As announced in these columns recently, Nadopasana, a Muscat (Oman) based voluntary organization devoted to Indian classical music, staged a double concert on Saturday, the 25th March 2017. It featured two young and promising stars of the Carnatic genre. The morning session was a vocal concert by Nandini Neelakantan, while the evening session featured the vocal recital of Vignesh Ishwar.
M S Ananthakrishnan accompanied both artistes on the violin. All three artistes flew in from India, while the percussion accompaniment was provided by local artistes. The ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) very generously sponsored the travel of the visiting artistes. The whole thing was made possible by the encouragement and enthusiasm of HE Mr. Indra Mani Pandey, the Ambassador of India to Oman.
Both Nandini and Vignesh are in their twenties. At the end of their concerts, I felt in the depths of my heart that Carnatic Music as a cultural treasure and tradition was safe for the next many centuries, if these two youngsters were to be seen as yardsticks. This was not a parade of memorized kritis and swaraprastharams, not a mere show of virtuosity and voice range, but a true reflection of commitment to an art form born out of choice, even of passion for the music. Both of them revealed an understanding of the nuances of music which belied their age.
GN Balasubramaniam, who is considered by most authorities as a watershed phenomenon in the world of Carnatic music, was 18 when he gave his first concert on stage. These youngsters are not much older, and yet were able to hold the audience at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, spellbound throughout their concert – be it heavy kritis or thukkadas. A scintillating Kalyani by Nandini, and a superlative Todi by Vignesh spoke the same message – a complete understanding of the raga Lakshana, and a manodharma in doing niraval and swarams that was nothing short of awesome.
Even in the selection of items for the evening, as well, both showed a maturity that was way beyond what many of us “senior” rasikas expected from such youngsters (see below for details). The pieces chosen were not populist keertanas aimed at pleasing the masses. Yet, impress they did: Nandini’s Theerada Vilayattu Pillai, the ultimate expression of a father’s love for his daughter written by Bharathiyar, the Tamil Maha Kavi, left many in the audience with a lump in their throats, such was her bhava.
The Bageshri piece Sagara sayana vibho would have had its composer, the legendary MD Ramanathan, clucking away contentedly from his divine abode for sure. Between her and Ananthakrishnan, they showed their mastery of the Sruti Bedham technique, by transcending briefly from Kalyani to Suddha Dahnayasi during the alapana – not an easy feat by any standards. Nandagopal, elder brother of Nandini and her first source of inspiration and introduction to music, was in his usual brilliant elements, something that the Muscat audience have come to expect of him. The applause after his thani laid to rest any questions about who was the darling of the local crowd!
Vignesh, for his part, made full use of his voice, showing flashes of brigas at breakneck speed, without in any way compromising melodic content. He also demonstrated his depth of understanding of the maestros. His concert was laced liberally with anecdotes about the composers and the great masters who had popularized the kritis he sang. He demonstrated how Madurai Mani Iyer or GNB would have handled the swaras for the ever-so-pleasing Kapi Narayani (sarasa sama dana) – after himself giving an excellent account of kalpana swaras. It prompted this reviewer to sit and listen to the kriti sung by various artistes after returning home, and realize how little I had observed of them in all these years! His humility in underscoring the contributions of the great stalwarts in Carnatic music reflected how and where he viewed himself in the broad sense of the Carnatic tradition – a sterling quality which he would do very well to nurture and adhere to. Vignesh’s elaborate Todi (Koluvamaragade by Sri Thyagaraja) was followed by a short tani by Srinivasan. Srinivasan’s style a mellow, soft and suave one rendered an able support through the concert.
Both Nandini and Vignesh exhibited another quality which is often overlooked as a success factor – the art of team work. Both of them ensured their accompanists were always in the limelight, by repeatedly showing appreciation for their efforts.
Not that Ananthakrishnan would have gone unnoticed otherwise. With his astute anticipation of the vocalist’s moves, and the ability to explore the higher octaves with the single finger technique, he showed how he has established himself as the scion of the Parur family of violinists. That he seamlessly shifted pitch from accompanying a female to a male voice within the space of a few hours, spoke volumes about his oneness with his instrument. Of especial note were his repartees to Nandini’s Jayanthasri (Marukelara) and Vignesh’s Poorvikalyani (Deva deva jagadeeswara).
Summing up the two concerts of the day, everyone agreed that this trend of multiple concerts could well see Muscat transforming itself into a Cleveland or a second Chennai – something that would be very welcome to the growing Carnatic music fan following in Oman! Nadopasana, an abecedarian just the other day, is indeed making great strides in its very first year.
