From neo-folk to rock and Sufi to electro jazz, the fifth edition of the recently concluded Udaipur World Music Festival set a high tempo
Ginni Mahi heard the name Babasaheb Ambedkar even before she was able to spell her own name. “My family always used to talk about Ambedkar and I received an early learning in his ideals and teaching,” Mahi reminisces about a period in her life that set her on course to knock down bias and prejudice around casteism. It became natural for her to put Ambedkar and Guru Ravidas at the centre of her work when she rose to become a music sensation at 12 years of age.
In the opening act of the recent fifth edition of the Udaipur World Music Festival, Mahi blended effortlessly with the event’s theme—We are the World: Unity in Diversity—with her rich repertoire of folk, rap and hip hop. Interestingly, the Punjabi singer from Jalandhar didn’t even need to sing her signature number, Danger Chamar, that transcended the language barrier to become a potent message for equality. “People create tags. If we are all human beings, we are all chamars too,” says the teenager, who joined Swiss rock band Schnellertollermeier, Kerala’s neo-folk group When Chai Met Toast and French electro jazz band NoJazz to enthrall music enthusiasts at Gandhi Maidan, a cricket ground converted into a concert venue, in the City of Lakes on the festival’s opening day.
From Kerala to Portugal and Arunachal Pradesh to Mali, the festival brought some of the finest musicians in the world to its four venues spread across the city. Malian guitarist Habib Koité, who has caused ripples on the global music stage with his just-released Under the Supermoon song with American singer Jenny Lewis, found himself at home in Udaipur. “I come from a city (Malian capital Bamako) that is crossed by a river and flanked by hills,” says Koité, whose west African folk blues owe their inspiration to his mother, a former griot (traditional storytelling singer).
Songs for peace
“I want to offer happiness and peace,” says Koité, explaining his music composed in a country that has been ravaged by ethnic strife for decades. “I hate war,” adds the musician with dreadlocks who founded the Artists for Peace organisation with fellow African musicians. “We sing songs for peace. We do not take money for performing, but want to make people aware of how to be together in peace and be humble,” says Koité, who is also a Unicef ambassador in Mali.
“I saw a CD of Habib Koité performing at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, United States, last year,” says Udaipur World Music Festival director Sanjeev Bhargava. “I then went to two festivals—Dhaka International Folk Festival last November and Sfinks festival in Belgium last July—to see him live,” adds Bhargava. In Udaipur, as Koité performed mostly old numbers from his albums, he heard the news of Malian musician and friend Ballake Sissoko’s kora instrument suffering damage after his return from a music tour of America. “I am shocked by what happened to a musician from my country,” says Koité, referring to the incident recently that Sissoko has blamed on racism.
Peace and non-violence were given a loud cheer when vocalist Sudha Raghuraman and French singer Jeffrey Mpondo of NoJazz came together to give a touching tribute to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi on the 150th anniversary of his birth. “This is a festival that allows everyone, students and youth, to come,” says Bharghava, who is also vice-chairman of the Korea-based Asia Pacific Music Forum. “It has democratised music in Udaipur.”
Sufi for change
For the first time, the festival also invited inmates of the Udaipur Central Jail to perform for its international audience. The Sufi band, called Out of Box-Jail University Band, soon became crowd favourites with their songs that included Bulleh Shah’s Dama Dam Mast Qalandar, among others. The 11-member band also enthralled the local audience with the rendering of the popular Rajasthani song Kanya Manya Kurr.
Band member Parameshwar Bhai led his band with Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the opening song of Out of Box, which was founded in Udaipur Central Jail from a music academy inside the prison two years ago. At the festival, the band did their first ‘sound check’ ever and along the way learned working with sound engineers.
“We don’t look at what songs they write,” says Udaipur Central Jail superintendent SP Shekhawat. “They have chosen this path and it is their responsibility,” he adds, talking about giving a free hand to the band. The jail’s music academy, one of the initiatives of Swaraj Jail University (a certificate-less campus where inmates learn and teach), today has 32 members. “This performance is more than about participating in a world music festival,” says Diken Patel, co-founder, Swaraj Jail University. “It is about a possibility for a new world,” he adds. “It is not about what these jail inmates perform. It is about what they become.”
With Mahi’s songs for dismantling caste prejudices, Jail University Band’s Sufi songs for change and Koité’s African beats for peace, the Udaipur World Music Festival this year added an extra layer to its diversity and range. “Ginni Mahi has the ‘big match’ temperament to sing in front of 5,000 people,” says Bhargava about the singer. “We featured (Delhi-based fusion band) Advaita and (singer-composer) Raghu Dixit’s projects in their earlier days at the festival. Ginni Mahi is certain to follow the same path and grow,” he adds.
Among the participants at the festival this year were also Swiss rock band Schnellertollermeier, whose 2015 album X was named among the 12 best albums of the year by The Wall Street Journal, Portuguese fado singer Sara Correia, Rajasthani folk singer Mame Khan, Delhi-based Hindi pop fusion band Pakshee, Russian folk band Sattuma, Hindustani vocalist Ravi Joshi, playback singer Nikhita Gandhi, and Arunachali musician Taba Chake, known for his animated music video Walk With Me.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer