Milton Keynes’ International Festival is a ten-day riot of rice and peas, guest ales and Transylvanian jugglers which offers an eloquent expression of the new town’s growing maturity on the artistic scene. Appropriately enough, the city was graced with the presence of Raghu Dixit, a rising star in contemporary Indian folk music, for the final part of the Festival.
Tucked in the corner of Campbell Park was the Stables Victorian Spiegeltent, a magnificent Belgian travelling dance hall which is one of seven of the Festival’s locations. This ornate construction of wood, stained glass and mirrors provided the stage for the musicians, and a roof to gird against the drumming rain. The evening began with a virtuoso performance by solo guitarist Byron Johnston, who offered Spanish and Latin rhythms which served as an appropriate introduction to the Raghu Dixit Project, considering the Indian origins of Flamenco.
‘Folk rock’ has started to dominate the alternative music scene, not just in India but the whole of South Asia, though Raghu is quickly becoming the poster boy of the form. Although the term ‘folk’ can sometimes ghettoise a musician into a pre-modern stereotype, for Raghu, a personable goateed guitarist from Karnataka, South India, the label refers to a state of mind. His music is imaginatively entwined with South Asian poetry, Sufi or otherwise, rocking up the old ghazals and kalams with their dialectic of complexity and simplicity, philosophy and a quirky humour. What’s more, this style of music is clearly taking the world by storm: in 2008 the Raghu Dixit Project’s Antaragni: The Fire Within became the biggest-selling album in India, outside of the Bollywood film genre, that is.
The British public first caught wind of Raghu Dixit when he performed on the Jools Holland show in 2010. The singer-songwriter jokingly complained that he’d flown all the way from India for just four minutes, performing his No Man Will Ever Love You, Like I Do. However, his popularity quickly grew and the band soon found themselves playing at Glastonbury in 2011, which Raghu jokingly described as “the worst slum we have ever played at”.
Back at the Spiegeltent, Raghu’s band adorned the stage with their colourful lungis and kurtas, featuring Brynden Lewis on guitar, Parth Chandiramani on flute, Wilfred Demoz on drums, Kartik Raghunathan on violin and lovable bass guitarist Gaurav Vaz, who proved to be a bit of a stand-up comedian as well. On the Olympics, Vaz commented: “Hey man, we probably make most of those medals for you in India.”
Raghu sang in his native Kannada language and many of the songs were inspired by his hero, Shanti Shishunala Sharif, a nineteenth-century poet saint from north Karnataka. Other songs were sung in Hindi, as well as a Qawwali in Punjabi composed by Maulana Raghu himself. Raghu’s charming addresses between songs invited audience interaction, made jokes, and offered prayers for our wellbeing. It’s difficult to resist the man’s infectiously positive spirit.
Raghu’s lyrics are life-affirming, acknowledging the significance of the individual against the system. Existential angst, filtered through the East eye, was transmitted through the Oriental flute and Irish fiddle sounds alongside reggae, blues and blatant rock-inspired tunes (head-banging included on Mr Vaz’s part). The wisdom was clearly well-received.
Always the entertainer, Raghu demanded that everyone get up and start moving. “This isn’t a picnic,” he shouted, before performing Masti ki basti, even forcing the pad-writing journalists to get up and dance for the Qawwali. Some bands struggle to create a party atmosphere. This seemed to come naturally to Raghu, who was aided by wild fans from Karnataka as well as Raghunathan, the sleepy-eyed violinist and the boyish flautist Chandiramani, adding haunting solo melodies married to the wild, Hendrix-like guitar excesses of Lewis. By this point the audience was standing, singing and dancing on command from Raghu.
Besides poetry and philosophy, Raghu’s songs put nostalgia and past experience to music. In Nasik, Raghu remembers his childhood memories in his home town, while I’m in Mumbai Waiting for a Miracle describes the years he spent in the city of dreams, playing in seedy bars before he finally got his break. His hope and enthusiasm are irrepressible, expressed beautifully in his music. As we filtered out into the balmy Milton Keynes night, many of us found that the Raghu Dixit Project had changed our mood to pure happiness; we felt positive for the future.