Morning Concert: MJ Nandini (Vocal) – MS Ananthakrishnan (Violin) – N Nandagopal (Mridangam)
Some years back, I wrote an article titled “What makes for an interesting concert?” Although it was part of a concert review, I was doing some introspection while trying to find a solution to that question. I should have waited. Prince Rama Varma’s concert at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, on 25th February, under the auspices of Nadopasana, provided the answer unambiguously. I came away immensely satisfied, and can now understand not only what makes a concert interesting, but also what gives a sense of fulfillment to the discerning rasika. And this, despite the concert not having an RTP. A remarkable feat indeed.
The success of a concert, I realized, lies in the ability of the main artist to communicate with the audience, and not just by a show of his repertoire or virtuosity. Rama Varma and his team were sitting on the stage. But for the audience, they may as well have been sitting in their midst, talking, making eye contact, and wholesomely reaching out, to almost everyone in the audience of over 400 people.
The proof was there for all to see. No one, not a single child, moved during the entire concert, no phones rang, and extra chairs were pulled to accommodate curious entrants to the temple hall who were drawn into Varma’s enchanting web of music mixed with conversation. He introduced every kriti with an anecdote that took you an immense step closer to the creative instinct of the composer. He has a sense of spontaneous, inoffensive humor which he uses liberally in all his concerts. He can play on words like few others in his field. (for example, he urged people to Google the meaning of various keertanas, gently reminding those present that they were not missing out by skipping a Tamil play (based on Google) that was going on at a nearby venue). I think that by the time he was done, he had aroused the interest of many students and rasikas into exploring the world of composers, sahithyas and meanings of the thousands of wonderful kritis now extant.
Not for nothing is he well known for bringing rare kritis to the concert platform, in keeping with similar work done by his esteemed guru, Sri Balamurali Krishna. How many would have heard Mali’s immortal “magudi” piece in oral form? We were the lucky few last Saturday.
Rama Varma had accepted a request from the local organizers and came to the city nearly four days prior to the concert. He gave of his fullest during this time: three elaborate classes for aspiring musicians of the city (age range 7 to 71!). He indulged a mixed audience to a lecture demonstration on Indian classical music and its position viz. other forms of world music. The lec-dem was at the Indian Embassy, Muscat, and the brain child of the ambassador of India.
The students he taught had been forewarned that they may be asked to sing along at the end of the main concert, but he still managed to make it all exciting: He announced to the audience that he had “discovered” a few people knew some of the songs he liked to sing, so would they please join him from wherever they were sitting? It was a kind of a musical Flash-Mob, if you like, and one that endeared him to every single person in the hall – his students and their parents (or children!) beaming with pride, the unknowing amongst the audience pleasantly surprised, and the whole hall reverberating to an orchestra of classical Carnatic music in its purest form!
When it was all over, as all concerts must, there was a deep sense of longing in the hearts of all rasikas, lay and connoisseur alike. It was reflected by the most asked question when people queued up to meet him and his team – when do we see you again?
I will break from the standard pattern of listing and elaborating on the nuances of each kriti he sang, for two good reasons: I have dwelled long enough on other aspects of this memorable concert. More importantly, Varma generously allows all of his concerts to be uploaded to YouTube, and it would be presumptuous of me to explain what was good and what was excellent – everyone is welcome to their own opinion. I notice that already some noble soul has uploaded the flash-mob bits at youtube.com. I must hasten to add though that the success of this master craftsman’s concert was to a large extent because of his longtime associates – Sri SR Vinu on the violin and Dr G Babu on the mridangam, both “musicians who are magicians” in their own right.
The Krakow appearance of the Arturo Sandoval Sextet at Centrum Kijów kicked off spring, which, thanks to Letni Festiwal Jazzowy Piwnicy pod Baranami (http://www.cracjazz.com/pl/) [Cellar under the Rams Summer Jazz Festival], arrived unusually early this year. Cuban and afro rhythms warmed us and infected us with dance fever throughout the two-hour performance.
Arturo Sandoval had such a great time onstage with music and rhythm that it would have been a shame for us to enjoy ourselves any less.
The performance also featured several jazz ballads, performed solo by Sandoval, on the piano; reminiscences of Dizzy Gillespie, a great friend and mentor of Sandoval’s who died in 1993.; a short but comical and substantial lecture, “What is bebop?”; and Sandoval’s excellent sense of humor. Thus no element of jazz was lacking.
Sandoval also returned to his classic repertoire, from which he had departed on Eternamente Manzanero, his latest album, recorded with Jorge Calandrelli, which was dominated by romantic ballads and even pop sounds.
Anyone wishing to be reminded of the mood of the Krakow concert would be well advised to dig To a Finland Station (1982) out of his or her vinyl collection.
