The latest edition of Udaipur World Music Festival hosted bands from around the world and reconfirmed one’s faith in the universality of music, writes Sahar Zaman.
Sipping on my morning chai at Amraighaat, enjoying the cool breeze at Lake Pichola in Udaipur with an unlikely perk of listening to Spanish flamenco. While Rocio Marquez sang about love and happiness, my gaze went across to the historic Lake Palace built in 1746 in the middle of the water, now a luxury five-star hotel. The morning sun gradually gaining in strength; the sunlight prancing about like a flamenco dancer over the lake waters and kissing the majestic marble façade of the palace.
“There are a lot of emotions in flamenco. It has a large panel of emotions, for example the ‘siguiriyas’ is a very sad style and the ‘alegrias’ is a very happy style. The response from India is amazing which doesn’t surprise me because music is magical. We don’t need to speak the same language,” says Marquez.
The Udaipur World Music Festival did just that for three days nonstop. It made us swing and sway at every step, irrespective of what language the songs were in. New Bollywood sensation and Kashmiri folk singer Vibha Saraf couldn’t agree more with the mixed platter on offer: “It’s best to get a taste of a little bit of everything when you go to a restaurant and you’re not well-versed with the cuisine there. If nothing you can at least dip your fingers into many diverse forms of music and cultures. This festival is a medium for communicating the oral traditions, because here you have an opportunity to interact with the audience and they have a keenness to know what’s the story behind your music.”
As the sun begins to set on the Fateh Sagar Lake, the second venue for the festival, the stage lights up in molten gold light, perfectly reflecting the poignancy of the music played by the Israeli band Gulaza. The band’s vocalist is Igal Mizrachi and he chooses to sing traditional old songs of Yemeni women yearning for freedom from the bonds of patriarchy. These songs have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. “I am asked this question all the time that how am I singing these women’s songs as a man, but we’re in 2019, there are no boundaries… My music is a project that speaks about freedom. And who doesn’t need freedom?” asks Mizrachi.
Leat Sabbah, the cellist of Gulaza, adds, “When you take the music out of its context you give it the honour of art. It’s not just re-representing the traditional format, but elevating it into an artform. So a man singing women’s songs is more than just a tribute; it really is a new identity. Remember the women back then were on the sidelines of society, they were not recognised, they were the lowest class of people. Our songs elevate them in the modern era and give voice to the voiceless.”
That thought perfectly epitomises the purpose of this festival—to bring people together through music. In today’s politically divisive times it’s important to delve deep into the ocean of music. “Of course, it’s important to see where their music is coming from but we don’t highlight our differences. We don’t go into politics. We want to focus on what spreads joy and what unites us,” says Sanjeev Bhargava, director of the festival.
Not surprisingly, the festival was also an education for visitors about little-known cultures of the world. When was the last time you heard about Iberia? Unsure where it is? Nestled in the southwest corner of Europe, between Spain and Portugal. That’s what I learned from Albaluna, an Iberian folk band. “Iberia for many centuries was a really special place that received people from all over the world, not only because people came there but also because the Portuguese and the Spanish went out all over the world to make business, and sometimes bad business too. So a lot of different cultures came to Iberia. It is also the beginning or the end of the Mediterranean Sea. The Jews, the Arabs, the Vikings came to the Iberian Peninsula. The influences in our music are so old and so different that we prefer to call it Iberian and not just Portuguese or just Spanish,” explains Ruben Monteiro, the band’s lead vocalist and rubab player.
Music helps poetry travel across continents as well. Rumi’s poetry is followed as much in the erstwhile Persian regions as it is in India today.
“In Iranian culture, poetry is very deeply entrenched. Even taxi drivers recite poetry while driving you to a place. I sing poems of Rumi, who was the famous poet of the Middle East. He explains love and tolerance to us. I find a similarity between Indian classical music ragas and Persian music. What I sing is ‘rakh’, which has the same meaning as ‘raga’. In Persian music, we memorise verses on the rhythms of the ‘rakh’, similar to what your ‘taal’ is. What we sing in the morning is called ‘rakh Abdullah’ and for the night it would be ‘rakh Safir,’” explains Taghi Akhbari, the lead singer of the Delgocha Ensemble. Del in Persian means heart and gocha means happy. Simply put—Happy Heart. The Udaipur World Music Festival had a similar effect on all of us who attended it.
The author is an independent arts journalist, political newscaster and curator; more on her work at www.saharzaman.com