Witness legendary and emerging musicians collaborate as timeless roots music blends with contemporary idioms at the Jodhpur RIFF 2019

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Jodhpur: A unique confluence of roots music from India and across the world, the Jodhpur RIFF opened doors to its 12th edition this weekend, celebrating the music of the earth and of the peoples. Admirers of music, dance and culture from across geographies thronged to Jodhpur for the 5 day celebrations. More than 250 artistes from across Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and UP in India, as well as from Poland, Hungary, Armenia, Cuba, Ireland, Switzerland, Reunion Island, Israel and Mali are participating in the festival that takes place under the aegis of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Celebrating the land itself, Jodhpur RIFF 2019 began on Thursday with a selection of open performances for school children at the Veer Durga Das Memorial Park, bringing the importance of local musical and cultural traditions to the upcoming generation.

The young audience, comprising more than 3000 pupils from over 20 schools of Jodhpur, witnessed a variety of traditional showcases including the Ghoomer, performed by the women of the Bhil tribe pirouetting in their traditional ghagra (long swirling skirt); the 1500 year old iconic string puppetry form called Kathputli, which uses wooden dolls or marionettes; Kachchi Ghodi, performed on colourful dummy-horses by men in elaborate costumes; Young Langa Musicians singing and playing the exquisite Sindhi sarangi, the algoza and the morchang; a Rajasthani Circus featuring traditional acrobats, magicians, musicians, dancers and a variety of bhawai artists performing feats of daring; and the Teraah Taali, a unique demonstration where the Kamad community performers, dance while playing the teraah (thirteen) manjiras (cymbals) fastened to their waist, wrists, elbows and hands playing in tune with the musicians.

This was followed by the Variety City Concert at the Jaswant Thada, welcoming the entire populace of the city, as well as Jodhpur RIFF attendees from India and across the world. Marking the beginning of the festival, Jodhpur RIFF’s opening night concert presented a variety of riveting performances that captured the diversity of traditional Rajasthani music and excerpts from the Main Stage performances from the weekend.

The concert opened with the auspicious sound of the Narsingh, an instrument integral to Rajasthani roots music, by the legendary Babu Nath Jogi kicking off an evening of magical music.

Womanly Voices followed on stage with the mellifluous vocals of Sumitra Devi from Jetharan, Mohini Devi from Jodhpur and mother daughter duo Ganga and Sunder from Pali, who are challenging current day gender and social norms by claiming their rightful space in folk music. Acclaimed international Singer, Composer, Pianist and Trombonist ‘Nani’ Noam Vazana then took audiences through a blend of Flamenco, North African music and Sephardic traditional song, as she recreated the musical sounds of the ancient Ladino (Jewish-Sephardic) language, the only known musician bringing this remarkable legacy into the spotlight. Next up was the Authentic Light Orchestra comprising musicians from Armenia, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland with an emotive and playful fusion of Armenian melodies, classical influences, jazz and a touch of electronica mingling seamlessly.

The Rajasthani Brass then picked up the tempo bringing the audience to their feet as Mehrangarh’s own house brass band performed in collaboration with Rajasthani folk musicians followed by energetic Qawaali renditions by Danish Husain Badayuni and his troupe from the Rampur Seheswan gharana.

Soon Maloyan spell-binding grooves captured the stage as the family band Votia presented energetic and contagious, exuberant moves from the creole traditions of Reunion Island. Following them were the legendary 46 year old Hungarian band Muzsikas as they presented a brief set of Hungarian folk music with traditional dancing.

An exhilarating finale featured a motley crew of Rajasthani folk performers including Asin Khan Langa and junior Bundu Khan Langa, internationally renowned Dhol Drummers of Rajasthan, Rajasthani Brass, ghoomer dancer Asha Sapera and Mukesh and Babu Nath performing Agni Bhawai, a traditional fire eating and dance performance from the villages of northern Rajasthan.

The next day, began early at the Jaswant Thada with the first of the RIFF Dawns, graced every year by the Meghwals of Mewar, traditionally a weaving community, known prominently for the rich folklore they nurture. Under the first light of the rising sun, the exquisitely masterful Bhallu Ram and Teja Ram sang the poetry of popular poets of their community as well as the saint poets of Rajasthan, including Ram Dev Pir, Kabir and Meera. The performance left audiences mesmerized by the melodic drone of the tandura, the beat of the jhanjh/ manjira (small-paired cymbals) and the rhythm of the dholak, resonating the meditative strains of the bhajans of the Meghwal community.

The concert was followed by free guided walks for attendees as they explored the Rao Jodha Desert Park, which has been painstakingly developed to recreate the natural ecology of a large, rocky wasteland next to Mehrangarh Fort. The park has successfully restored and planted over 80 species of succulents, native trees and ephemerals that are adapted to growing in arid, rocky areas of the Thar Desert.

During the day the Mehrangarh Fort was abuzz with Fort Festivities showcasing a variety of traditional dance forms reflecting the distinctive root traditions of Rajasthan, both popular and rare, including the Chang, Derun, Gavari and Aangi-Baangi Gair.

