Off the beaten path
Goa's shores jump to a continual musical beat - whether to the loud, brash strains of carnival processions, chants flowing from a temple, or beach raves staged by the state's immigrant hippie population, a continual festival atmosphere offers limitless chances to enjoy a vast range of performances. One event adding to the mix is the Monte Music Festival, held annually near the Goan capital of Panaji. It combines a compact programme featuring an eclectic range of traditional and contemporary music, that organisers hope will provide the finest examples of Goa's heritage and tradition.
Put together by the Fundação Oriente, a Portuguese organisation that aims to promote cultural and artistic ties between Portugal and Asia, the fusion festival is now in its ninth year, and has followed a tradition of both drawing artists from around the globe, and promoting and showcasing Goa's own musical talent. The festival coordinator, Yvonne Rebello, says the aim of the event is to promote international bonds, celebrate Goan heritage, and offer a unique musical experience in one of Goa's most beautiful locations.
The event is held in the stunning grounds of the Chapel of Our Lady on the Mount, an immaculate and blindingly whitewashed building high above Goa's former state capital of Old Goa. The views over the Mandovi River could be scenes stolen from a Transylvanian fairy tale; bell towers and spires from Old Goa's chapel and cathedrals rising from the palm tree sea; rolling countryside in the fading evening light.
Guests arriving early take in the views and linger over the festival buffet, while performers tune up in the chapel or carry out sound checks on the outdoor stage, creating a refined informality that serves only to heighten anticipation. Performances take place at dusk, either in the body of the chapel or in the neat courtyard that overlooks the silent landscape below, both intimate spaces that underpin the festival's commitment to showcasing high-quality acts.
Rebello says: "The Oriente organisation was approached by the government to help renovate the chapel back in 1999. Our director then decided an annual music and heritage event would be a fitting celebration, and it started from there". The three-day fusion event, which took place last week, marries classical performance with traditional Indian music and dance, with performances from local groups and international acts - the second evening saw the Portuguese Rodrigo Leão Quinteto follow both traditional village dance from a Delhi-based classical dancer, and a religious recital by a local youth choir.
Opening night kicked off the festival with a vibrant guitar-sitar fusion. Goa's Christian and Portuguese identity is of particular focus in the Fundação Oriente's programme, featuring a wide spread of acts to create a series of performances that both complement one another and uphold the organisation's aim to fuse Goan heritage with wider Indian traditions. This year, the London-based mezzo-soprano Viola da Cunha, the tabla player Amit Prataprao Bhonsle, and sitar player Chhote Rahimat Khan offered solo acts alongside larger performances by the festival Goan representatives including the Goa State Symphony Orchestra and the Rachol Seminary Santa Cecilia choir.
The festival has proved a hit, drawing capacity crowds. Valerie and Anil Mara came for the second day. "It really is just a chance to hear something a bit different, and to see different styles at the same venue," Anil says, continuing, "We came tonight to see the dance performance but we've been very impressed by the other acts. "It's a very rewarding experience to come to a venue like this and hear such different styles, that all have a place in Goa's tradition of performance. Even during our festivals or carnivals, it isn't the same. There's less of a range of performers."
The mix of music and heritage the Monte event attempts to combine lies behind the diversity of the acts the festival organisers have invited. Travelling from Delhi, the dancer Shallu Jindal typifies the quality of the acts, opening the second day of the festival with a Kuchipudi dance recital, performing the traditional village dance against the backdrop of a Goan sunset. The Brahmin-origin performances begin with interpretations of worship rituals and then follow a theme focused around invocations of the Hindu gods Sarwaswati, for education, Lakshmi, for wealth, and Ganesha, whom Hindus traditionally turn to before any enterprise for overall success. The incredibly expressive nature of the dance is derived in large part through strong and easily readable facial expressions. Jindal's performance was one of the stand-out events of the three-day event.
Fundação Oriente's commitment since the event started was to find and showcase acts of international quality. Its pledge to create strong bonds between Goan music, and Christian and Portuguese acts is what sets the festival apart from other musical events in the area. Increasingly big names are appearing at the festival, which despite being held in a relatively small and isolated chapel, still manages to provide a spectacular venue.
Built by the Portuguese conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque in the 1500s, the chapel overlooks Goa's Mandovi River, on which the former Portuguese colonial capital Old Goa once thrived, a setting that Rebello says perfectly typifies the ethos of the festival. Inside, painstaking renovations are still underway in places, though parts of the chapel have been completed, with delicate terracotta patterns and shining gold leaf adorning the interior.
The out-of-the-way location may be off the state's typical tourist trail but the festival still manages to attract a huge range of visitors, from families to college kids to Goa's expatriate community, as well as groups of intrepid tourists. Scanning the compositions and performance listings, it's clear that the fusion message has been fully embraced by the performers. Da Cunha's repertoire swept through English and German composition and showcased a song cycle by the British composer Laura Shur, while in the chapel courtyard, the tabla player Bhonsle sat before the 10 tabla drums he was about to play, and explained tabla tarang to gathered crowds.
Bhonsle's haunting sunset performance typified the rare chance the Monte festival offered to see world-class players performing some of India's most traditional styles of music. Another key feature of this year's Monte event was the involvement of Goan youth groups, most significantly the St Cecilia Choir from the Patriarchal Seminary of Rachol, whose choral and orchestral recital included Gregorian chant, jazz and western classical composition.
The conductor, Father Romeo Monteiro, summed up the group's participation in the event by saying: "It is a pleasure for us to be able to come here and play to such a welcoming crowd and offer a repertoire of diverse music." Although only a three-day event, the nature of the festival and the diversity of the acts on show has cemented the Monte festival as a key part of Goa's fusion-music scene, with some visitors to India even planning their trips around it. In a state more used to drawing in tourists for its beach rave scene, the Monte Music Festival offers an unexpected alternative.