In Krakow starring:
John Belzaguy – bass
Tiki Pasillas – percussion
Dave Siegel – keyboard
Johny Friday – drums
Kemuel Roig – piano
“Yiddish culture as it existed in Eastern Europe can never be revived as it was. Luckily, enough of the culture has been preserved in books, on recordings and by older mentors to have allowed us to pick up the thread and be a part of our tradition, even if it has evolved into something new and different.” – Lorin Sklamberg
On September 4, at an outdoor performance at Grzybowski Square in Warsaw, the Klezmatics celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. The fruits of the group’s activity include eleven discs (released from 1989 to 2011), and, among other awards, a Grammy in the category of World Music. The crowd was large, the artists gave us a demonstration of the best music, and the weather was surprising. The concert took place as part of the 13th Singer’s Warsaw Festival.
The Klezmatics gave a concert which can be summarized briefly as an expression of joyful thanksgiving: they captivated the audience, bewitching it with their singing, passion, and sound. The show will remain in our memory as a souvenir of holiday colors and sounds.
In the Klezmatics’ music, old Yiddish melodies come back to life, mingled with the sounds of contemporary musical genres such as rock, jazz, gospel and ethno/folk. In this music, the hybrid of styles and genres serves to affirm that Yiddish music is still part of living tradition and culture. The artists do not skimp on delighting our senses, reaching on stage for more than a dozen different instruments, both traditional and modern, and singing in several languages.
Today, the Klezmatics are already Jewish music classics. They create important arrangements and interpretations of traditional Yiddish songs, changing today’s view of the Jewish and klezmer culture of Eastern Europe. Thus, in a strange way, this music connects longing and nostalgia with a passion for life, love, and joy.
For this work, thanks and great appreciation are due to Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals), Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals), Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals), and Richie Barshay (percussion instruments).
Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium is a cool and welcome relief from the 85F heat of Manhattan. The room is crowded with more than a hundred people waiting for the Mehmet Polat Trio to take the stage. It is a packed house with a line out the door of 30 people waiting to get in, a turn-away crowd. Their performance is part of a weekly free concert series coordinated by Lincoln Center that runs year long.
The trio has an oud player Mehmet Polat, a ngoni player Victor Sams, and a ney player Pelin Başar. They are here at the outset of an almost month long tour across America. Mehmet introduces himself and the trio, he invites the audience to listen, “I am looking for a musical connection from heart to heart. I invite you to open your heart and let the music come through you.”
The performance starts with Polat’s gentle and languorous solo on the oud – a pear-shaped wooden instrument with strings that sounds like a lute. Mehmet is from Turkey, his family are from an Alevi Sufi musical tradition. But he has studied various musical styles, including traditional African, Indian, Persian music, and modern jazz. His sound is spare, folk-like, meditative. There are no electronic keyboards here or drum fills.
A silence opens up in the audience. People are rapt in attention, entranced. Mehmet seated center is joined in play by the ney player. The ney is a long and ancient flute. The ngoni, a long-stringed instrument, joins in. And the flute melody weaves in an out the accompanying strings of the other two instruments. There is a grace about this trio, nothing is rushed, time slows down. The audience is invited to relax and to contemplate.
The ngoni player initiates the second song, using his fingers in staccato taps at the base of his instrument. Victor Sams has a beautiful smile that radiates out to the audience. There is a happiness and versatility in his playing: the ngoni is magically transformed into a drum, then back to a stringed instrument, then again to a drum.
The ngoni and oud begin a conversation, shadowing each other’s sound. The two performers nod to each other as they sit side by side. The notes move round and round one another in call and response. One leads with a few notes and the other answers with a few more. Indeed, Mehmet has confirmed that this dialogue is vital for him, “The conversation is intended. I am interested in creating connections between different cultures and continents. I want to explore the common language, but also to look at how two different musical languages may correlate or vibrate together.”
The music is not afraid to breathe, to pause, and to create space in this large atrium. This sense of spaciousness is perhaps one of the trio’s greatest strengths. As the performance continues, Mehmet begins to sing. With his eyes closed, you sense his earnestness, his sincerity. He is humble, yet assured in his musicianship. The song includes some words of Fuzuli, who was a Sufi poet from Azerbaijan. The ney shadows the vocal notes. There is a cyclical sense to the melody, reminiscent of an Indian raga. The audience is pulled in, caught up in the compelling, lulling sound. The audience is transported on a journey of wonder and longing.
The annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) is now in its 19th edition, and featured 25 bands from around the planet. The venue is the lush equatorial rainforest of the Sarawak Cultural Village – located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea.
The 2016 lineup featured 17 international and 8 Malaysian groups. The overseas bands included Auli (Latvia), Broukar (Syria), Derek Gripper (South Africa), Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), Dya Singh (Australia/Malaysia), Krar Collective (Ethiopia), Lan Dieu Viet (Vietnam), Naygayiw Gigi (Australia), Nukariik (Canada), Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana), Shanren (China), Stelios Petrakis Quartet (Greece), Chouk Bwa Libete (Haiti), Teada (Ireland), Vassvik (Norway), Violons Barbares (Bulgaria, Mongolia, France), and Vocal Sampling (Cuba). The Malaysian lineup consisted of Alena Murang, Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, Mathew Ngau, Sape’ Sarawak, The Thunder Beats Of Nanyang Wushu Drums, Unique Arts Academy, and 1Drum.
