judgments; was Ragasthan a miraculous accomplishment or an organisational disaster of epic proportions?
Yes. It was.
We can’t help but marvel at the sheer scale of what was accomplished in the Kanoi Dunes almost 10 days ago. Three massive stages with a full complement of screens and lights were fueled by deep, loud bass, and a high end that was crisp by any outdoor standards. And there was so much more; a cinema tent, five food locations, tents with bathrooms for those with big budgets, and clean toilet facilities for those without. At 3:00 in the morning, standing on top of the dunes, watching the lights mingle with the bass, scrape the sand, and emanate towards the sky, it was hard not to be impressed.
It would be easy to write a laundry list nitpicking every problem with the festival, but that wouldn’t serve any great purpose. The greatest faults seem to flow from an organisation that’s learning as it goes. As long as it keeps learning, we’re willing to overlook a bit of stumbling.
But, since we know you want to know, here’s the abbreviated laundry list, with some good bits thrown in as well:
The Kanoi Dunes are astonishing; an amazing festival venue. They provide a massive canvas with which to work. But just because one has a lot of space doesn’t mean one has to use it. In this massive festival site, every move felt like a trek. While it’s understandable to leave space between venues for noise reasons, the ancillary stages, food options, cinema tent, and bar setups ought have been more centrally located.
But by far our biggest beef with the site was the lack of any common area in which to spend the days. The blistering desert sun and unventilated canvas tents meant that shaded outdoor areas were crucial. They were also nonexistent. For those of lucky enough to stay in the luxury tents, it was possible to cram five or six people into the shade of the canvas “porch”. We don’t know how those in the Bring Your Own Tent (BYOT) section fared: We weren’t brave enough to step out during the afternoon hours.
The stages, on the other hand, were well put together. The lights and visuals were competent if not mindblowing, the stages had ample room and visibility, and the sound was good. The electronic stage merits special mention. Nested in a valley between dunes, it offered an ideal dance moonscape, presenting revelers with a tantalizing glimpse of what the festival may become in future years.
Despite the complaints of some of our friends from Juhu and Gurgaon, the “Swiss” luxury tents were fantastic. The beds were comfortable, the porches were lifesaving, and the bathrooms were clean and comfortable.
The BYOT area was less welcoming. Despite the confusing acronym, punters shelled out the same number of Gandhis whether they brought their own tent or used those provided by the organisers. And although the provided tents served their purpose, the lack of any opening or window made the insides very hot, very early in the morning. When one passes out at 6:00 in the morning, one prefers to be able to sleep past 8:00.
Despite the organiser’s fine record on drinking water, washing water proved more of a challenge. A bank of perhaps a dozen tents seemed to have a smaller water tank than a standard Delhi flat, and outages were common. Power, too, was intermittent, a problem for artists trying to prep.
The continental food was disastrous. The Indian was passable. Enough said.
On the festival’s first night, the organisers apparently hadn’t thought to put bars next to the stages. Purely from a revenue generation perspective, this seems a disastrous oversight. Moreover, upon trekking up and down dunes for ten minutes, we were instructed that we had to buy coupons from the festival centre, another 15 minutes away. All seven of us left that bar empty handed.
To their great credit, the organisers seem to have seen the folly of their ways. By day two, bars appeared at the stages and cash was accepted at most food and beverage locations.
Most importantly, drinking water was always in ample supply. The organisers had banned bottled water saying that water coolers would be liberally distributed throughout the festival site. They were. And to the organisers’ great credit, we did not stumble across an empty water cooler even once. This can quite literally be a question of life and death when you let hundreds of irresponsible party kids loose in the middle of the desert.
The festival was divided into three main stages; rock, world, and electronic. Unsurprisingly, the Wild City team spent most of its time at the third. We were not pleased by the schedule.
There were many good DJs, and we’ll discuss them in the second part of our review. But what the stage programmers seemed to misunderstand was the tribal mentality of dance music communities. Many trance fans don’t want to dance to breaks and many breaks fans don’t want to dance to techno, and nobody other than the trance kids ever wants to hear a second of psy if it can be avoided. But the Ragasthan electronic stage lacked this awareness. Drum and bass led into trance led into progressive house led into techno. As each DJ changed, so did the crowd, reducing the attendance at the stage. A more cogent programmer would have sequenced artists to create flow and progressive build. I suspect most of us ravers would have rather had one night on which we were happy to dance until dawn than three nights on which we were happy to dance for a two hour set.
