NH7 Weekender Diary 2016
In terms of an experience, the 2016 instalment of the Pune edition of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender managed to reclaim some of its past glory. As promised last year, the music festival was held at a new, larger venue. Both the stages and the pathways at Life Republic, the township under construction in Hinjewadi on the outskirts on the city, were much wider than at Laxmi Lawns, the site of the three previous editions. This made both viewing gigs and navigating the venue more comfortable in comparison. The only hold-ups (apart from at the ATMs of course) occurred at the coupon counters, a handful of which had technical difficulties with card machines. The triangular layout, with the stages at three different points and the food and shopping stalls in the centre, also helped cut the walking time between the various areas.
The news should hopefully bring back some of the Weekender warriors, who stayed away because they didn’t want to deal with crowds that treat the fest as an annual party. At about 57,000 attendees over three days, cumulative audience figures were marginally lower than last year. For those who go for the music over the experience, the decision to visit Weekender is pretty much made on the basis of the international acts topping the bill. This year, fans of Steven Wilson, Jose Gonzalez, The Joy Formidable or Anoushka Shankar who made the trek weren’t disappointed. Each offered distinct experiences, from the virtuosity of Wilson to the dreaminess of Gonzalez, the raucousness of The Joy Formidable and the meditativeness of Shankar.
They all played Saturday or Sunday; the only international artist to play Friday was American electronic music DJ RAC. As a result, the opening day felt like one of the Express editions that promoters Only Much Louder held across the country in cities such as Jaipur and Puducherry. Because we’d seen most of the Friday acts before – blues-rock band Kanchan Daniel and the Beards, electro-rock composer Sapta, singer-songwriter Nicholson, Mumbai-based artists who all regularly play gigs here – we skipped the first day for the first time since the event began.
Nevertheless, the first day drew approximately 15,000 attendees, a large number of whom, it’s safe to presume, were there for bass music superstar Nucleya, who is a contender for the title of biggest Indian independent act and whose popularity has grown so much that there were shopping stalls selling bootleg versions of T-shirts, badges and phone covers with his catchphrase ‘Fuck That Shit’. Goa-based Nucleya performed right after fellow electronic music producer and Only Much Louder signee Dualist Inquiry, who joined The Raghu Dixit Project (absent this time) to become one of only two artists to have been part of the flagship edition six times in seven years.
For all the accusations that the organisers tend to programme the same musicians every year, over two-thirds, that is precisely 37 out of the 55 acts on the bill, were there for the very first time. Among those making their debut, Kochi fusion-rock ensemble Thaikkudam Bridge could definitely be a potential future headliner though sadly we only caught the last few minutes of their high-energy set. Other debutants we plan to check out when they perform in Mumbai are two Delhi-based groups: electro-rock outfit Mosko and female vocal trio River who we pegged somewhere between Wilson Phillips and The Staves and whose voices are better than their compositions. River, incidentally, were on at the same time as Chennai alternative rock band The F16s whose guitar-smashing antics at the end of their set has become one of the most discussed moments of the festival.
With this semi-return to form, can Weekender legitimately call itself the ‘happiest music festival’? Not quite. As Wilson pointed out, his brooding music isn’t exactly the ideal fit for such a description. Shankar’s set too had its sombre moments. Manipuri singer-songwriter Imphal Talkies aka Akhu Chingangbam (whose presence, as OML founder Vijay Nair said while introducing him, was significant at a time when freedom of speech is being increasingly threatened in our country) sang about things that could depress the most cheerful Weekenderites.
Perhaps then it’s time for a change in tag line. On Saturday afternoon, for instance, we found the musical mood shifting so drastically, we were wondering if we were at the ‘multiple personality disorder festival’. We went from listening to Shillong band Dossers Urge’s alternative rock on the Bacardi House Party stage to South African rapper Aewon Wolf’s hip-hop tracks on the adjacent Bacardi Arena stage to Chennai ensemble Sempre Libre’s operatic tunes on The Insider.in Other Stage to UK-based Shri’s jazz fusion on The Dewarists stage. This was the result of having such a diverse range of performers. Where exactly do you fit in a Western classical vocal group that doesn’t quite belong on any of the stages, and can’t be classified under singer-songwriters, folk-fusion/world music, electronic music/hip-hop or rock?