Before the Festival, some of the bands held preview concerts in local pubs, cafes and the Kuching Festival Food Fair. One of the previews was rained out due to a torrential downpour, but I caught the next superb performance by percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu from Indonesia. They are influenced by the ‘percusi dol’ ritualistic traditions of Sumatra, celebrating acts of heroism.
The musicians carried the thunderous ‘gendang dol’ drums with them as they danced around the stage, occasionally even lying down on their backs while playing them. They alternately formed circles and rows, sometimes even playing on their neighbors’ drums.
The media meet was followed by an afternoon of indoor workshops and performances, starting off with Vietnam and Malaysia. The five members of Lan Dieu Viet are all music teachers at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Trương Thị Thu Hà played a dazzling solo on the beautiful trung (bamboo xylophone), and Cồ Huy Hùng (moon lute) and Nguyễn Hoàng Anh (bamboo flute) also stood out in the folk performances.
They were followed by Alena Murang on sape and vocals, performing traditional music of Sarawak in the language of the Kenyah and Kelabit people from Ulu Baram. Murang is one of the few young women to openly perform and teach the sape, an instrument from Borneo that used to be a taboo for women to even touch. She learnt from masters such as Mathew Ngau, and has played overseas and gives talks and lectures on the sape.
Each evening, a drum circle was facilitated by Malaysia’s 1Drum (their slogan is ‘Drum, Cause You Can!’). The outdoor acts at night were held on two adjacent stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies to bless the festival were conducted by local cultural groups and musicians.
Sape’ Sarawak is a band drawn from the various Sarawak ethnic groups such as Orang Ulu, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Malay, Chinese and other communities. The 17 players presented age-old tales of ancient warriors and supernatural princesses.
Naygayiw Gigi then wowed the audience with an astonishing array of costumers and ritual dances. The troupe, whose name means ‘Northern Thunder,’ hail from Bamaga, the northernmost town in Queensland, Australia. They played the music of seven clans from the Torres Strait, in the form of stories about celebration as well as defense from other attacking clans.
The focus shifted back to Asia with the Unique Arts Academy, performing music and dance of the South Indian communities in Malaysia. Folk drums such as thappu, kottu, chimta, and ganjira filled the stage, along with harmonium and bass guitar. The group has performed at the International Folklore Festival and World Harvest Festival.
Acclaimed Irish folk band Teada then took the stage; ace fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada regaled the audience with his humor along with his fellow musicians on percussion and guitar. “Ireland is so nice a place that all our neighbors invaded us,” they joked. They dedicated a song to the freedom-fighters of Ireland.
Their high energy set also featured some enthusiastic step-dancing by keyboardist Samantha Harvey, and the audience clapped loudly in appreciation. “Thanks, but your kindness will be forgotten,” the band joked again. Over the past 15 years, Teada has also performed at the Edmonton Folk Festival in Canada and Harare International Festival of the Arts.
The energy picked up several notches with a thunderous performance by Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), who had also played a shorter set at the previous day’s preview showcase. The first African band of the festival then took the stage: Krar Collective from Ethiopia. The set had elements of electro-folk and rock, with the talented Temesgen Zelekeis on electric krar, Grum Begashaw on drums, and Genet Assefa on vocals and dance.
Assefa changed costumes six times during the set! and the audience had a tough time trying to imitate her ‘shoulder dislocating’ dance moves! The band has also collaborated with Baaba Maal and Rokia Traore, and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
The night came to a climax with the high-energy bagpipe and drum music group Auļi from Latvia. The band revives Latvia’s earlier bagpipe traditions, and added a terrific percussive layer with some of the biggest ‘tree trunk drums’ in the Baltics. They played danceable tracks from some of their earlier albums, which include the aptly named ‘Etnotranss.’
The indoor performances on Day Two were kicked off by Sikh hymn singer Dya Singh, who grew up in Malaysia and is now based in Australia. He has released over 25 CDs, and has performed at dozens of festivals including WOMADelaide, Vancouver Folk Festival, and California World Music Festival. His uplifting spiritual incantations actively involved the audience as well; he was accompanied by Dheeraj Shrestha (tabla) as well as his own daughter Gimel.
The second indoor performance featured solo acoustic guitarist Derek Gripper from South Africa, who has nine albums to his credit. He interpreted a number of kora compositions on his guitar, for which he had earlier received acclaim from classical guitar legend John Williams and kora maestro Toumani Diabate. The audience showed their appreciation by lining up immediately after his performance to buy his CDs and get his autograph.
An hour of torrential rain got the night performances off to a delayed start, but the show went on; after all, what’s the rainforest festival without some rain? The performances began with Mathew Ngau, master sape player and story teller, who also makes his own range of sape instruments and teaches the young Sarawak generation about their traditions.
