May 24 2012: Lou Majaw throws a party in Shillong to celebrate Bob Dylan's birthday and his music. And he has been doing it for 40 years now. MINI ANTHIKAD CHHIBBER attends the unique festival which attracted Dylan devotees from all over the world.

The Hurricane and Hattie Carroll, hypnotist collectors and walking antiques, Casanovas and Calypso singers, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (Dylan-Heads will surely recognise the usual suspects from his songs), converge on the pretty hillside capital of Meghalaya, Shillong, every year on May 24 to celebrate Bob Dylan's birthday. To that delightful breed of Dylan virgins, the iconic singer songwriter has been variously described as a troubadour, poet and counter culture icon. Dylan incidentally went on record saying he wanted to bite his arm off on being called the conscience of a generation.

Lou Majaw has been powering the celebrations in Shillong since 1972. This being the 40th year of the celebrations, one assumed it would be huge. There were whispers (as always) that the Man himself would grace the occasion. However, just like Dylan himself, information comes to those who know where to look for it — doesn't work if you are trying to crack “Desolation Row”, but still...

Knowledge evades

The Deep Thought of our times, Google, is strangely coy with details. If you were to put Shillong and Bob Dylan in Google, you will come across mentions of previous celebrations, but nothing for May 24, 2012. “I know!” exclaims Jeff Harding from the Delhi-based band, the Paisleys. “Usually you get your answers in the first three hits, but this time I was going through pages and still couldn't find any information. I finally called Lou — I didn't think he was so accessible and he told me all the plans for the event and here I am!”

Unlike Dylan (remember the tongue lashing the journalist got for asking if the Hard Rain was acid rain?) Lou is a one-stop information kiosk. When I called him after landing in Shillong on a wing and a prayer, he won me over saying, “I cannot give you diamonds or gold, all I can give you is time” as he outlined Knocked Out & Loaded, the three-day celebrations of music, poetry and art.

Lou insists the event is held to make people aware of Dylan as a lyricist. “As more people get to know the magic of his lyrics, I am sure the world will be a better place. I would like May 24 to be observed as Bob Dylan Day.”

Celebrations were kicked off with an evening of friends, food, music and art at Cloud 9, the bustling pub at Hotel Centre Point in the super busy Police Bazaar area. Of the Paisleys only Jeff and Skye could make it this time around. There was also the super-talented Parker Ainsworth from Texas. Backpacking in India after the release of his second EP, “Leave on the Lights” Parker landed in Chennai on March 2 this year. “I was in Rishikesh for a month and a half and wrote six new songs. I knew it was time to move. I got in touch with Jeff (I know his nephew) who told me about this festival and here I am. The experience has been amazing. Lou is so gracious and I feel people get it, you know musically. People feel music here. It is refreshing.”

While Parker admits that celebrating an American artist separated by time and space takes some getting used to, he says: “More than international, Dylan is universal. And 40 years! Congratulations to anything that lasts 40 years — it is a testament to how passionate Lou is about Dylan.”

Parker, who is also a fan of Canadian singer and songwriter Len Cohen, says “Dylan set the stage for the career path I have chosen. What is amazing about Dylan's songwriting is, he can write something as obscure and layered as ‘Desolation Row' and also write these very accessible pop tunes like ‘I want you'. It is always Dylan's voice but the variations are incredible.”

Apart from his original compositions, Parker performed “Don't Think twice” and “All I really want to do.”

“I like ‘Don't Think Twice' as it shows how to walk away from a relationship. The line ‘you just kind of wasted my precious time' says it all. And with ‘All I really want to do…' you get to see the playful side of Dylan.”

Jasper Dawson, a Hyderabad-based architect, has been coming for the celebrations for the past three years. “In 2010 there was a concert at the roundabout in Police Bazaar. Last year it was at Polo Grounds. This year it is bigger.” Jasper was introduced to Dylan in college. “I sing and play Dylan songs.” Jasper went ahead and did just that, complete with a guitar fitted with a harp in true Dylan style.

