SULAFEST ’17: NOTES FROM THE FESTIVAL GROUNDS
Day Two brings with it a scorching sun, a Bling Uncle spotting, and a much-needed, wildly successful wine-tasting. PLUS: A crash course in ska music courtesy Reggae Rajahs, Ska Vengers, and Dubioza Kolektiv. And the big act of the day: Bloc Party!
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05 February 2017

It’s 3 pm, I’ve just walked into the festival grounds and I’m already regretting my decision to try and catch the bands playing the early slots. It’s hot, really really hot. French jazz-rap outfit Sax Machine is on the stage, playing to an almost empty amphitheatre as festival goers take refuge in small pockets of shade all the way to the back. Their music is largely improvised, hard-bop sax and funk/afro-beat rhythms intertwining to build a foundation for frontman RacecaR’s elliptical rhymes. Theoretically, it’s the perfect music for a warm winter afternoon. In practice, the sun kept everyone huddled under the trees, or the yellow Sula umbrellas. It seems like the heat was getting to the band as well. After a particularly half-hearted round of applause, RacecaR taunted the crowd, saying “yeah, you’d better clap, none of you are even standing up.”

“Leading the charge is Mumbai’s bling uncle, a perennial presence at gigs with his gold chain and trademark shutter glasses. But most of the crowd’s attention is elsewhere, on a troupe of white hippies in circus garb juggling pins and spinning hoops. There’s even a mime. This part of the festival grounds, away from the two main stages, has much more of a carnival feel.”

I took that as my cue to do some exploring and made my way to the Tropical stage, a new addition to the festival. Tucked away in a corner and prudently covered with a patchwork of multi-coloured fabrics, there’s already a few veteran ravers going at it to tunes by French DJ Shy-O. Leading the charge is Mumbai’s bling uncle, a perennial presence at gigs with his gold chain and trademark shutter glasses. But most of the crowd’s attention is elsewhere, on a troupe of white hippies in circus garb juggling pins and spinning hoops. There’s even a mime. This part of the festival grounds, away from the two main stages, has much more of a carnival feel. There are stalls offering tarot card readings, tattoos and foot massages, alongside the usual designer clothing and hipster accessory brands. There are also grape stomping tents nearby. Groups of confused looking friends and family hold hands as they gingerly step on grapes in short, wide barrels. Nearby, an old white man in a pink shirt and saffron turban lectures a group of young boys on the history of grape-stomping.

I make my way back to the Amphitheatre stage to find that Reggae Rajahs are back on stage again. For once, this curious programming decision – the Rajahs are basically the changeover act, hyping up the audience between sets – makes sense, as the trio gives the crowd a crash course in ska music. They get the audience on its feet, setting the stage nicely for the Ska Vengers. Dressed in their trademark suits and waistcoats, the New Delhi ska/rocksteady band kicks up the tempo from the get-go. Pretty soon, a good portion of the crowd is up front, performing a mix of bhangra, dandiya, and what I can only assume was an ill-fated attempt at skanking. Vocalists Taru Dalmia and Samara Chopra keep the crowd on their toes. The music is simultaneously aggressive and playful, keyboardist Stefan Kaye throwing in dissonant phrases in his solos while the sax and trombone give everything a bright and shiny shimmer.

It’s a fantastic set, but festivals like this always throw up the contradiction between the Ska Vengers’ radical, politically charged lyrics and the unashamedly capitalist and hedonistic crowds they often play to. I wonder how the people dancing to Vampire – a song about extrajudicial murders by the Indian state – would respond if they stopped for a second and paid attention to the lyrics. Dalmia’s shoutouts to Fidel Castro and Udham Singh were met with confusion, the crowd trying to figure out what communism or dead revolutionaries have to do with a music festival. To their credit, this doesn’t seem to faze the Ska Vengers. Dalmia and co. aren’t interested in preaching to the choir, after all. And maybe, some rich kid from Nasik will go back home, look up their music, and come back with a different perspective on Indian politics. Stranger things have happened.

“It’s a fantastic set, but festivals like this always throw up the contradiction between the Ska Vengers’ radical, politically charged lyrics and the unashamedly capitalist and hedonistic crowds they often play to. I wonder how the people dancing to Vampire – a song about extrajudicial murders by the Indian state – would respond if they stopped for a second and paid attention to the lyrics.”

After their set, I hook up with a friend to go check out the wine tour and, more importantly, attend a tasting session. It’s nice and cool inside, and the smell of fermenting grapes is mildly intoxicating. A young man named Sagar guides us through the process, waiting patiently as members of the tour group take selfies in front of fermentation vats, wine barrels and anything else they can find. When they’re not taking photos, they’re peppering Sagar with the sort of questions whose only purpose is to let everyone know about the questioner’s considerable knowledge of wine-making. I feel like I’m in school again, sitting in the back of the class and fantasising about stabbing the teacher’s pet for her insistence on asking pointless questions. We’re all just here for the free wine, right?

We finally make it to the tasting room, where we sniff, sip, and swirl our way through six different wines, all of whose names I instantly forget. We also cajole a free glass of wine each from the guy conducting the tasting. Journalism is thirsty work, after all.

I decide to check out the Atmasphere stage for a while, where I witness the most monotonous set I’ve seen in ages. I’ve got nothing against dance music, but after 45 minutes without a single tempo variation, I could feel my brain slowly shutting down. So I grab another glass of wine and return to the Amphitheatre, where Bosnian ska/rap/punk act Dubioza Kolektiv is kicking up a storm. With the sun gone, the amphitheatre is packed with dancing people as Dubioza Kolektiv blasts out relentless slabs of ska, polka music, punk, nu-metal and rap. There is something amazing and life-affirming about watching a family – mother, father, teenage son – lose their shit to a musical soup of Bosnian folk, ska and punk rock. Even if it looks like the grownups have had so much alcohol, they’d dance to my phone ringtone.

“I fall in with a contingent of Mumbai indie scene insiders – journalists, promoters and musicians – who have driven down only to watch this band. None of us are disappointed. Bloc Party play new songs and old favourites, attacking us with relentless waves of angular post-punk guitars and thunderous drumming.”

On my way to the bar, I walk across three older men, their backs to the ground, waving their arms and kicking their legs in the air. I wonder if they’re indulging in a bit of dance yoga, or if they’re just the laziest martial arts exponents in the world. But not for long. It’s time for Bloc Party, the Brit indie rock band that was at the forefront of last decade’s post-punk revival. I fall in with a contingent of Mumbai indie scene insiders – journalists, promoters and musicians – who have driven down only to watch this band. None of us are disappointed. Bloc Party play new songs and old favourites, attacking us with relentless waves of angular post-punk guitars and thunderous drumming. Frontman Kele Okereke’s distinctive vocals float above the band’s tightly disciplined cacophony. Forty minutes in, the band troop off stage, probably expecting calls for an encore. Rookie mistake. Unfamiliar with the concept, much of the crowd starts filtering out. By the time the band sheepishly runs back on, half the people are gone. But that just leaves more space for the rest of us to wig out to old classics like Helicopter and blistering set-closer Ratchet.


It’s been a good day, but as we’re trying to decide which afterparty to go to, word filters down that there is a massive traffic jam outside. We wander the grounds, smoking cigarettes and watching the cleanup crews get everything ready for the next day. By the time we leave, it’s 12.30 am and we’re probably the last attendees still at the venue. No bother, this was probably more fun than any after parties anyway. Time for hotel room, sleep, and then back in the morning. With its electronica heavy lineup, Day 3 promises to be a banger.

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