The next band was Stelios Petrakis Quartet, performing the lively music of Crete from Greece. Petrakis also makes his own instruments such as the lira and laouto, and the pride and respect he had for his traditions shone through in his performance. The accompanying dances also drew loud applause from the audience.
Naygayiw Gigi from Australia treated the audience to some more brilliant costumes and dances; they were followed by Band Girl LKNS from the Sabah state of Malaysia, who showcased a wide range of traditional local gongs.
One of the most unusual bands at RWMF was Vocal Sampling, a male a capella sextet from Cuba, with a lineup that included Rene Baños Pascual, Pedro Bernard Coto, and Reinaldo Sanler Maseda. If you closed your eyes, you could almost visualize a real Latin band playing with congas, bass, trumpet, trombone and guitar! They have performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bobby McFerrin, Ray Barreto, Celia Cruz, Chick Corea and Gal Costa.
The group has played at Couleur Café, WOMAD, Festival de Jazz de Nice, Jazz Festival Istanbul, and World Music Festival Sukiyaki. Their rendition of the rock classic ‘Hotel California’ drew loud applause as well at RWMF.
Another range of instruments then featured on the next stage, with Shanren from China playing high-energy folk-rock music from the Yunnan region. Reggae was also blended into the set as the quartet showcased instruments such as xianzi, qinqin and dabiya (four-stringed plucked instruments) as well as xianggu and sun drum (percussion). They have performed at Barcelona Festival Asia, Canadian Music Week, Midem in Cannes, Turtle Island Festival and Liverpool Sound City.
The perfect closing act for the Saturday night performances was Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band from Ghana. Called the ‘Golden Voice of Africa,’ Pat Thomas filled the stage with a phenomenal range of musicians including multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah (guitar, keyboards) and saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff. The set blended Ghanaian highlife, afro-beat, afro-pop and even disco – spanning four decades of genres and fusion. The aptly-named ‘I Need More’ was the encore.
The indoor performances on Day Three featured some outstanding throat singing from Norway and Canada. Torgeir Vassvik and his trio kicked off the first performance; Vassvik is an artist from Sápmi’s northernmost tip, Gamvik in Norway. The Sami joik and resonant throat singing reflect the diverse textures and climates of the Arctic zone.
The second Northern band on stage was Nukariik from Canada. The duo consists of sisters Kathy and Karin Kettler. Their Inuit throat singing and breathing styles, performed while facing each other, were inspired by the birds, animals and seasons of their region; a backdrop of photographs provided stunning visuals as well. “The mosquitoes in the Arctic are much bigger than the Malaysian ones,” Kathy joked.
The sisters explained how the alternating scales and close sequencing of tunes lead to complex yet entertaining melodies. They have performed at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, and are on the Inuit Throat Singer’s Committee.
The night performances on the last day were kicked off by the youthful band Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, from Sarawak in Malaysia. It included 12 drums representing the 12 months of a year, which are performed for prosperity, fortune and abundance.
The eagerly-anticipated Syrian band Broukar took the stage next (I was fortunate to also catch their performance earlier in July at the Forde Festival in Norway; see my writeup here). They were founded in 2007 in Damascus by Taoufik Mirkhan (kanun), and the musician lineup now includes his sister Hadil Mirkhan (oud) and Modar Salameh (percussion).
“The kanun has 78 strings, which means 78 minutes of tuning,” joked Taoufik Mirkhan, during one of their earlier afternoon workshops. “We also teach this music to our younger generation so they can keep the culture alive – and hopefully one day perform at festivals like this,” he said, referring to the sad plight of Syrian refugees.
The highlight of their performance was three sets of whirling dervish dance by Ahmad Alkhatib – twice in traditional white Sufi costume and finally in a breathtaking black-and-white dress.
Another high-energy trio then took the stage: Violons Barbares, with members from three countries: Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal (or Epi, from Mongolia), Dimitar Gougov (Bulgaria) and Fabien Guyot (France). Epi blew the audience away with his deep throat singing and sense of humour, and sizzling work on the morin khoor. The Malaysian expression for ‘thank you’ (terima kasi) spoken in his super-deep voice drew delighted whoops from the audience.
Dimitar Gougov played haunting tunes on the gadulka, and Fabien Guyot was simply magnificent on percussion. The trio played a range of love songs and high-energy tracks (including the Afghan ‘Caravan’), and pushed the frontiers of tradition and cross-boundary fusion.
Gears shifted to the largely percussion band Chouk Bwa Libète, a traditional Haitian Mizik Rasin (roots music) band. The voodoo music featured an astonishingly intricate yet highly danceable array of rhythms and chants, with multiple fades and crescendos. The energy was so infectious that lead vocalist Jean Claude Sambaton Dorvil even seemed to be possessed with a spirit for some time, adding a layer of drama to the performance.
