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A suitcase full of blues

Malavika Bhattacharya | Updated on June 20, 2021

Magic in the air: The live concert is an irreplaceable feeling   -  ISTOCK.COM

A writer longs to travel and be part of a mass of humanity united by a shared love for concert music

* Travelling for music is one of the greatest joys ever

* Seeing seasoned musicians perform live is an incredible experience

* Of the many social events that fell by the wayside this last year, the large-scale live concert will be among the hardest to revive

* The best musicians bring to life the essence of distant lands in whichever space they inhabit

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Music allows both mind and spirit to travel freely, so why not travel for music itself?

Of the many social events that fell by the wayside this last year, the large-scale live concert will, perhaps, be among the hardest to revive. Imagine being part of a sweaty, heaving mass of humanity, joined at the hip and elbow, united by a shared love of a specific piece of music, bellowing in unison into a largely closed space. In the moment, it’s magical. In hindsight of the year that just was — shudder. Travelling for music is one of the greatest joys there is. It’s perfectly acceptable to forego sightseeing and social calls when you’re in town for just one defined purpose, the festive atmosphere is electric, and seeing seasoned musicians perform live is an incredible experience.

In February 2020, I travelled to Mumbai from Bengaluru for the 10th edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival, where celebrated musicians from around the world congregated at the city’s iconic Mehboob Studios for two blissful days of the blues. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the last such event I would be at for a long while to come. Among the headliners were American blues giants Buddy Guy and Keb’ Mo’ — artistes who have been on my playlist from when CDs were a thing — incredible performers able to captivate a 1,000-strong audience across age groups.

When Keb’ Mo’ sang I got a suitcase, I take it everywhere I go, and Oklahoma, the audience sang along word for word. In that moment, we could have well been anywhere in the Mississippi basin, but we were in Mumbai, and the slide guitar and harmonica brought the Mississippi’s Delta Blues to Mehboob Studios.

As the two-day festival drew to a close, headlining act Buddy Guy walked on stage in his trademark black and white polka dot shirt, just like he had at the festival’s inaugural edition in 2011. This time, the 83-year-old opened with an electrifying rendition of Damn Right I got the Blues and snuck in some casual words of wisdom when he said “Stop hatin’ people you don’t even know”.

Way back in 2007 — when I first watched him at a sit-down show at Delhi’s staid Siri Fort auditorium — he’d strode into the crowd wielding his fretless guitar after playing it with his teeth and towel. Years had passed, but the legendary musician’s theatrics, talent and sharp wit had not waned one bit. For that final hour in Mehboob Studios, I travelled through time, recalling his incredible past performances and marvelling at his zeal, even as he walked into the throng once again singing a slick blues version of Al Green’s Take me to the River.

At a now-defunct bar in Bengaluru a few years ago, Grammy Award winning West African band Tinariwen brought to life the sounds of the Sahara through their soulful songs of loss and longing for their strife-ridden homelands of Mali and Algeria. The pioneering Tuareg band from the ‘80s comprise rebel fighters who sing in Tamashek and produce a unique brand of electric-guitar-heavy desert rock, rooted in stories of nomadic culture and the revolution. The band’s name translates literally to ‘deserts’. Dressed in traditional robes and headgear, Tinariwen sang in a language no one understood, but the Bengaluru audience has always been accepting and immersed, and so the floor was packed and people sang along what they could anyway as the poignant music brought to life the sands and sounds of the distant Sahara Desert to a cramped bar in Bengaluru.

At Singapore’s Neon Lights Festival in 2016, a rain-drenched Fort Canning Park saw Icelandic band Sigur Rós take the stage as the final act. The outfit is known for its wistful vocals and haunting melodies, a dreamlike soundscape that automatically elicits in the mind’s eye visuals of wind-battered cliffs and black volcanic beaches strewn with glittering ice formations. Even at the end of a booze-fuelled music festival, the Singapore audience stood in rapt, silent attention as ethereal orchestral music and falsetto vocals in an unfamiliar language filled the air, conjuring up visuals of magical Nordic landscapes and surreal Scandinavian fantasy stories.

That’s the thing about the live concert. The best musicians bring to life the essence of distant lands in whichever space they inhabit. Sounds and stories from around the world converge upon a local audience. To occupy a space filled with strangers and still feel bound by a common thread, still sing in unison, still share a smile and whoop at a particularly slick guitar solo — the live concert is an irreplaceable feeling, and just being physically present allows for both mind and spirit to journey freely through the music.

Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel writer

Published on June 20, 2021

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