New Delhi’s Vibrant Music Scene, a Needle in a Haystack Situation
Every year I have been to New Delhi – three times now – I have played at a different location. Sometimes it has been the same open mic that has located elsewhere – as with the Rabbit Hole Sessions of the Turquoise Cottage. In fact, last year I played in the Rabbit Hole Sessions at two different Turquoise Cottage bars, and this year I again played in a Turquoise Cottage Rabbit Hole Session, but the bar had moved…and the other one where I played last year I could not confirm if it still existed, or not for the moment. Neither could I confirm if the TLR still existed and had its open mic. In any case, the point here is that New Delhi is a massive, massive city, and for a foreigner to dip in and try to find live music in open mics and open jams, well, it is possible, and there is a lot of music – both Indian and Western – rock, blues, pop, you name it. But as with everything in Indian, don’t expect to find it easily. I’ve put up on my list the only one I managed to attend this year, and as I learn of others I will expand the list. For me the important thing was to provide that first link for at musician, since it’s getting into one open mic in a city that often provides the key to finding another – via the musicians, etc. The wonderful thing about playing in New Delhi is when you realise that you really are speaking a universal language, as the Indian musicians are talking the same language, and the open mic has the same vibe, as what you’re used to finding elsewhere.
Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy
The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.
NEW DELHI, India – Puttering along in the auto-rickshaw on my first night in Delhi, I was confronted once again with the flow of chaos of the roads of Delhi. My western sensibilities tell me that it is impossible for traffic to move in that way without a death every three seconds in my immediate vicinity. But somehow, we move on through the every-which-way traffic – consisting of rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cars, Tata cars, bicycles, pedestrians, wild dogs and the occasional Englishman – and get to the destination.
It turned out that my destination on the first night was the open mic at the Turquoise Cottage venue at the Saket Mall, and that while the traffic chaos nevertheless got me to my destination, the 50 euros that my telephone spent in downloading a google map to show me exactly where the bar was located, did not work. In other words, I arrived at this massive, massive mall, leaving the murderous chaos of the road to find myself in the calm of a super, futuristic shopping complex surrounded by bright lights, music and merchandize. Only to realize that I did not have a clue of where the Turquoise Cottage bar was.
Neither did anyone else. So I turned on my data roaming and spent three minutes trying to download the google map and before any image whatsoever appeared, my service provider – Orange.fr – informed me that I had just spent 50 euros. IE, a yearly salary of the auto-rickshaw driver who had just dropped me off at my destination without error.
So it was that I gave up on the modern method of using a GPS location service and I saw a European-looking woman whom I thought might be hip to where this popular music bar might be located. I stopped her, asked her, and to my surprise she responded in English that was laced with a strong Indian accent. She had no idea where it was, but like all friendly Indians, she called up a friend and he indicated the general direction over the phone: “It’s over in that direction somewhere, outside the mall.”
I told her I was surprised that she was Indian, since I thought she was European. She said she was European: Ukrainian, in fact. She was, I realized, the second European of the day who I had spoken to who spoke English with a strong Indian accent. There would be another before the night was through.
Anyway… in complete desperation and nearly ready to give up, I nevertheless decided to go “in that direction,” and leaving the mall I asked at an information desk – the third such information desk I had asked – where is the Turqoise Cottage. “Just across the street, through those doors,” he said. Sure enough. There it was, right in front of me, and only a couple of minutes away from the spot where I stood when I spent 50 euros trying to find it on the GPS. There is a lesson there somewhere.
But the real lesson came when I entered this new addition to the Turquoise Cottage rock music venue chain. (There are one or two others….) There I found a world that contrasted even more with the two I had just experienced: This world was a warm, hip open mic with a great stage, fabulous sound system, nice, open people, in a large bar with excellent food. And above all, it was a world of the kind I know so well all over the globe: A world where the shared language is music, no matter what the other peculiarities of the local culture might be.
The Turquoise Cottage Discovery Through Gautam and His Band
I learned of the Turquoise Cottage open mic through my friend Gautam Lahiri, who sings and plays guitar and harmonica in a band called The Grand Old Dog (I think I saw its cousin on the road in). I met Gautam at the famous TLR venue two years ago on my first visit to India, and he invited me then to his own open mic the next day, at Bennigan’s, and then we met up again last year at the Turquoise Cottage in a different location.
Turquoise Cottage was created almost as a kind of Hard Rock Café in India, but one that actually has music, rather than as in the case of the world’s Hard Rock Cafés, just photos of musicians and old half-dead guitars pinned to the wall to give the feeling of music. Turquoise Cottage IS about the music. As soon as I entered the place I was approached by the soundman who ran the open mic, and I was told I could play almost immediately. In fact, I ended up eating my rice and spicy lamb and then I went up shortly before 10 PM, and I did four songs.
The Spiritual Philosophy of the Turquoise Cottage in New Delhi
The open mic went on until close to midnight and then a few of us went back up on stage afterwards and jammed. I left the place not long after midnight believing that Turquoise Cottage itself has best described its approach: “What started out in 1997 as an idea for rock, has turned into a culture today,” it says on the web site. “We believe there is a place that lives within us all. It is a place of vision and clarity where the rhythm of life moves in harmony with a higher consciousness. The purpose of our music is to take you there. As in music so in life.”
