Over at the main stage of the festival, Yossi Fine, the celebrated Israeli bassist and producer, started off this one piece with a running bassline in a complex 7/8 time signature — an off-time, irregular beat. The melody radiated an Arabic essence, given the scale he was using, and he was manipulating the timbre of the instrument through his effects processor, using an octaver to make the bass sound almost like a fat guitar.
The Jodhpur RIFF, the eighth edition of which was held from 23-27 October this year at the stunning Mehrangarh fort, has always promulgated a spirit of collaboration. Without treading cliché territory, the folk music festival allows for an East-meets-West coming together of music and culture. The results, like all collaborations and fusion music in general actually, are often mixed, but on some level, the listener is expected to take back the ideas and not just the final product she listens to. Fine, who has an effervescent, virtuosic sense of rhythmic movement on the bass guitar — the dynamics of Jaco Pastorius or King Crimson seemed to be an influence — was collaborating with a group of Rajasthani folk musicians, mostly playing along and providing a solid, rhythmic spine to the fluidity of the Manganiyars’ music.
The percussions joined in soon enough, and the Arabic fluidity of the intro to the 7/8 piece sort of settled in at the back, as Fine shifted to a lower octave and a deeper intonation. The song transformed as the Manganiyars took over, with Fine providing the direction through progressions on the bass. “Every musician I play with,” he told us later, “it doesn’t matter who… I will do my best to make them sound good. That’s my thing: as a bass player — even a drummer — the best way to be successful is to make them sound good; when you play an accompanying instrument, you have to make other people shine.”
As he put it — and we’re paraphrasing here — you have to design the clothes to fit the model, make her look good, and not the other way around. On an absolute level, Fine’s collaboration didn’t work fully; there were a few cracks, and it lacked some kind of finesse, given the limited time the musicians had to rehearse. But the imperfections seemed to add character. What the music did was provide a new form — Rajasthani folk music doesn’t quite have an equivalent of a bass guitar, and Fine managed to find that little gap and fill it up exquisitely with his instrument, never doing too much or too little, trying to find a way where his one additional layer would add a new dimension, a new identity to the music.
Irreverence for the sanctity of the classical arts is a modern construct, and usually, “fusion” collaborations of traditional music, especially at a live concert, tend to rely as much on vision and experimentation as they do on showmanship and virtuosic flair — jugalbandis serve as a showcase for individual proficiency far too often — and while there’s indeed nothing wrong with that (as Grammy winner Wouter Kellerman’s excellent set at the same festival showed) one can question whether there is deeper value to be mined from that process. Taking the base elements of different styles of music and placing them on the same stage is thrilling viscerally, but it’s really only when something new (and meaningful) is happening does the music become relevance. Of course it’s only an opinion — nothing gets a festival crowd going quite like a saxophone solo or a dhol flourish — but finding that balance between instrumental virtuosity and compositional experimentation is, to this writer, what truly defines collaborations that offer more than mere gimmickry.