An idea is born
Five years ago, an idea was born from a chance visit to the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district when Delhi-based musicians Menwhopause had their show delayed after a students’ union had called a bandh on the day of their performance in the state capital, Itanagar. With nothing to do to kill time, concert organiser Bobby Hano decided to take the band members to his hometown.
Taken in by the view, Bobby and Anup Kutty, the band’s bassist, began to flirt with the idea of organising an outdoor music festival at Ziro.
One year later, with the help of the state tourism department and the Itanagar-based Living Dreams Trust, the Ziro Festival of Music was born. Since that chance visit and a few bumps along the way, the festival has become a must-attend event for music lovers and folk artists and independent bands from across the country and has propelled its way to India’s ever-expanding festival scene.
This is the story of why.
Journey of your life
It had rained the night before the festival began and the venue was bound to be squishy and muddy just like it had been in the years past. Traversing through the ‘highway’ to reach Ziro can be an arduous task for even the most skilled of drivers.
It is important to mention that there are two main arteries through which travellers can visit Ziro.
After having made your way to Guwahati from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata or wherever, one can either take the route from Kimin or enter Naharlagun via road or through the daily train from Guwahati. Now comes the part about the road to Ziro.
This is the ‘highway’ that we had to drive on.
Conventional wisdom says that travelling from Kimin will lead to better road conditions than taking the road from Naharlagun, the state’s twin capital town. However, it is also longer by at least an hour and a half. That shorter ‘road’ however, is one that comes with conditions applied; conditions such as landslides, rock-filled, mud-slid and the likes. So unless you are really confident in your skills as a driver, leave it to the experts.
In fact, a landslide the night before had brought considerable damage to a section of the road and falling rocks had squashed the front end of a car.
Along the way is a stopgap place called Potin where there are some small eateries where travellers can have some chai and parathas. For those looking for a hearty meal, the establishments here offer something called ‘pressure cooker rice’.
What that means is that the rice cooked in pressure cookers is not burnt at the bottom and tastier as opposed to rice cooked in large saucepans where the quality can be sacrificed for quantity.
These are just some of the joys one can encounter on the way to Ziro.
The road to Ziro has, in fact, become the buzz amongst festival regulars and virgins alike. While anywhere else the decrepit conditions of the roads would have played spoilsport, the organisers of Ziro fest have given it a positive spin by calling the trip to Ziro the ‘Journey of your life’. And indeed it is because after we checked into our hotel and headed over to the venue ground, the view of yellow-green hued paddy fields overwhelms you every time you see it.
On ground Ziro
Although overnight showers had left the venue ground pretty messy, not one person present appeared to have had their spirits dampened the least bit. First-time visitors were busy making rounds of the many food stalls that were also selling the now famous varieties of rice beer called apong, while returning festival goers were busy hugging other returnees and ‘spreading the love’, so to speak. The crew were mostly pacing back and forth getting ready for the show to begin, constantly talking between the crackle of their walkie-talkies.
Like last year, this time around too there were two stages- Danyii and Piilo. The names of the stages corresponded to words for the sun and the moon in the language of the Apatani tribal folk who call Ziro Valley home. With 28 acts, the performances were divided between the two stages with the folk and (mostly) acoustic acts playing at the daytime Danyii stage while the heavier acts followed in the Piilo stage during the night. Kicking off at around four, the first day skipped the daytime performances and jumped to night’s acts after the mandatory ‘Welcome to Ziro’ speech by the local legislator.
Only three acts performed the first night beginning with an acoustic performance by Assam artist Dayglocrazie. Followed next were festival regulars and crowd favourites from Arunachal, alt-punk rockers Yesterdrive and Omak Komut Collective.
Yesterdrive had made their gig debut at the festival’s second edition in 2013 and returned last year to launch their self-titled debut album. Based out of Delhi, they returned this year for what lead guitarist Haggai Rongmei said is a “homecoming”.
Since their debut, the band has performed across the country and are a regular feature in the Delhi live gig scene. Their success continues to grow as MTV Indies, one of the sponsors of the festival, recently released a video of their song called ‘Sleep Song’.
After lighting the crowd on fire, up next were the Omak Komut Collective- a fusion band juxtaposing the sounds of the Blues with the rhapsodies of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.
The band has been performing in Ziro ever since it began in 2012 and has been a mainstay. Their songs have become sing-alongs for local audiences and each year their legion of fans keeps growing. This year too was no different as they ended the night leaving many high on their music.