A festival lives and dies by its artists. Its ability to attract talent is its only currency. By this metric, you might think that keeping its artists happy would be the number one priority of a new music festival.
The Ragasthanis, if the phrase can be forgiven, made a few key mistakes here.
Some thoughts from us to the organisers:
The artists also have places to go after the festival. This means you don’t send them off to train station with nothing but waitlisted tickets and a prayer.
Keep them clean, with charged equipment. This means backup tankers for water, and extra diesel for your generators.
If you send artists home without playing, it’s because you failed to schedule your slots properly. Advaitya may not be our style, but there were a lot of festivalgoers who came to see them. Nobody’s happy they didn’t play. The same goes for the artists who were promised two-hour slots and saw them cut in half.
The primary problem with Ragasthan was the organisers’ desire to start at full power. The festival they threw this year should have been the festival of three years from now, after Ragasthan had the opportunity to learn and to grow.
But the organisers showed promise, improving the festivalgoer experience each day. It is this responsiveness that makes us reserve judgment. If all of the right lessons are learned, next year could produce the best music festival ever to hit the subcontinent. If none of them are, we’re unlikely to return for year three.
We came in search of the kind of transcendental dance floor experience, awash in the singular multitude of the crowd, that deep bass, open sky, and outspread dunes ought to deliver. The kind of dance floor experience for which we – and many of our readers – have spent much of our lives searching. We left a bit disappointed. But we can’t stop thinking about how close we got.
Part Two: What Really Matters
I’ve got to give it to the organisers: it can’t be easy. Putting together a festival that hops genres as wildly as Ragasthan does while still keeping guests engaged involves a great deal of juggling. Perhaps aptly, Ragasthan chose to take the three-ring circus approach - rock, world, and electronic.
The Wild City and Border Movement team spent little time at the rock stage. It’s not that we hate rock, it’s just that it’s not really what we came for. And also, we kind of hate a lot of the rock that was being played there.
Twenty-somethings of Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Pune, and Calcutta:
You are not Eddie Vedder. You are also not Curt Cobain, Scott Wieland, or Chris Cornell. But mostly, you are not Eddie Vedder. Please, stop singing like him.
You are also not in the 90s. And you know what the crazy part is? The 90s weren’t even the last decade. And the 80s have been the hot retro shit for about five years now. Do you realise what that means? That means that when you’re in the your early-to-mid 30s and playing the same music you played in college, there will be school kids in retro bands playing the same music as you, because it will have come full circle.
College rock aside, we caught two bands who turned in stellar performances at the rock stage. Sky Rabbit brought a fine set of brooding electro-indie that recalled The Shins, were The Shins to go off of their medication. We’re big fans of SnowShoe, and enjoyed hearing Rahul Nadkarni’s more traditional rock side.
Most stunningly, and perhaps the highlight of the entire festival, was Peter Cat Recording Co. Peter Cat embraces an aesthetic of the decayed and the whisky soaked. Vocals spit through a bullhorn while keyboards are wired through fuzzy amps to dull their edge, presenting the crowd with a sound that seems to belong to a dusty attic full of boxed memories, only just now pierced by a jarring shaft of unaccustomed light. Everything about the music is calculated take the edge off, as if Peter Cat exists in order to produce the aural equivalent of a stiff martini or a well twisted vanilla Dutch.
They call themselves “gypsy jazz”, but sound entirely unlike any gypsy jazz act we’ve heard before. There is cabaret in there, and jazz, ballroom, psychedalia, and most of all, just good old rock n’ roll. But whatever genres Peter Cat might draw from, the overwhelming impression is one of music that is created to be cinematic. Lead singer Suryakant Sawhney did nothing to dispel that impression, staggering across the stage, wearing a keffiyeh on his head, and madly triggering desi samples and film dialog as he sang to the great expanse of dunes, at times seeming to channel Leonard Cohen and his world weary whispers.
The Kanoi Dunes may have been an ideal venue to hear Peter Cat, but we were left wanting more. The band tells us that epic three-hour sets should be in offing some time soon. We’re eager to go along for the ride.
