Every year April 30 is recognised as International Jazz Day by the UNESCO. The goal, according to the international agency, is “to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.”
In Itanagar, in Northeast India’s Arunachal Pradesh — a very small corner of the globe — they take this to heart. Since 2016, the capital city has been hosting an International Jazz Day Festival on April 30. Significant, not only because jazz barely has mass appeal in this corner of the country, but also because despite that, an entire festival dedicated to the genre is already in its third edition now.
“Until very recently, in Itanagar jazz was equated to someone playing the saxaphone,” says Getem Apang, the organiser of the festival, “People don’t know about jazz — it’s all about commercial Bollywood music here.” The International Jazz Day Itanagar is the only dedicated jazz festival in the entire northeast region — while other parts like Meghalaya do have a rich tradition of western music, jazz is limited to only a few enthusiastic listeners. “People find jazz mellow and boring. You need to have an ear for it to appreciate it,” says Liyir Karso, an Itanagar-based singer, who opened the jazz festival in its first edition in 2016. “In the heavy metal concerts we sometimes have here, there won’t be place to stand, let alone sit,” she says, “But jazz is different. Jazz is new.”
Itanagar, which is seemingly Arunachal Pradesh’s only “urban” hub, has a smattering of venues that host music gigs from time to time. “There won’t be something happening every other weekend, but we do have some music festivals during the year,” says Karso. Recently, the Wai International Hotel has opened in the city, and its slowly becoming a nightlife spot. “The place to be — and be seen — at,” laughs Karso. There is the Boulevard of Colours art and music fest that happens every year — “But that is pretty commercial and you have the likes of Mika Singh performing,” says Apang.
In this context where there is appreciation for a lot of Bollywood and a little of rock, metal and pop, the jazz festival seemed like a shot in the dark when Apang first launched it. The first edition — a free event — happened in an open air ground, attracted about 100 odd people, and had a line-up of jazz artistes from across India. “Ever since, the curiosity has definitely increased,” says Apang. He gets queries from across the Northeast about the festival. “I am hoping this will eventually put Itanagar on the map as a tourist destination too,” he says.
For the concert on Sunday, he had jazz artistes such as Sanjeeta Bhattacharya from Delhi, the Srinjay Banarjee Trio from Kolkata, the Lucknow Experimental Jazz Quintet from Delhi, and homegrown talent, The Rising Sons and his own band, the Omak Komut Collective performing.
Omak Komut Collective has been around since 2007, and has a priest as its lead singer. “Omak Komut is actually the head priest of the Donyi Polo religious community here,” Apang says, “He conducts Sunday prayers in the village.” The band describes itself as “folk fusion”, and sets words of traditional Adi folk songs to blues, jazz and R&B. “Our tribal Adi songs are very bluesy,” Apang says, “And I felt it would be interesting to fuse it with actual blues music.” In their performance on Sunday, the band also used the traditional Arunachalee sword, yoksa, as a percussion instrument.
“Pure jazz might not work very well here,” says Takar Nabam, Delhi-based guitarist from Arunachal Pradesh. “That’s why when we mix it with say, funk and soul — people begin to groove more.” Nabam, who also performed on the International Jazz Day with his band The Rising Sons, feels that people in Itanagar are interested in learning more about jazz now. “They want to break out of the rock music and heavy metal mould,” he says.
But it’s easier said than done. In Guwahati, Ronojit Chaliha, who goes by Ron Cha, is perhaps the only Jazz pianist from the region. He feels that the Northeast, despite having talent, lacks an environment of musicians playing jazz at home or even at jam sessions. “Kids these days are very heavily influenced by pop culture and this limits them musically too,” says Chaliha, who is currently studying music at the Berklee College of Music. Consequently, for musicians from the genre, it’s tough to get a break here,
Meanwhile, in Arunachal Pradesh, the organisers of the jazz festival are trying to shake things up. For the third edition, they received support from the tourism department too. “This was the first time they supported us,” Apang says. Starting next year, the festival will become a two day event. “Who knows, we might even have to hire an agent,” he says.
For the third edition of International Jazz Day in Itanagar, however, there was not a significant increase in number of festival goers from the first. “I was talking amongst my friends that day. At such events, it’s probably better to have people who are actually interested in jazz — the ones who actually respect the music and the musician,” says Karso, who immediately followed the artistes on Facebook after she watched them perform on Sunday. “I think there might have been less than a hundred people that day. And maybe, that’s a good thing,” she says.
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