SULAFEST ’17: NOTES FROM THE FESTIVAL GROUNDS
Day One at Sulafest was a riot of colours and lights, with stellar performances by Donn Bhat, Nucleya, Raghu Dixit Project, and good ol' Indian Ocean (who reminded us they've been around for 28 years!).
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04 February 2017

Day 1

 

“Saheb, I won’t get a return fare from there.” My first day at Sulafest has gotten off to a rocky start, as the driver of the Uber I’ve hired flat out refuses to go to the venue. I spend the next ten minutes bargaining harder than a white tourist shopping for souvenirs on Colaba Causeway. I cajole, I plead, I even threaten, and then finally refuse to get out of the car. Realising I’m not going to budge, the driver finally gives in. It’s a long drive in sullen silence, broken only by the Bollywood songs on the radio. It’s almost a relief when we get stopped by security guards on the road up to the venue. It appears I have to take a shuttle the rest of the way. I climb up onto the minibus to be greeted with loud, rambunctious Punjabi rap. This is more like it. I haven’t heard this track before, so I try to see if Shazam can tell me who it is. No dice. This driver’s music taste is more obscure and underground than mine.

 

The first thing you notice as you enter the festival grounds is the painstaking attention to detail that has gone into turning the venue into a riot of colours and lights. The three stages are beautifully done up, each in their own unique style. There are clever little touches everywhere – lamps stuffed with fairy lights hanging off the trees, food stalls done up in proper carnival fashion, even a Hollywood-style sign that says #SulaFest. And the bars! There are quite a few of them, each one decked up in lights and finery reflecting the particular brands they’re selling. There’s lots of wine, of course, but there’s also French rum, Scot whisky and liqueurs from all over the world. It’s an alcoholic’s wet dream.

 

The second thing you notice is the people. Unlike most other Indian music festivals which attract a specific type of crowd – young, rich, painfully hip – the crowd here today is incredibly diverse. There’s the horde of kids in their best party dresses, middle-class families on a day out, local VIPs in their most regal finery, and what looks like a small subculture of middle-aged men indulging in 70s Dharmendra cosplay.My usual festival uniform – band t-shirts, faded jeans – looks quite out of place in a crowd that seems to have taken the wrong turn on the way to Lakme Fashion Week.

 

“There’s the horde of kids in their best party dresses, middle-class families on a day out, local VIPs in their most regal finery, and what looks like a small subculture of middle-aged men indulging in 70s Dharmendra cosplay. My usual festival uniform – band t-shirts, faded jeans – looks quite out of place in a crowd that seems to have taken the wrong turn on the way to Lakme Fashion Week.”

“This festival has the highest ratio of selfies per capita,” I overhear one indie scene professional tell a fellow journalist. He’s not wrong. At one point, I see a couple take a selfie with the bouncer in front of the Amphitheater Stage. Elsewhere, I notice groups of men waiting in line to take selfies in front of a photo wall with partner brand logos plastered all over it. I remember how, in my previous job at an events company, I used to laugh at clients demanding a photo wall as an ‘on-ground activity’. I guess the joke’s on me.

 

Thanks to the cab ride from Mumbai – and the little tussle with my Uber driver – I walk in too late to catch Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Cafe. Reggae Rajahs are on the stage instead, entertaining the wine-tipsy audience with their well-worn reggae-pop. This is a recurring feature, they continue to jump on stage every time there’s a gap between acts. They know their audience well, working the crowd with impromptu rhymes and updated versions of their own songs, including a particularly well received version of Champion. Their attempts at getting the crowd to chant along, or take part in the festival tradition of a call and response, are less successful. It takes a lot more than wine to get people to shout out brand names, I guess.

 

Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator replace them on stage, all three musicians clad in white t-shirts. They play their alt-rock-meets-new-wave music to a few hundred people chilling on the amphitheatre steps, occasionally flagging down one of the food vendors walking around with red ‘finger food’ caps and trays of snacks.

 

“This is one of the best Donn Bhat sets I’ve heard in the past year. Highlights include a Depeche Mode-esque reworking of Delilah, all slinking bass lines and keening synths. There’s a new song with martial rhythms and hard-edged rock riffs that somehow fails to inspire a frenzy of raised hands and circle pit dust clouds.”

 

This is one of the best Donn Bhat sets I’ve heard in the past year. Highlights include a Depeche Mode-esque reworking of Delilah, all slinking bass lines and keening synths. There’s a new song with martial rhythms and hard-edged rock riffs that somehow fails to inspire a frenzy of raised hands and circle pit dust clouds. Another highlight is their reworking of the beer song, it’s mellow alt-rock intro belying the jagged, acerbic electro-punk crescendo to come. The crowd seems to be saving its energy for Raghu Dixit though. Apart from a desultory round of cheers after every song, the only bit of crowd energy comes from a thoroughly drunk group of 20-somethings in the front who break out into a ‘Happy Birthday’ chant when Bhat’s laptop dies in the middle of a song. Which, I guess, is a lot better than the heckling they would have been subjected to at any gig just a few years ago.

 

After their set, I take some time off to grab a sandwich and do some people watching at the food stalls. By the time I make my way back to the Amphitheater stage for Raghu Dixit, it is packed to the gills. All you can see are rows and rows of raised hands, all clutching smartphones. The crowd has shaken off its lethargy, jumping up and down as Dixit kicks things off with Jag Chanda. They sing along to most of the songs, even attempting to do so with the songs in Kannada, a language I wager very few in the audience actually know. It’s a good reminder that in a scene where any Tom, Dick and Harry can brand himself a rock star, Raghu Dixit is the real deal.

 

“The crowd has shaken off its lethargy, jumping up and down as Dixit kicks things off with Jag Chanda. They sing along to most of the songs, even attempting to do so with the songs in Kannada, a language I wager very few in the audience actually know. It’s a good reminder that in a scene where any Tom, Dick and Harry can brand himself a rock star, Raghu Dixit is the real deal.”

 

Next up are Indian Ocean, fresh from a show with Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and George Brooks at the Taalbelia Festival. Wearing maroon and blue silk kurtas, Indian Ocean certainly look the part. When they start playing, I can’t take my eyes off Rahul Ram, a dominating presence on the bass guitar who displays his mastery of chops without ever looking like he’s showing off. Well, I can’t take my eyes off him for the first ten minutes at least, until a drunk balding middle-aged man in front of me turns around and shouts “we’re in heaven on earth” directly in my face. He then proceeds to do a weird ritual dance, full of squats, hand-waving and PT exercises. Within ten minutes, he’s cleared the row of steps around him. I head back to the food stalls, where a friend and I discuss the secret of Indian Ocean’s crossover appeal. From the stage, Rahul Ram reminds us that the band has been around for 28 years. That’s how old I am. F*ck me.

 

“Vague hand signs are thrown every other second, and every bass drop is met with a roar and a sea of jumping bodies. It’s easy to see why Nucleya has become the poster boy of Indian electronica.”

 

As we troop out, trying to beat the rush of traffic, I pop into the Atmasphere stage to check out Nucleya’s set. He’s playing his regular brand of Bolly-EDM, and it seems to be going down really well. In contrast to the Amphitheater stage, the crowd here is all amped up. Vague hand signs are thrown every other second, and every bass drop is met with a roar and a sea of jumping bodies. It’s easy to see why Nucleya has become the poster boy of Indian electronica. Tired, and just a little wine-sozzled, I leave them to it and make a beeline for the car. Time to head home and grab some sleep before I return for another day of music, selfies and women realising that heels at a music festival are a bad idea.
Watch this space for the full scoop on Day Two.

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