Yes, I’ll buy that…. And when you think about it, there must be some of that in the flow of the traffic of the streets of New Delhi, too, or it would just never work!
It has been an insanely long time since I have posted on this blog from India, and there are probably some readers who are used to frequent posts from me wondering if I have caught malaria, dengue fever or a bad case of Delhi Belly. Quite honestly, there were moments I asked myself the same thing. But apart from a general feeling of fatigue and another cold – after Korea -, the silence on this blog has had nothing to do with any of those things. It has had to do with my situation in Delhi, however.
The race track that hosts the Formula One race that I cover for my newspaper is so far out of downtown Delhi where my hotel is located, that it requires in general an hour and a half trip at best to get from door to door. And the only viable method of doing that trip requires taking a metro and a shuttle bus provided by the circuit for journalists. The last shuttle left Delhi every day at 9:00 AM, and that meant me getting up at 7 AM in order to exercise, eat, prepare and take the metro to the shuttle. The return shuttle left at the earliest from the track at 19:15 PM. That meant a huge full day.
Added to that, I had a workload in my job like none I have ever had before. It is an accumulation of six races in eight weeks and also a special report consisting of eight stories by me that was due today and will be published at the end of this week for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. All of this meant that the usual intrepid adventurer that I am decided to buckle down into a life consisting of the usual journalists’ excitement of: Racetrack, metro, shuttle, hotel room. No more.
Having said that, I continued to look and ask about music venues in Delhi, and as far as I could see, there was nothing for me from last Thursday until yesterday. No open mics or open jams, and no likely or obvious venues where I could gate crash. So it was that I accepted my fate for once of living a one-dimensional life.
Still, I was incredibly pleased and lucky with having managed to get to the Turquoise Cottage jam session last Wednesday on my first day in Delhi – despite my flight related exhaustion. And this morning, just when I thought I will have failed to play again in this city and had for the first time failed in a remaining challenge or two that I had set myself this year… I learned that the other branch of the Turquoise Cottage is holding its own Rabbit Session of jam and open mic tonight.
So I am intrepidly running off tonight to see if I can find this new place, take part, eat, play myself and hopefully with others, and then get another half night’s sleep before taking off to Abu Dhabi tomorrow. Can I feel anymore ecstatic about the Turquoise Cottage bookends to my India trip than I do at the moment? No way! Let’s see how it works out tonight. I have no idea when I will be able to get access to a good internet connection to report the results, but I hope it will be tomorrow night in Abu Dhabi. If not, it will be Thursday….
It is a running theme of this blog that I hope no one gets bored of hearing. But last night again proved to me the wisdom of pushing oneself to personal limits in order to achieve goals and dreams. Of course, it is quite small, just a day-to-day kind of achievement. But last night after a full day trying to work writing articles after having only two hours sleep over Tuesday night, I had the sudden opportunity to go play in an open mic, open jam in Delhi, and despite my exhaustion, I went. Am I ever glad I did….
Last year I had managed to book a full gig in advance at the TLR bar in Delhi on the Thursday night, and I ended up meeting a musician there who invited me to his open mic the following night at a different venue. This year I made no plans, and the TLR already has some bands lined up, and the other venue no longer exists. So I wrote a message to my friend who invited me to his open mic to ask if he knew of anywhere to play this weekend.
The response came almost immediately, and it was for an open mic at a place called Turquoise Cottage. It turns out that the bar has hosted this open mic for around seven years, and gives it the name “The Rabbit Hole Sessions.” I was exhausted, but the Facebook announcement looked so enticing – open to all musicians “including amateurs” – that I thought I just had to go. It seemed lunatic with the fatigue I was undergoing, especially since the trip over meant taking two metros and an auto-rickshaw.
But I went, and I could see from the moment I arrived that I had made the right decision. As I entered, a huge group of 16 musicians was setting up and doing a sound check, but other musicians stood around with guitars to do solo performances, and I was immediately asked by an organizer if I wanted to play.
Of course I immediately said “yes,” and then I went and ordered the most amazing dish of rice, shrimp, chicken and various spices. My only disappointment was that the place does not serve Indian food, but mostly Indonesian and Malay and other such things. But the food was fabulous.
The sound system was superb, the room was full of posters, guitars on the wall, high ceiling in front of the stage, even an old motorcycle. And it was filled with people of all ages. The massive band was the biggest I have ever seen at an open mic. It was superb, and as it turned out, this was the band’s first public performance.
Based in Delhi, the band calls itself the World Folk Ensemble, and is made up of drummers, guitarist, violin players, vocalists, a bass player, flute players…. As you can hear in their presentation of their first song, their approach is to play folk music from around the world. Last night they did tunes from Sweden, Estonia, France, India and elsewhere. A very impressive debut.
And thank goodness I finished my rice quickly enough to play before them. I’d have been dwarfed by their ensemble had I played just afterwards. But play I did, the reception was great, and I managed to take in most of the evening before leaving around midnight as the jam session opened up into the traditional blues kind of thing, and I got back for a good night’s sleep after all – dropping off like a lead weight and not waking until morning…. It was the sort of experience I’d have been mad to miss, and had I given in to my lazy urges, I would have….