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April 15, 2024

Image from the Mahindra Blues Fest

An all women lineup for the 12th Edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival

Nearing the end of the Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) this weekend (February 10 and 11) at Mehboob Studio, Sheryl Youngblood’s music unfolded gentle and smooth, enveloping a glittering crowd in a heart-warming ballad of At Last by Etta James. The Chicago based musician, who had been interacting with the audience through her set – making them sing, dance and yell with her magnetic stage presence – suddenly changed tone for this ode to James, her final note expanding like a bubble, slowly, surely and strong-willed.

The reason this rendition of At Last was particularly befitting was not only because Etta James has been a pioneering force in the blues genre, but also: what better way to celebrate MBF’s all women line-up than to pay heed to her who is renown as the ‘matriarch of the blues’? Although the song was originally recorded by Glen Miller’s orchestra, it was James who placed it in cultural history.

Image from the Mahindra Blues Festival

The 12th edition of this fest, I believe, was all about honouring the many women responsible for initially shaping and later, reclaiming the music style from the staunch boy-clubs formed by their industry counterparts. Last weekend, the women ruled the stage, flying in all the way from Kansas City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and our very own, Shillong. Despite missing Meghalaya’s pride and joy and MBF veteran, Tipriti Kharbangar’s set (backed by her band ‘Soulmate’), I spent my weekend hearing only the fondest of praises of her performance. I write this as I stream Set Me Free, from my freshly made ‘Soulmate’ playlist which I intend on listening to until I am sick to my stomach of the blues.

Image from the Mahindra Blues Festival

As a first-time attendee, I only now realised that the Mahindra Blues Festival is unlike most other music concerts I have known or personally been to. There is a kind of earnestness to the atmosphere where attendee and organiser alike seemed to nurture a genuine interest in the music before them. An interest in this genre is also not marked by one’s knowledge of lyrics or facts about the artist, but instead by a deep love for these characteristic sounds and rhythms. I witnessed so many in the audience in such a state of entranced surrender, eyes closed, swaying, basking, grooving (very different from dancing) – beckoning the music to wash over them completely.

Even the Courtyard, a central open buffer space for one to eat, drink and take breaks between shows, fostered a spirit of the blues where people, looking beautiful as ever bathed in diffused yellow light, mingled over who and what they had just heard. When I was not gushing over my newfound love for Vanessa Collier and her saxophone, I was eavesdropping on some great conversation transpiring at the tables nearby. Without offending anyone, I would like to say that this environment, all salt, pepper and seasoned, was consummate for me; someone who prefers the company of those twice my age.

Image from the Mahindra Blues Festival

I think this specific crowd also contributed to the incredibly low-stress, easy mood of the space that distinguishes this fest from other music events. Whether I was manoeuvring through crowds at the performance halls – endearingly named ‘Polka Dot Parlour’ and ‘Soul Strat Saloon’ – or catching some air-conditioning in the dimly lit den with a viewing screen, or perusing through merchandise and records at a cluster of stalls, everything about my surroundings felt unhurried and relaxed. Even the bar area – by Carlsberg and The Glenlivet – which can be terribly crowded and chaotic at concerts, was surprisingly spacious and efficiently managed at MBF, with minimal lines and ample space for patrons to enjoy their drinks without hassle.

With regards to the music, I will say this: although I enjoyed the electrifying blend of blues and rock by Rockstar personas like Dana Fuchs and Samantha Fish, I do hope to see more of both pure Southern blues, as well as its convergences with soul, jazz and swing. I find that the more artists can dabble in sounds without an over-reliance on the electric guitar, the more infectious the performances become within this genre. This sentiment came especially alive when Sheryl Youngblood whipped out a set a drum sticks that she began furiously tapping on her mic stand to produce some impressive percussion.

Image from the Mahindra Blues Festival

Moreover, after getting home only to watch and re-watch videos Tipriti Kharbangar and Kanchan Daniel’s vocal prowess, I am eager to see more homegrown artists on stage at the upcoming fests. For this year, since the fest’s intention was to celebrate the resilience and artistry of women in blues, I would have loved to hear more covers or odes to musicians like Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith; the original women of blues who pushed through 1930s racism and paved the way for us to be here, almost a 100 years later, singing along to their stylistic successors.

Image from the Mahindra Blues Festival

Nevertheless, it was truly remarkable to witness these award-winning women perform, individually no doubt, but especially all together; a force to reckoned with, bringing the curtain down on the spirited event. Seven sensational women took a final bow as the audience chanted relentlessly, ‘one more!’. I watched them, eyes sparkling with enamour. ‘The blues lives here’, Sheryl Young bellowed on stage, and now, they have a lifelong guest in me.

Zara Flavia Dmello


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