I came to the port of Vishakhapatnam with my band. We were waiting for the special ferry bound for the Ensemble Archipelago. It is an island made by The United Nations in hopes of bringing cultures together through music. It has resorts, tourist destinations, local concerts, beautiful vistas, music and instruments from cultures all around the world, and more. Annually, there is a “Battle of the Bands”, an event where countries send their best musicians to compete for the Tempo Cup.
We were one of the renowned artists of India, known to use classical instruments in conjunction with modern western instruments. We somehow made it work, we were famous and well off, though it came as a surprise to me and my team when we were invited to Ensemble Archipelago to compete for the Tempo Cup.
Our team comprised of Vani-the lead vocalist and sitar player, Basant- our electric guitar player, Sahaani, the drummer and backing vocalist in some cases, me, and last but not the least, Mangal. Basant and Sahaani and me combined can play around six instruments, mostly western. Mangal, though, seems to have Saraswati’s blessing. He knows how to play the guitar, the trumpet, flute, not to mention the myriad of Indian classical instruments he knows. We’ ve considered making him our teacher for a few of the instruments. He also has amazing rhythm, him and Sahaani come up with beautiful melodies for us while Basant and I can come up with good lyrics.
As for the combining different Indian classical to western part, don’t ask, we don’t know how either. It’s a sixth sense of sorts.
Reaching Ensemble Island was an intimidating experience. The place was grand, the dock seemed like a luxury airport for goodness’ sake! We were pretty humble musicians and this grandeur made us nervous.
We felt like humans on an alien planet.
At least that’s what the others felt. For some reason, the moment I stepped on the island’s natural ground, I felt like I was home, back in Bihar. This wasn’t Bihar…why was I thinking that this is my country’s soil?
We went to the hotel room and discussed, well, everything.
“What do you think of the island?” “Did you see the Indonesian representatives? They had so many boxes with them.” “That choir monument looks so beautiful at night-time…” “I hear something.…is that a vibraphone?” “Even the ocean seems like it's making music…the waves are hitting the beach as if it was playing drums.”
Rumour was that this island was blessed by some god of music. The island was a few nautical miles away from Hawaii, so it is believed the Hawaiian god Lono blessed it. It surely felt like it. It’s like the island was alive, like it was just some giant instrument being played by its inhabitants.
I could only imagine. Trees being strings, rocks being percussive surfaces and the sand sounding like a maraca when you shake it in your hand.
The competition was…meh. I mean the musical numbers were amazing, it was definitely magical to listen to. We heard Javanese Gamelan musicians play with their ensemble, Japanese taiko drums and Koto players, African mbiras and drums…it was amazing, but compared to the island itself it was nothing.
I’m pretty sure we were entranced while playing the music because we certainly could not control ourselves, it was like the instruments were playing themselves and we were just adding to their melody.
I swear I saw something else in the back. Some cyan and purple-ish light. Maybe someone holding a glow stick. Though it seemed off.
We went back to our rooms. The others were beat and needed sleep but I could not resist the island.
I asked if I could go for a walk to the hotel manager and he said yes, offering to send a guide with me but I politely refused. I wanted to experience the island by myself.
Each moment on this island was a memorable one. The ocean was a cyan-like bioluminescent colour, the sand was pink and red and yellow. The forests at the edge of the island were a minty, emerald green and the buildings seemed to move with the island, not intrude into it.
I don’t know why, but I wanted to go into the forests. It was just an unknown pull I had. I ran in through an uneven dirt path into the forest and slowed down after running for a while, captivated by the forest’s rhythm.
Not a melody…it was a rhythm. It went...it went…
“The forest is an ensemble.” The leaves hit each other just drum sticks, wild cats jumped on trees which created an audible thump, like a drum. Even the ground seemed to have some musical property. Or maybe it was me, walking with a pep in my step to the forest’s beat.
I did not feel like leaving the place, even though I was not supposed to be there. I hummed a small prayer in Hindi, asking for me to visit this place at least once every year. Alone, with friends, with family. Maybe they too can also listen to the forest, like me.
Suddenly, I heard some eerie whispering around me.
Is it them?
No…I don’t know.
It looks like them.
Quiet, young one! She may hear us.
Now you’ve done it.
I was quiet!
Not quiet enough!!
Play Hiamore Pālani!! Come on young one, use your tail!
After that, all I heard were rhythmic bangs on the barks of trees all around me. I did not see anyone hitting the trees though. My vision kept getting hazy and my eyes became heavy.
I saw…apes, no, monkeys? Something with a tail- big lumps…banging trees….cyan…purple…light…speaking.
Ugh…just pains my head to even think about it.
Next thing I knew, I woke up in my hotel room, covered in a blanket. A dream…no, I could not have possibly imagined anything like that.
To this day I keep thinking about what I had seen and heard in the forests of ensemble island. The melody still stays in my head, but the memory is hazy, almost like in the middle I blacked out.
That island has its own music…the thing is that I don’t know if it was the island itself or something or someone on it.
I don’t know why I shared this with you, dear reader. Maybe it was just to tell you about my experience, maybe I just wanted to share, maybe to keep that wonder of ‘something mystical may be out there’ alive.
I still think about that rhythm, honestly. Whenever I reminiscence, the memory blurts out irrational and nonsensical stuff,seemingly sensible at times. That’s what music does…that’s what a soul feels when it hears a beat it connects with.
Sangeet hamesha prabal ho.
Author: Aditya Iyengar
Editor: Janki Nair