Reporter for the Tibet Post International, Cornelius Lundsgaard, was invited to cover Himachal Pradesh' first ever major rock concert. The following is his detailed impressions of the event as it unfolded on Saturday May 7 in Dharamshala.
The four strong images of character musicians looking out from the posters have been puzzling Dharamshala inhabitants in the weeks leading up, but only minutes before official show-time, Tibetan co-organizer Gelek Tsering plainly discourages any hope of a metropolitan experience; "It seems like we're not really successful, we'll see, but many people don't want to buy tickets, they don't know what a rock show is."
He explains that this is a learning experience, but at the same time he assures that it will become a regular event with rock concerts every two-three months and international and local bands sharing the stage. A handful of local organizers including a passionate drummer cum night-club owner, and friend of the head-liners, have taken it upon themselves to establish a concert-culture in McLeod Ganj. Via the eclectic and electric guitarist of Cassini's Division, Sukanti Roy, who is native to the state, the organizers has managed to secure a top name for the occasion. As for this pioneering band of stars, however, Tsering comments, "I don't know them and I have never heard of them before."
Nor have anyone on the streets; nobody seems to know who Cassini's Division are, never mind the outer-space origin of their name. From the peculiar perspective of this mountainside village with its other-worldly quality of a Tibetan colony, the band could equally well be paying a visit from a different dimension, such bafflement is displayed in responses across town. Whatever the origin, this Indian vehicle of Rock and Roll music is rolling late into the hills, both for the fact that rock music came in the slipstream of foreigners a long time ago, but more so because the show is more than two hours behind schedule. Some sound equipment is missing and the search is on. Stars of the local rock-scene is contacted for a lending hand, but owing to a communication breakdown on manager level, the musicians are left with no choice but to make do with whatever is available, a condition the band seem nonplussed about as they re-arrange their gear accordingly.
John Bose, the group's laid back bass player, shrugs and smiles at the unfolding drama of frustrated organizers with mobile phones stuck to their heads while the audience slowly starts pouring into the grounds of Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts. "Our guitarist is from the hills, he says it's normal around here" John humours, "if I could just go visit those guys, I'm sure they'd be cool and lend us some gear, we're all musicians you know?" But managers won't be budged and the show must go on. With improvisation being key to entertainment business, the night's unlikely event insistently struggles to a slow-motion start. A gang of local teenagers warm up the audience with high-school renditions of 90's heroes Nirvana and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. As if unsure of what to expect, onlookers ask each other if this is really the main act.
But despite the unhurried organisational bedlam, more and more people arrive at the venue, some with toddlers and food in their arms, others in latest fashion outfits wearing hopeful expressions. The monastery-like TIPA grounds casually assumes the air of a music festival, but Cassini's Division is yet to appear for anything but a sound check. Jodie from the ever-present local initiative "Mountain Cleaners" seize the opportunity to lay her beliefs of a cleaner world onto the waiting audience. Her words seem to resonate because the ground is spotless all night through and scores of people give a hand or a banknote to the self-established cleaning crew of McLeod Ganj.
By nightfall the place is awash with expectation, and a genuine mob is forming in front of the stage, eagerly awaiting a novel experience while noodles are being washed down with a steady stream of tea. Bottles disguised in tell-tale brown paper bags are also being passed around and a certain pungent smell flows around with cigarette smoke. Finally an unidentified Western girl ascends the stage and randomly announces the beginning of the show. The music commences with a startling jump in volume-output; the main act has set sails and their grandiose sound is carried across the valley. It's psychedelic rock with a hint of Indian mystery on the guitar and the brightness of the sound-scape leaves no critic in doubt, this is indeed a professional orchestra.
The band's energetic front man and singer, Rahul, quickly captures the audience's attention while leading the skilful crew in a remarkably tight journey through fusion music, spanning from indie to heavy metal rap with some very original twists. And then they also play covers, or "crowd-pleaser's" one opposed girl is heard muttering with crossed arms, yet her foot gives her away as it stamps out the off-beat to a Bob Marley song. These guys are experienced entertainers having performed for 10 years as a group and toured extensively all over India. Pleasing crowds is their honest work and it shows by their stage-presence that they themselves are among the pleased. And although this particular crowd may not have been to a rock show before, they sure know how to rock out to one. At first the only one dancing is Dorjee the Lion-man, a local Tibetan dancer and bohemian, bouncing wildly around with his trademark heart-shaped sunglasses, but soon more join in, dancing for sheer fun, moved by the band's load of original and potent sound from the belly of Calcutta's underground.