Some of us here take exception to “world” as a genre label. It’s simply an easy descriptor for those who don’t care enough to figure out what they’re actually listening to. In the case of this stage, however, it was apt. Latin, Asian, and African artists shared the most dynamic bill at Ragasthan.
Tritha Electric, perhaps the most global band on the world stage, with representatives from three continents, delivered a cavalcade of searing electro-acoustic beats accompanied by Tritha’s characteristic vocal madness, and onstage beauty school antics by Delhi’s own musical impresario, Mr. Stefan Kaye. We only caught the final moments of the set, but Tritha’s explosive ululations, drawing on classical, folk, and filmi traditions were inescapable across the festival grounds. That was just fine; we didn’t want to escape.
The Reggae Rajah’s delivered a typically upbeat set, drawing on reggae rhythms both new and old. The dunes seemed a natural setting for their party starting rhymes, and we particularly enjoyed their delivery over Collie Budz’ Come Around, another track rooted in their particular blend of cross cultural reggae experimentation.
Latin America was represented at Ragasthan by Negra Pradera. Our enjoyment of their fine showmanship was only slightly diminished by a disastrous job at the soundboard. An almost non-existent kick drum was swallowed whole by the overwhelming crash cymbals that dominated the mix. Despite the setbacks, frontwoman Belén Cantos, gave the crowd no choice but to dance, exhorting them with both her words and her groove. She promised two special surprises for the crowd; the first was an astonishingly good vocal collaboration with members of Chalo Africa. The second we missed as we headed over to the main stage eager to hear Peter Cat.
The electronic stage presented a mixed bag. As mentioned above, the programming was such our favorite artists were spread across three nights.
Early on the festival’s first night, Akshai Sarin played a preview set for his soon to be released album, featuring vocalist Priyanka Blah. Though the set had more of pop structure than we had expected from Akshai’s past efforts, the workmanship and production was clean and deep. Priyanka proved to be a firestarter for the early festival crowd, inciting new comers to let loose in the desert.
Next, Bombay regulars Bay Beat Collective came correct with an exploration of bass that crossed from drum and bass to dubstep to breaks to grime and back again. We heard most of the set while wandering across jet-black dunes; the perfect accompaniment for mountains of bass.
The following set by Nucleya provided one of the highlights of the electronic stage. Nucleya never shies from genre experimentation, whether across a set or even within one track. And the best bits of the set were his own tracks, which saw no contradiction between folk vocal samples, street drums, and syncopated kicks. Jamrock, a track we had previously heard only on laptop speakers, absolutely exploded over the powerful desert sound system. Perhaps if we’ll lucky we’ll get a Reggae Rajah’s collab one of these days.
We hear great things about Dualist Inquiry’s sunrise set, but we were firmly ensconced in our beds by that time. It was at 6am.
The electronic stage’s second night saw a fine set from Kohra, bringing complex but accessible organic techno to the floor. The highlight of the night was Shiva Sound System. They were at their bassy best when they stuck to clean, multilayered future drum and bass, but struggled a bit when they indulged their more American style bro-stepish tendencies.
The third night of the festival started with he most sonically interesting lineup of the festival. DJ Uri got the night started (we must admit that we were still in transit for most of his set), He was followed Moniker (Wild City DJ) and then Mother Perera, both of whom absolutely destroyed the disco with the weirdest and wildest deep and wide sets of post-everything; dubstep, garage, drum and bass, house, and techno all seeped into their sound, but were channeled through a filter of sonic experimentation. Their sounds embraced empty space, leaving room for stuttering drums and fractured vocal samples.
The night was rounded out by representatives of Jalebee Cartel and Midival Punditz playing thoroughly competent if somewhat dated techno and psy. Miraculously, Punditz’ Gaurav Raina was rounded up from the party for a final sunrise set (we’ve been told it was transcendent), after the stage’s programmers left for their early morning flight without a closer yet in place.
At the end of the three days, we were left with the memories of a handful of really great performances, burning coals of anti-Vedder rage deep in our souls, and the recognition that even when nothing on the stage was really doing it for us, we were still watching that nothing from glorious mountains of fine grained sand, under the stars, vast distances from any sea.
Words: Kerry Harwin (Border Movement)
Image Credit: Kunel Gaur