Unconventional Performance Spaces — A WOMEX Session

by Manojna Yeluri

WOMEX conference sessions are carefully curated to provide an insight into issues that deeply concern the music industry. Audiences and their engagement with musical experiences is a subject of discussion that is becoming increasingly important in the face of newer mediums, technologies, changing socio-political landscapes and economic dynamics. There is a need to understand the significance of activating spaces that might have previously been considered too unconventional for music festivals or concerts. To this end, a WOMEX 2016 session titled ‘Alleyways, Plazas, and Forts: Connecting Audiences to Global Music in Unconventional Formats & Spaces’ focused on the challenges, concerns and benefits of using different spaces and formats to help people connect with music and culture.

Chaired by Ariana Hellerman (Ariana’s List), the conference panelists included the conference panelists included Divya Bhatia (Jodhpur RIFF), Faisal Kiwewa (Bayimba Festival, DOADOA Arts Market) and Shanta Thake (Director of Joe’s Pub at The Public, New York) speaking about their experiences in India, Uganda and United States of America, respectively.

Responding to a series of questions, the panelists helped paint a picture of the festivals they work on, as well as the unique musical experiences that they provide audiences with.

What are the festivals that were discussed?

Divya Bhatia is the director of Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival), an international folk music festival held annually in the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, India. Beginning in 2007 with only twenty people, the RIFF has grown, over the years, into a well-known folk festival catering to thousands, who travel to Jodhpur from far and wide. The festival also serves as a space for interactive sessions, where audiences get a first-hand experience of the music as well as opportunities to interact with the musicians. The RIFF attempts to recreate a more traditional musical experience by encouraging performances that are often acoustic, and which, as far as possible, use natural light.

Alleyways, Plazas and Forts: Connecting Audiences to Global Music in Unconventional Formats & Spaces ( L- R: Divya Bhatia, Ariana Hellerman, Shanta Thake, Faisal Kiwawe)

Ariana Hellerman is the founder of Ariana’s List (a resource on New York–based cultural events that are accessible to everyone) as well as the curator of Accordions Around the World, a festival held in Bryant Park, Manhattan. With an underlying emphasis on providing access to the arts, Ariana’s work, with special focus on the festival, encourages an intimacy between audiences and the music. The festival showcases professional and amateur musicians of all ages, and from a myriad of backgrounds. It takes place over eight weeks, at ground level, with no amplification, and as it is held in a public place, it attracts a large number of people.

Faisal Kiwewa is founder and director of the Bayimba International Arts Festival, Uganda, and oversees the organization of six festivals over the course of a year. Using the example of the street music festival run on the occasion of Fête de la Musique, Faisal mentioned that such a festival had less to do with bringing music to public audiences and more to do with introducing audiences to the culture of busking and street performances. The street festival is a highly-curated program where the musicians are given an escort as well as a busking basket. The festival has resulted in providing many musicians an opportunity to connect with new audiences, platforms and students.

What kind of impact have these festivals had on economic growth and socio-political change?

According to Divya, the RIFF brings together around 250 traditional/folk musicians every year. These musicians are often from lower-caste Muslim families, and owing to the existing caste politics in India, have historically been discriminated against in many ways. Through the efforts of the RIFF, these musicians have a platform to perform and connect with concert organizers, curators and music industry professionals. They are able to rise above the existing socio-political barriers and seek opportunities in other countries, and charge a fee that is well above the state-prescribed minimum rates.

Do artists find it difficult to connect with audiences in these unconventional formats?

Ariana believes that while the space requires the musicians to re-orient themselves before performing, it also allows them to connect with audiences in a manner that is both engaging and intimate.  To many, the festival is a great marketing opportunity.

Is it challenging to have festivals in such spaces?

While the festivals have a positive impact on the local economy and culture, there are undoubtedly several challenges associated with organizing them. With the Jodhpur RIFF, Divya mentioned that all the equipment had to be transported to the site of the festival by a tractor over a period of about three days. The technical and sound arrangements are always a challenge since the fort’s primary stages are all stone courtyards, the acoustics of which present concerns of their own.

Faisal mentioned that security and counter-terrorism measures are things that need to be taken very seriously during all festival arrangements and that sometimes security personnel can easily outnumber the musicians.

Ariana’s festival, taking place in a public park, requires several permits and permissions, which are not easy to obtain. Added to this is the problem of funding, which is something that even conventional concerts and festivals endure, making it that much more imperative for her and her colleagues to pitch for sponsors.

What is the biggest take-away from these festivals?

Besides the opportunity to experience a musical tradition in a manner that is closer to the spirit of the culture, and in a format that challenges the norm, these festivals contribute to the economic dynamics of the music industry and help usher in what Ariana called “cultural equity”. These festivals facilitate better connectivity across the entire music scene, allowing everyone to become participants in the larger cultural dialogue.

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