REVIEW: A Night Exploring The Spice Trail

What happens when Sid Sriram, Priya Ragu & Raf-Saperra hit the Sydney Opera House stage?

Raf-Saperra at Spice Trail at Sydney Opera House

Raf-Saperra. Image Source: Mikki Gomez

There’s a party atmosphere in the concert hall of the Opera House, with a majority South Asian audience in attendance. With songs like Urvasi blasting through the speakers as Kerfew Collective’s Munasib and Rakish DJ from the stage, the chatter is loud, with a palpable air of excitement as people enter the hall. This is how it should be, South Asian artists from around the world on what is arguably one of the most famous stages. Sampling of South Indian songs, instruments, and vocals, has been in western music for decades but recently there’s been a push towards bringing it to the forefront of mainstream consciousness. You only need to look at Coachella for evidence of that.  

It’s a mix of music from the two DJs, rotating through a multitude of South Asian languages, and why not. It’s well known that South Asia is not just represented by one language. Our cultural uniqueness is reflected in music as well with every region having its own identifying musical nuances, and that will be showcased tonight by three diverse artists, Priya Ragu, Sid Sriram, and Raf-Saperra. What becomes clear through the night is that the two identities that many second gen South Asians experience has elevated their music.

As the DJs wrap up their pre-show, the band consisting of Japhna Gold, Street Rat and Roberto Carella take to the stage. Silence falls as Gold asks the audience to close their eyes for as long as they can and the first song starts,  taking multiple people back to their childhood. A sample of Thamizha Thamizha,  is played before Priya Ragu enters the stage, and from that point on it’s impossible to keep your eyes closed. The rest of her set isn’t the usual western songs with the obligatory South Asian line here or there, or samples (though there are a few thrown in that are skilfully done). No, she masterfully mixes both Tamil and English into her songs in a way that would leave the song feeling unfulfilled if the mix of languages hadn’t been there. 

Priya Ragu at Spice Trail at Sydney Opera House

Priya Ragu. Image Source: Mikki Gomez

Live performances are always tricky – how much do you change your songs to fit into a live aspect and how do you bring the audience with you, especially in a show as diverse as this where some of the crowd may not be familiar with your work?  But Ragu and her band don’t need to worry. Ragu exudes power on stage and her band has an infectious energy that it is impossible to not get caught up in. With audience interaction in between each song, they soon have the entire theatre on their feet dancing in the aisles. It’s clear they bounce off the energy of the audience as they get stronger and more confident throughout their set, and as the audience starts to stand up and engage.

The only downside is, maybe, they would have been suited more to another stage where the audience is standing and can dance all night right up against the stage. Put them in Glastonbury and they wouldn’t have any issues. After going through their discography, they walk off to rapturous applause that is well deserved. They can hold their own with the best, with their music an eclectic mix showcasing the power of second generation upbringing. 

The second set belongs to arguably the most successful so far of the three main acts, Sid Sriram. A name known throughout South Asia for his work across the “multi-woods” of India, he’s striking out on his own with a new album that he showcased during his spot on Tiny Desk. Unlike Ragu, there’s barely any audience interaction from the artist and looking around there’s no dancing in the concert hall. However, this isn’t the disappointment you have when you attend a show and feel like you could have just sat at home and listened to the album for the same experience. No, the electricity on the stage is intense and knocks you back in your seat, with Sriram showcasing his years of experience in captivating audiences as he re-arranges all the songs to fit just an electric guitar, drums, and alternating saxophone and flute. With such a minimalistic stage, the wall of sound that hits is clear in the multi-layers that each member of the band carefully crafts.

Sid Sriram at Spice Trail at Sydney Opera House

Sid Sriram. Image Source: Mikki Gomez

Like his Tiny Desk appearance, that Draw Your Box reviewed, Sriram expertly brings in his carnatic background throughout each song with gamakas skilfully placed throughout all of his songs. The setlist keeps you enthralled as it rolls between songs such as Do The Dance and Blue Spaces. He and the band also throw in classic crowd favourites in beautiful stripped back re-arrangements such as Adiye, and Neela Kaigiradhu. There’s a respect shown to his carnatic upbringing as he also mixes the start of some songs with carnatic pieces that a carnatic audience would know, such as Rangapura Vihaara, which leads into the soulful rendition of Dear Sahana. Finally with a last nod to his carnatic culture, he heads off the stage. 

The final set of the night is Raf-Saperra, a British Punjabi rapper. The party atmosphere is at its zenith, as people are no longer in their seats and instead crowding the stage, with the audience singing along as Raf-Saperra bounds across the stage for his first time in Australia. Like Ragu, he is an artist who bounces off the audience and despite it being his first time here, he definitely could headline any tour Down Under. While he could obviously get any crowd going, what stands out is his respect for music.

After just two songs, he asks the audience to go back to their seats and to allow him to explore the more traditional side. He sits at the harmonium and is joined by a guitarist and flautist. What comes next is a melody and control that showcases the beauty of traditional Punjabi music, and highlights how it still can be found in more modern interpretations. As he reaches the end of this part of his set, he thanks the audience for allowing him to indulge in this music, but really if anything, it should have been the other way around. Raf-Saperra calls the audience back to their feet and there’s a rush for the stage again and once more the DJ’s beats and Raf-Saperra’s lyrics have everyone moving. 

Raf-Saperra at Spice Trail at Sydney Opera House

Raf-Saperra. Image Source: Mikki Gomez

A showcase that definitely hit the definition of Spice Trail, this show was masterfully curated by DJ Munasib and Astral People. It shows that there’s an appetite for South Asian music in the mainstream of Australia. After decades of South Asian beats, melodies, and lyrics being sampled for western mainstream music, maybe now it’s time for South Asian artists to take over the airwaves, and stages, not just as samples. Vivid Sydney understood this, and next year, they should all be on different nights with full sets, with Australian South Asian artists as the opening.