"This is one of the most fantastic experiences we have had as a band" shouts Rahul to the, by now, ecstatic crowd who takes it all in, including enough alcohol that some youngsters are overcome with a need for performing too. As the band takes a well-earned break and the sponsor company's commercial text is read by a somewhat unenthusiastic organizer, a young Tibetan manages to steal the limelight for a song that quickly turns into a medley of assorted pop-tunes. When the organizer tries to recapture the microphone, the youngster, spurred by a group of screaming girls, blatantly ignores him, and then, just before the organizer's last, corporeal card is dealt, Cassini's Division gentlemanly signals their approval of the self-absorbed singer and politely waits in the background until the spontaneous intermezzo ends.
But before the band resumes, the organizer has a special announcement to make; "How would you all like to meet John Abraham today?", he asks rhetorically to the half surprised, half bewildered audience who applauds and shouts their approval. Apparently the Bollywood actor is in town and when the two of them met earlier in the day he had said that he might come to see the show. And on that hope-inducing note Cassini's Division again embarks their musical spacecraft. Altogether the band shows a remarkably high tolerance level as the stage becomes a dance floor for cheeky youngsters and a Tibetan giant who slowly waves his arms over his head with an unreal smile as if inebriated with some magic potion. Whatever his buzz, his smile does the trick and the crowd gigglingly wave back at him.
Although the TIPA venue usually hosts Tibetan events - which per default often are of political nature - there is not a whiff of "Free Tibet" to be sensed on the part of the organizers. The band, however, makes indirect remarks by playing songs like the anti-apartheid Eddie Grant classic "Give Me Hope Johanna" and their own original "Animals" about the inhumane ways humans sometimes treat each other. But the evening's single most political statement comes in the form of a barely audible variation in the lyrics for Bob Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind", when Rahul sings "how many years must a people exist, before Tibet will be free?" Indeed a question that is being pondered upon on a daily basis in this location of exile.
But this night is meant to be a night for entertainment, not political agendas. As if to cement that fact, an array of commercial banners are clumsily being put up, one by one, by stage-hands moving like spiders to the music in the frames of the out door stage. In the beginning of the show even the light-effects seem to be fighting a serious drowsiness, but towards the end a surprisingly sophisticated display of coloured beams and rotating patterns is finally up and running.
But all things must pass, as the late George Harrison put it, and a final, thunderously loud song is played. However, the rowdy crowd is nowhere near satisfied and insistently shouts "more, more, more". A canny organizer quickly solves the problem by letting a local crooner give it a shot, maybe in an attempt to excuse for the fact that John Abraham in fact never did appear... Instead of Bollywood the listeners now get a heart-breaking, home-made Tibetan song by youngster Yeshi Passang, a song about crossing the high passes of the Himalayas and missing ones loved and dear ones. Meanwhile, the resolute organizer, who all evening has balanced his role between bodyguard and friendly host, tries his luck with getting bleary-eyed and wobbly-legged young men to leave the premises.
All this effort is to no avail. The stars of the night are still on the stage, packing down their gear, and small groups of uninhibited teenagers approach them for a "celebrity-chat" and attempted hand shakes, unable, as they are, to focus their gaze at any one point. Eventually the press gets a word with singer Rahul: "Tonight has been excellent, beautiful! I really enjoy this place, it is a centre of spirituality, mystical and magical is how I would describe it." When asked to comment on the Tibet issue the answer falls promptly: "The Tibet cause is probably one of the last real freedom struggles in the world and there is no doubt; Tibet must be free again." At the back of the stage sound engineers wrap up cables and boxes around three organizers, counting up fat wads of cash. "I absolutely loved it" says one of them and adds, "next time we'll make a mix of Indian and Western bands". To the question of whether they will incorporate the Free Tibet movement in the future he answers, "of course we will, you see, many of our customers are Tibetan", he smiles before he continues counting the evening's revenue.
Like any good Rock and Roll concert, this one too has a legendary after-party, where persistent fans and other night-owls gets a chance to meet the sympathetic band members in a more relaxed setting. That is, after all the local brawling hot-heads has been thrown out from the organizing drummer's night-club. On the large down-townterrace in the nippy air of the night, Rahul turns out to be quite the guitar wizard, playing both Spanish flamenco and African style guitar-riffs with equal talent. Ludo, the larger-than-life drummer, treats the dozen or so people to some authentic West-Bengali folk-songs, with the happy face of someone big enough to have no natural enemies. Rahul routinely cuts him off with rapid series of improvised spoken-words while the night-club owner eases into his other identity of dexterous drummer. With an estimated 1300 people at the show, he has surely earned some party-time now.
Only time will tell if he and his co-organizer friends will really repeat their endeavour and establish a tradition for stadium-sized concerts in this cliff-hugging village of Himachal Pradesh. But for now at least they broke a record and held the "biggest ever show in McLeod Ganj."