Drummers Lakous Badjo, Souvenance and Soukri showed unbelievable energy and variation as they alternated between their instruments. The audience joined in a chorus of ‘Amun Aye’ for the last track, and a rousing conch tone wrapped up the set.
The place slowed down a bit with the traditional joget (Malaysian dance) by the group Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, and picked up once again with Latvian bagpipe-drum band Auli (who had also finished up Day One’s performances).
All the bands from the three days of the festival came together on stage for the grand finale, and the audience cheered them on loudly as they took their final bow. The black-and-white twirling cape of Broukar’s dervish dancer Ahmad Alkhatib soaring above the rest of the musicians was a memorable sight. The festivities carried on with a poolside jam at the musicians’ hotel, with samples of Greek, Arabic and Canadian indigenous music!
I picked up a stack of CDs from the bands over the three days of the festival, which should keep me busy with reviews for the next couple of weeks. We already look forward to the next Rainforest World Music Festival in 2017, which promises to be extra special since it will be the 20th edition!
The first Jewish Culture Festival was held in Poland in 1988, at which time its main goal was to emphasize the very important role of Jews in the creation of the Polish state, cultural identity, and society. After 28 years, the Festival has become Krakow’s best-known cultural event, as well as one of the most important festivals of contemporary Jewish culture in the world.
Every year, nearly thirty thousand people take part in this event; the ten-day duration of the Festival marks the presence in Krakow’s Kazimierz neighborhood of artists, filmmakers, and musicians from around the world.
The themes of the 26th JCF were the Diaspora and the Sabbath, as symbols of historical and contemporary Jewish identity. The implementation of each edition of the Jewish Culture Festival is supervised by the Festival Office, operating under the auspices of the Association of the Jewish Culture Festival (cf. http://www.jewishfestival.pl/pl/).
The Jewish Culture Festival has become a permanent and very important part of Krakow’s cultural life, in addition to its significant contribution to the spread of knowledge about Jewish culture and tradition, not only in Poland but internationally. The organizers devote particular attention to the cultural significance of music; this is strongly supported by the Jewish religious tradition, in which oral transmission is particularly important. But Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival also represents a bold transcendence of the boundaries of tradition, codes, and signs, which, expressed in the language of music, equates to “world music.”
Today, not only in Poland but also throughout Europe, very important voices are being raised on the topic of the cultural integration of multiple, often historically conflicting, religious circles. In terms of politics and, especially, economics, this problem, far from disappearing, is actually (as shown by the events currently taking place in Europe) growing. However, World Music shows another side of cultural dialogue, one referring to spontaneous cognitive and artistic desires. This is shown and proven not only by the numerous festival concerts, but also by academic lectures such as “The Musical Meeting of Judaism and Islam” by Prof. Edwin Seroussi of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. More on this topic, on the example of the musicians of the 26th Jewish Culture Festival, is presented below.
In 2016, Krakow hosted musicians from around the world, with a significant portion coming from Israel but as well from the United States, Hungary, Germany, Russia, and Turkey.
The first day of the Festival opened with an evening session in the rhythm of mizrahi, a genre that combines Arabic, European and African music. Khen Elmaleh and David Pearl, creators of the best mizrahi events in Tel Aviv today, played their sets. The second day of the Festival featured an international evening concert of cantors, “By the Rivers of Babylon …,” with the participation of cantor Benzion Miller, one of the most famous Jewish cantors in the world (from the synagogue of the Jewish Center in Hillside, New York, and from 1981 Temple Beth El, Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York, USA), who, in Poland with Alberto Mizrahi and the Ben Baruch Choir, inaugurated the 8th Jewish Culture Festival in 1998 in the courtyard of Collegium Maius of Jagiellonian University.
Also taking part in this year’s concert was the world-famous lyric tenor cantor Yaakov Lemmer, followed by Avraham Kirshenbaum, lyric tenor and hazzan of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, one of the most outstanding heirs of the legacy of the Levites. This concert was marked as well by the participation of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir, one of the best choirs performing liturgical music; of the composer Maestro Eli Jaffe, a member of the Royal Academy of Music in London and honorary conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra; and of pianist Menachem Bristowski. A Polish accent was provided by the participation in the concert of Krakow’s city orchestra, Sinfonietta Cracovia (PL).
The third day of the Festival featured an encounter with Jewish music from Austria-Hungary: Glass House Orchestra is the latest project by Frank London, undertaken on the initiative of the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Center in New York. The group, comprising eight respected musicians from different countries, adopts elements of the extremely complex Jewish musical tradition. The result is – as ensured by the organizers of the Festival – truly cosmic.
Also worthy of our attention are The Brothers Nazaroff. As the Festival organizers write on the event’s website: “In the mid-twentieth century, Yiddish music in America was played mainly in the form of lullabies, elegies and Americanized folk songs. It was OK, but a little boring. In 1954 Nathan ‘Prince’ Nazaroff appeared with the album Jewish Freilach Songs (Freilach means happy in Yiddish) which was boisterous and joyful.”