The next day the skies had cleared and people had turned up in large numbers and seated themselves lazily waiting for crowd favourites and crowd pullers Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland.
Most people were swooning even before the sisters began performing as both men and women were falling in love with the two sisters who had come, Mercy and Kuvelu aka Kuku.
Before the start of each song, people who had travelled far and wide from across the globe listened intently to Mercy (the eldest among five siblings) as she explained the meaning and context of each song before performing them in the Chokri dialect of Nagaland’s Chakesang tribe to which they belong.
Perhaps governments can only hope to bring about the kind of cultural exchanges the way musicians are able to through such festivals. For example, in the far corner of not just the country but even of the region, who would have ever thought one would get the chance to experience the musical stylings of Rajasthani folk musicians Barmer Boys?
Dressed in their traditional attire, complete with the colourful turban, these talented artists had the crowd go absolutely ape over their music.
Playing the morchang (a type of jaw harp) and the khartal (a wooden percussion instrument), front-man Rais Khan had everyone believe that a horse was running amok in the lush green meadows.
Khan would later also go on to perform with Manipur-based singer Guru Rewben Mashangva on the last day.
Mashangva has been performing and fine tuning his craft for over thirty years and now deep into his fifties, is considered a true legend and is rightfully known as the King of Naga Folk Blues.
Mixing his love for blues music with the Tangkhul tribal beats, Mashangva is more than just a musician. Always jovial and almost always up for that one final shot of whisky (or apong), the 54-year old is never low or down in spirits. Through his music, he is keeping the Hao form of music alive and constantly creating new interesting music all the while.
Having performed across the country and winning numerous honours, Mashangva has collaborated with the Raghu Dixit Project for The Dewarist and is always up for impromptu collaborations. This year, as part of his performance at the Danyii stage, the Guru performed with Rais Khan and told the audience that the two had first met each other some years ago at an event in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan when he was with his son and Khan was with his father. Many amongst us felt it was something special to witness two generations of musicians from different parts of the country coming together to make something beautiful.
Aside from music, the festival has done wonders for the local economy with an ever-increasing number in tourists inflow over the past few years.
Festival director Bobby said that in one year the number of foreign visitors and domestic tourists (aside from those from the state) has doubled.
He said that forty foreign visitors came to the festival this year while the domestic visitors from other states numbered around 1,800. Contrast that to the official figures from the tourism department that says that 19 foreign tourists visited Ziro last year in the entire month of September while the number of domestic visitors for the entire month last year was 1,416.
While Ziro and its beauty has always been a favourite for many people, the festival has helped enhance its visibility.
Hage Kano, the general secretary of the Apatani Students Union feels that the festival has made Ziro an international destination.
The Pechi Putu ground where the festival is hosted each year was once a burial ground. Naturally it wasn’t a place that people were too eager to visit but ever since the festival began, the venue has become a favourite of sorts of youngsters.
Social sciences teacher and a member of a local NGO called Ngunu Ziro, Punyu Chada, helps home-stay owners of the area connect with tourists throughout the year. He too said that the festival has certainly helped with the tourist inflow and collaterally helped the economy.
Making it work
Stray incidents of booze-induced temper flaring activities aside, the Ziro Festival of Music just…works.
Mashangva says that the combination of “people, place and culture is what makes Ziro so great”. Being his third straight year at the festival, the Guru clearly loves the place. But even a first-timer like Rais Khan says that the place is “badiya (wonderful)” and “kya jegah hain (what a place)” when describing Ziro.
Such is the enchantment of the place that Darko C and Tser Htoo of Myanmar’s post-punk band Side Effect had only words of praise despite having had to travel for 54 hours through six airports and one railway station.
Performing in India for the first time, the band were almost at a loss of words when describing their experience of being in Ziro, managing to only mumble words like “beautiful”, “amazing” and “great to be here”.
Daniel from Digital Suicide, who is never short of words during his performances keeps it short and says, “the only reason Ziro works is because of Ziro”.
Bobby attributes the festival’s ‘organic growth’ over the years which has led to its success.
Standing next to the bamboo-made merchandise stall, he said that it is because of this ‘organic growth’ is why so many people are willing to repeatedly endure the long and painful journey.
Strangers striking up conversations, musicians collaborating on stage, smiling faces everywhere, the festival truly does live up to its motto of ‘Eat. Drink. Merry.’
Perhaps it was only apt that the festival came to a close with the oldest performer of the event, Mashangva, bringing down the house with his rendition of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
A version of this story first appeared in the recently-launched December issue of the travel magazine, The Himalayan Pulse.