Rajasthani Caravan Bring Their Ecstatic Punjabi Party Spectacle to This Year’s Cutting-Edge Drive East Festival

by delarue

As the lights went down for Rajasthani Cavavan’s wild, ecstatic performance at this year’s Drive East Festival at Dixon Place last night, the sound of bagpipes filtered in from outside. Was there a Scottish theatre piece going on in an adjacent room? As it turned out, no. Dressed in a traditional North Indian outfit and a bright red-and-green-patterned turban, Taga Ram Bheel walked in playing surreal, austere close harmonies on a wooden double-reed instrument, the murali. For about twenty seconds, it was exotic sonic bliss. Then he calmly turned around and walked out.

The audience laughed nervously. Was this it? Meanwhile, a sharp sword and what looked like a giant candleholder sat in the middle of the floor. What kind of mayhem had there been in the night’s previous dance perrformance…or was about to happen?

Group leader Katrina Ji answered that question about half an hour into the spectacle. Backed by the four-piece Ustad Arba Music Group alternating between several high and low register percussion instruments plus drony twin flutes and harmonium, she put the sword between her teeth – blade side out –  and crowned herself with the metal object. And then slowly, in one seamless motion,  slunk to the floor on her stomach and grabbed her ankles from behind. And then wiggled her eyebrows at the crowd.

That magical murali finally made a second appearance much later in the show, during a catchy, swaying, bouncy traditional dance number. Concerts earlier in the week at this vast annual showcase for classical sounds from across the Hindustani subcontinent  were about transcendence and emotional intensity: this was a party. Percussionists, Imamddin and Firoze Khan made that clear right from the start with a droll, irresistibly funny rhythmic conversation between clickety-clack castanets and boomy dholak double-headed drum. Harmonium player Jalal Khan drew the crowd in with his rapidfire lefthand phrases and expansive, dynamic vocal range, finally hitting some high notes at the end that you wouldn’t expect a dramatic, powerful baritone to be able to reach. His colleague in the dholak was his shout man on the vocals  – if you buy that hip-hop reference – holding down the lows, the two indulging in a lot of jousting.

The group peppered the mix of swaying, bouncy songs from both northern India and Pakistan with a balmy love ballad and a big dramatic anthem. Most of the lyrics illustrated a series of amusing battle-of-the-sexes scenarios. The lilting tunes had an irrepressible cheer: the Punjab, at least as these guys depict it, is a party place. The only thing that felt strange was to be sitting and swaying rather than being out on a dancefloor.

Meanwhile, Ji went through several costume changes, including one with a series of bells down her left leg, and played jaunty, tinkling melodies on them with a couple of bells slung around her wrists. Midway through the set, the group explained how they’d convinced the American-born Ji – a longtime devotee of Rajasthani music – to enlist them as her backing band. Since then the group has become more of a collaborative effort.

For the final part of the performance, they brought up Pakisani crooner Junaid Younus for what he said was the first collaboration between a star of Coke Studio (the Pakistani counterpart to Soul Train) and a Rajasthani group. Despite having never performed together, they sparred and traded riffs through a mix of languages and styles ranging from Punjabi Indian to Pakistani qawwali and finally wound up the night with an ecstatic singalong: even the non-Punjabi speakers got involved after Younus egged them on.

The Drive East Festival comes to a close today, August 27, with a marathon series of music and dance performances starting this afternoon at 2 PM with the riveting, lavish sounds of the only Indian carnatic choir in this hemisphere, the Navatman Music Collective; $20 tix are still available as of this hour. There are also two ambitious, stylistically cross-pollinated performances afterward for those who know something about or take an interest in Indian dance traditions. And Rajasthani Caravan’s next stop on their current tour is tonight at 7:45 PM at the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival at Baratiya Temple, 1612 County Line Road in Chalfont, Pennsylvania; admission is free with a wristband, so get there early.

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