At different points during the festival, we felt an act would have been better suited to another stage or time slot. The lack of available tour dates probably led to Gonzalez and The Joy Formidable being scheduled at the same time on Saturday. But rapper Aewon Wolf, who played the Bacardi Arena on Saturday, really belonged on the Breezer Vivid Village on Sunday, when the stage which usually hosts electronic artists was given over to hip-hop MCs and DJs for the day.
Similarly, electro-rock purveyors Mosko, who are more rock than electronic, would have made ideal openers for The Joy Formidable. Both are brassy bands fronted by charismatic female vocalists. Guitarist Rhythm Shaw, from Kolkata, would have been more at home at the Bacardi House Party than at the Insider.in Other Stage, which was otherwise populated by mellower musicians such as singer-songwriter Nischay Parekh. Parekh, who is also from Kolkata, made a welcome return in his new electro-pop avatar Parekh + Singh in which he collaborates with drummer Jivraj Singh.
That said, the focus seems to have been firmly on the music. There was noticeably much less branding at the venue and the little that there was – such as Bacardi’s selfie points at which you could pose inside a bath tub or against a bed – was not as in-your-face as in 2015. Illustrator Sameer Kulavoor’s intricately detailed stage backdrops were impressive as always. We preferred his line drawings for the Bacardi Arena and House Party stages (which reminded us of the wall murals at the Smoke House Deli in Lower Parel) over his multi-hued collage for The Dewarists stage.
The Periphery Art Project, essentially a travelling graphic art group exhibition that Kulavooor curated, had plenty of talent on display but was perhaps not as eye-catching as the large installations we’ve seen in earlier editions. The centre point of the venue was the Ferris wheel, which was more prominently displayed than in previous years. It seemed as though everybody wanted a free ride (including us), and it proved to be such an attraction that Nair came to help with crowd management.
However the more things change, the more they stay the same. At Weekender 2016, the Bollywood component was restricted to Hindi film composer and singer Shankar Mahadevan, who staged, at the Bacardi Arena on Sunday night, ‘My Country My Music’, which he first presented at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on Republic Day this year. Described as a “music production that seeks to capture some of the diversity and richness of India’s musical legacy”, the concert is a mix of songs in regional languages and movie hits.
Most of the audience was clearly there for the Bollywood bits. In the closing 15 minutes that we saw, apart from an uptempo Bhojphuri number and a snippet of a Punjabi folk tune by his accompanying group of singers and instrumentalists, Mahadevan rendered ‘Sajda’ from My Name Is Khan (2010), the title track from Jhoom Barabar Bhoom (2007), his signature Indi-pop song ‘Breathless’ and ‘Hindustani’ from Dus (2005), each of which have a tenuous connection with the project’s mandate of “embodying the cultural ethos of a specific region”.
Once again, a Hindi film song was the last thing we heard at the festival. Sure we could have been at DJ Premier’s set instead but in the interest of research we felt we should be at the largest gig at the event. On the bright side, they seemed to have run out of the biggest names in Bollywood, except for maybe playback singer Arijit Singh, who performs so often that there wouldn’t have been any novelty to his appearance. But we’ve learned to never say never when it comes to gigs in India, and after Farhan Akhtar at the Shillong and Hyderabad editions, we’re dreading a Naezy-Ranveer Singh/Varun Dhawan collaboration next year.
Seven years into the game, it’s clear that the promoters aspire for it to be the supermarket of festivals, albeit one that has both mass-market and boutique bands. A few festivals offer more experimental sounds, others are more commercial. At Weekender, there’s at least an attempt to do something different every time. Now that they’ve fixed the logistical issues, they’ve got to amp up the line-up to get some hold-outs to come back. A possible new name: The music festival for (almost) every kind of music fan.