Lew Hilt, bassist for the rock band Shiva in the 1970s and 80s provided amazing bass runs as Lou Majaw belted out Dylan covers. From the surreal “She Belongs to Me” to the seemingly simple “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35”, Lou performed with manic energy looking quite the dancing dervish with his flashing eyes and floating hair, multi-coloured socks, shorts and sneakers. The evening ended fittingly with “Forever Young”.

Settling down at the bar, Lew said: “I have been coming here since the 1980s. You know, even though Dylan's guitar and harp are out of tune, his lyrics are sheer poetry. It is as good as T.S. Eliot. And thanks to Lou, awareness has been created about Dylan's work.”

In a room to the left of the stage, around 15 people from the Riti Academy of Visual Arts were furiously painting their interpretation of the balladeer.

Day 2 of the celebrations, at Café Shillong, was dedicated to poetry and song. The café is symbolic of Shillong's twin obsessions of football and music with a guitar signed by the Scorpions on one wall and a football jersey on the other. Ben, a student from Pondicherry, spoke of existential questions with “I am the dust I walk upon.” Artist and filmmaker Raphael spoke of Shillong, while Raymond sang “Every Grain of Sand”. Technology made its inroads with poetry no longer being written on little bits of paper. Quite a few of the poets read out their works from their phones! Desmond Kharmawphlang, Head of Department, Cultural and Creative Studies, NEHU, Shillong read from his poem “Along the Oregon Trail” where surrealism ruled with ATM machines being compared to steel totems spouting cash, while Sonny L. Khyriem distributed a print version of his ode to Dylan.

Parker did what he called freestyling where he asked the audience to come up with three words which he then wove into an instant song. He had the audience in the palm of his hand with his singalong of “sun loves moon, moon loves sun.”

Skye, who is originally from Wyoming and teaches music at the embassy school in Delhi, and Jeff, who is from Washington, heard of the festival “some time ago.” Jeff added, “The celebration is very moving. In 1972, Lou could've picked any other singer to celebrate, but he picked Dylan. And that is because Dylan is timeless and always relevant.”

“Lou is an old friend of mine,” says William Diengdoh, one of the Directors of Imagenation, the event management company that, along with Centre Point Entertainment Network, organised the event. “We took over last year. We like to do properties that are dear to us.”

Open to everyone

“Everyone is invited, all musicians come of their own free will,” added Ian Khongmen, station head at Red FM and also Director of Imagenation. “We would like to build on the brands of Shillong, Bob Dylan and Lou Majaw. You need to have a party to celebrate!”

The party looked set for a wet start as the rain came bucketing down. The sun kindly came out and cut swathes of gold over Lake Umiam at Orchid Lake where the final concert was held. Uday Benegal of Indus Creed and Whirling Kalapas, who were headlining the show, swapped tattoo stories with Lew. “I first enjoyed other artistes versions of Dylan's songs — Hendrix' ‘All Along the Watchtower' and GnR's ‘Knocking on Heaven's Door',” Uday said. “It is only in the past few years, I guess, as I grew older that I reacted to the lyrics. It is a sign of great songwriting that it is relevant in a current contemporary context.”

Shillong, Uday said “loves music. It is a beautiful place and there is so much music in the air. Everyone plays the guitar and makes music. It is not an easy place to be a musician, given the paucity of studios but the fact that so much great music comes out of here is a tribute to the people's love, appreciation and understanding of music.” Guitarist Mahesh Tinaikar echoed Uday when he said “Dylan is more lyrical than musical.”

And while there is this element of being caught in a time warp — as Parker commented “I haven't heard so much Dylan since I was in school!”— Jeff says “it is not a question of putting Dylan in a museum or imprisoning him in time. This event is just a reflection of the kind of person Lou is.”

And when the soaring powerful vocals by the lead singer of the exciting band from Mizoram, Evenflo, effortlessly encompassed “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” you know for sure that true, goose-bump inducing art can never be restricted to a country or time. As Lou would say, here is to health, happiness and rock n roll!

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012