By the end of the 26th Festival of Jewish Culture, numerous chamber, club, traditional music, and outdoor concerts had been held. The festival closed with a concert by Totemo, an Israeli music producer and singer. Her music is a combination of futuristic beats and precise sounds, enriched with melancholy lyrics, in a downtempo rhythm.
Given the scope of our review, we are unable to mention all of the artists participating in this Krakow festival of World Music, so we encourage you to take a look at the following websites:
Established in 1990, the four-day festival has always had an anchor theme, such as aboriginal music, regional showcases or gypsy music. The theme this year was ‘Flight,’ reflecting not just the tragedies of the refugee crisis but also the creative traditions of many of the affected communities.
At the stunning mountain-top Floyen Restaurant in Bergen, Norwegian musicians Gro Marie Svidal and Irene Tillung performed a melodic set of Hardanger fiddle and accordion music. They shared stories of the folk songs dedicated to local traditions and even neighboring mountains. The dinner conversation after the performance revolved around various topics like music championships, folk traditions in Jolster, and the rise of the micro-brewery and craft beer movement in Norway!
A visit to nearby village Hyllestad revealed a museum preserving the ancient millstone manufacturing tradition of the region. We also visited the charming hillside Amot resort, dedicated to boutique performances of folk and opera.
Other site visits took us to the campus of United World College and its humanistic view of education, as well as the home of legendary Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup. The home and museum were located right next to a stunning fjord, which was the source of inspiration for many of Astrup’s works.
The opening ceremony of the Festival set the stage for the next four days of programming: a dedication to the human rights and cultural traditions of refugees. Human rights lawyer Lavleen Kaur spoke evocatively of the plight of displaced refugees, drawing on examples such as the India-Pakistan partition of 1947.
Singers from Sri Lanka, Norway and Ethiopia performed together in a chorus, and brief vignettes featured bands from Eritrea, Syria, Colombia and Hungary (more on them later in this article). Swift stage changes, flawless acoustics, and colourful digital art marked the slick transitions between bands.
Singer-songwriter Faytinga delivered a haunting set of music from Eritrea, reflecting her years in the East African country’s liberation struggle since she was 14 years of age. Faytinga is from the Kunama ethnic group. She also plays the krar, a small lyre, and has released the album Numey. The band members included Khalid Kouhen (percussion, including ghatam), Federico Umberto (krar, bass) and Jonas Knutsson (saxophone).
The night performances shifted to the charming Jolster Museum, a collection of home cabins on a hillside, the perfect setting for intimate acoustic performances. Featured artistes included Varttina Trio (Finland), Gunnar Stubseid and Ale Moller (Norway/Sweden), Radik Tyulyush (Tuva), Viguela (Spain) and the Talent Project showcases from Norway, Kenya and Malawi.
The dancers from Kenya and Malawi showcased traditional percussion instruments and farmland songs. Viguela played the joyous dance music of the Castilla-La Mancha region, led by Helena Pérez on vocals and Juan Antonio Torres on guitar.
Music from Asia was showcased by Indonesian gamelan ensemble Samba Sunda. Vocalist Nani Sukmawati and dancer Uum Sumiati were accompanied by instrumentalists from Bandung.
One of the most creative performances was titled Arctic Ice Music, featuring ice instrumentalist and percussionist Terje Isungset from Norway. In a unique collaboration with indigenous vocalists from Canada and Russia as well as Norwegian singer Maria Skranes, Terje played a range of instruments made from ice – including a horn, marimba and a percussion table with ice crystals. This was also a call to harmony with nature and awareness about global warming – hopefully we will never see the day when the ice caps disappear.
Pioneering group Nishtiman (‘homeland’) showcased the music, language and culture of the Kurdish people, with a mix of haunting Sufi melodies and rousing dance tunes which drew the audience to their feet. The Kurdish people are spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and the instruments and performances reflected this diversity, thanks to Hussein Zahawy (daf, darbuka), Sohrab Pouznazeri (vocals, kamanche, tanbur), Sara Eghlimi (vocals), Robin Vassy (percussion), Goran Kamil (ud) and Ertan Tekin (zorna, balaban, duduk).
Mor Karbasi played music in the Sephardic-Jewish tradition from Spain, and sang in the Ladino language. Her family roots are in Morocco and Iran as well, and the high-energy set of music and dance blended flamenco, fado and Arab rhythms.
The evening ended with superb live performances by gypsy brass band Malhala Rai Banda from Romania and Romengo from Hungary. Alcohol flowed copiously from the hotel bar (even at stiff Norwegian prices), and the bands engaged the audience in loud call-and-response sessions. Romengo’s Mónika Lakatos (vocals) and percussionists János Lakatos (milk can) and Tibor Balogh (on something which looked like an inverted kitchen sink) really stood out in the last performance!