The evening performances began with Living Legends I at Dhana Bhiyan Chatri at Mehrangarh Fort featuring Jasnath ji ke Bhope, a community of priests who train from a very young age and is amongst the few in modern India who still observe a culture of walking on fire. As the sun set against the backdrop, the fire they had lit burned brightly and the priests began circling it one by one as they chanted verses to invoke the divine. More ritual than dance, moving to rhythmic music and chanting, they performed this act as proof of their devotion to and for Jasnathji, a revered ‘Lok Devata’ Or ‘People’s Deity’ by placing burning embers in their mouths and breathing out the dying sparks from their lips. As the ritual progressed, the chanting grew stronger and the priests began stepping into and walking on the burning embers one after the other, maintaining their rhythm, leaving audiences in awe as they watched these living legends.

Still entranced, the audiences made their way to the main stage for Moody RIFFS, which began with Womanly Voices, bringing to the fore voices of women singers. Female performers often don’t get the space they deserve on contemporary Indian music stages. This holds true in the case of Rajasthani folk musicians as well. Jodhpur RIFF, however, has always attempted to bring the most brilliant female voices from Rajasthan, India and around the world to the forefront. The purpose of ‘Womanly Voices’ was to highlight this Jodhpur RIFF ethos and take it to the next level.

It featured artistes like Sumitra Devi, one of the few singers who from an early age has regularly performed traditional folk songs in village jagrans (all night vigils) and has also played in festivals across Rajasthan and internationally. She is joined by the equally versatile Mohini Devi, who sings in both the jogi Kalbeliya tradition as well as in maand, Rajasthan’s unique contribution to the Hindustani music repertoire; and mother-daughter duo Ganga and Sunder, who sing spiritual songs in their own inimitable style.

The main stage then welcomed the young and path-breaking Israeli musician ‘Nani’ Noam Vazana, who brings a breath of fresh air into the jazz and world music landscape with her hypnotic vocals – her timeless compositions blending Middle Eastern music, North African beats & her own Ethnic-Jazz songs. For the first time at Jodhpur RIFF, Nani presented songs in Ladino, her rediscovery of a dying Jewish-Sephardic language. As most Ladino songs are nearly half a millennia old, she is the only known musician today writing new songs in the language and creating original compositions with fluid improvising, a warm charismatic voice and piercing melodies of joy and heartbreak. Among the songs she showcased was one supposedly from a 13th century Jewish text about a young girl expressing her desire to become a transgender, which she had composed the music for in her album of Ladino songs called Andalusian Brew.

Up next were Citadels of the Sun, a new two-part creative collaboration presented by Eragail Arts Festival, Donegal (Ireland) and Jodhpur RIFF, supported by Culture Ireland. The band featured some of the best musicians from Donegal and Rajasthan: Sarah E Cullen (Donegal fiddle, vocals), Martin Coyle (bouzouki), Paul Cutliffe (uilleann pipes, whistles) with Asin Khan Langa (Sindhi sarangi and vocals) and Sawai Khan Manganiyar (dholak, morchang, bhapang, khartal and vocals).

Sharing common themes and stories that connect the cultures of the two regions, the title Citadels of the Sun refers to a recurring edifice in both cultures: Mehrangarh fort (fort of the sun) in Rajasthan, and Grianán of Aileach, Donegal’s own fort of the sun. Bridging these two iconic locations a world apart, Citadels of the Sun created a musical story of shared themes in both Gaelic and Rajasthani folk songs, those of love and longing, of finding hope in the light, of sorrow and separation. Bringing two very distinct genres together, blending the improvisational capabilities of the Rajasthani musicians into the structural nuances of Irish music, the performers managed to create a sound that transcended and braved new territories in music, adding another feather to a long list of successful musical collaborations between Rajasthani and international artists that Jodhpur RIFF is proud of.

The last act on the main stage was Votia which re-presents the maloya genre of music, Reunion Island’s vibrant symbol of creole culture, featuring strident vocal calls, chanted responses and complex percussion rhythms originated from the slaves brought to work on the sugar plantations. With a mix of African and Indian slave cultures and a deep respect for the traditions of the past, this family band presented a mix of energetic spells and boisterous dances so contagious that they turned the arena into a dance floor. Votia appeared courtesy IOMMA of Reunion Island and Jodhpur RIFF, supported by Association Scenes Australes and Region Reunion.

As the main stage performances culminated, there was one last bit of excitement left for audiences to savour – the Desert Lounge at the Rao Jodha Desert Park – an unusual, moon-lit, rustic musical experience under the stars at midnight. The baithak-style night with the backdrop of the mesmerizingly lit Mehrangarh Fort behind the musicians, featured a variety of traditional Rajasthani acoustic performances featuring Babunath jogi, Yusuf Khan and others. Entrancing audiences with various jogi traditions of Mewat, they presented original and traditional poetry, often satirical, sometimes cheeky and sometimes an unusual telling of epic myths and stories, accompanied by the bhapang, an instrument played by plucking a single-string stretched out from a leather and wooden frame. The evening then brought on a variety of regional, folk and sufi Qawaali renditions by Danish Husain Badayuni and his troupe of musicians from the Rampur Seheswan gharana. Playing to an enthused audience, Husain recited humourous original couplets and ghazals interspersed with popular qawaalis like Mere Rashke Qamar and kalaams from Hazrat Amir Khusro, Shahji Hyderabadi, Mirza Ghalib and Fana Buland Shehri among others.

Dancing away into the dark hours of the night and letting music rule over rest, many would stay up to watch the next of the RIFF Dawns!