Day Three again offered a treat for folk music fans, with successive performances on two stages. Erlend Apneseth of Nattsongar showcased the versatility of the Hardanger fiddle, while Erik Rydvall played the Swedish nyckelharpa. Two trios also teamed up in a splendid collaborative effort: Gjermund Larsen Trio & Nordic, from Norway and Sweden respectively.
Another unique band performing at the festival was the quartet Huun-Huur-Tu from Russia’s Tuva region in Siberia; they wowed the audience with their folk stories, multi-tonal throat singing (by Radik Tyulyush) and traditional instruments such as igil, doshpuluur, byzaanchi, khomuz, amarga, marinhuur and tungur.
A highlight of the day was Broukar (‘brocade’), which was founded in 2007 in Damascus to preserve and revive the musical heritage of Syria. Highlights included three performances of the hypnotic Whirling Dervish dance by Ahmad Alkhatib, along with Sufi vocals by Bayan Rida. I look forward to seeing the performances again at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia next month, where the band will be making another appearance.
Day Three of the stage performances ended with a slickly choreographed gala featuring brief vignettes from another set of bands from Denmark/Sweden, Haiti, Brazil, Norway, and Canada (more on those later). The Norwegian compères interspersed the acts with humor and wit.
The celebrations continued in the festival hotel with performances from Haiti, Colombia and Eritrea. Haitian ensemble Chouk Bwa Libète blew the audience away with poly-rhythmic drumming and trance-inducing chants in a fine voodoo style called mizik rasin. Front man and composer Sambaton kept the band tightly coordinated, and he led the band in a dance line right into the audience at the end.
Noency Mosquera Martinez and her quartet played native folklore from Colombia, such as rondas, arrullos, alabaos and gualí. She was then followed by Eritrea’s Faytinga, while other folk musicians played on the floor below. But that was not the end – an open-ended jam featuring dozens of musicians from the various bands continued in the hotel’s library till 3 am and way beyond!
Day Four kicked off with a remarkable feature: a rendering of lullabies from around the world by refugee mothers settled in Norway. This was also perhaps a haunting call for the right to peace for babies around the world, particularly in war-torn areas.
The Forde Arts Museum played host to an intricate and energetic set by Trio Madeira Brazil. They blended choro, folk and classical music, and the three artistes received rousing applause for an encore: Ronaldo do Bandolim on mandolin, Marcello Gonçalves on seven-string guitar and Zé Paulo Becker on acoustic guitar.
The main-stage performances ended with a rousing set by La Bottine Souriante from Canada, who trace their roots all the way back to 1976 in Quebec. Playing French North American roots music amplified by a brass section and floor-board tap-dancers, the group had the audience on their feet for a line dance; they also poked fun at the French and English languages in equal measure!
Buses then took the attendees to a hillside barn for a terrific acoustic set by youthful Danish-Swedish trio Dreamers’ Circus. They pushed acoustic collaboration to new dimensions, while also playing unusual instruments like the traskofiol or clog fiddle from Skane in Sweden. Their tracks like ‘Fragments of Solbyn’ drew loud applause, and their camaraderie and talent will ensure a long successful musical career.
The festival ended in the hotel with football fans watching France lose to Portugal in the EuroCup finals. Three spontaneous music and dance jams then broke out in the bar area, even though many had early morning flights to catch in just a few hours!
Other creative features of the Forde Festival which stood out were the jugglers and stilt-walkers of Rajasthan’s troupe Circus Raj; some of the unusual instruments on stage (eg. goat horns, milk cans, bicycle wheel percussion); and the superb designs of the festival logo and symbols (butterflies, reflecting refugees’ flight as well as fragility). Other art work featured the human heart as a bagpipe, a banana as a lyre, and a pear as a violin!
Some of the performers also took part in ‘Meet the Artist’ interviews – 20-minute chats hosted by media veterans Simon Broughton (Songlines magazine) and Dore Stein (Tangents Radio). “I didn’t pick my theme, my theme picked me,” explained Ladino singer-composer Mor Karbasi during her interview.
“Sadly, music for children during war is only bombs and rockets,” lamented Taoufik Mirkhan, kanun player of Syrian band Broukar. “The heritage of Syria is the heritage of the world – alphabet, music sheets and more,” he added. His fellow artiste Ahmad Alkhatib, explained that dervish dance is a way of saying thanks to God for life.
In the coming articles, I will feature more in-depth interviews with the artistes, along with reviews of their albums. Some of the CDs I picked up at the festival include Spring du Fela, Boreas, Temperamento, Arrivals, Second Movement, Ao Vivo Em Copacabana, Appellation and El Bango de Bojaya.
In sum, this year’s music in Forde focused on the cultural richness and complexities of countries otherwise associated with war and poverty, according to festival director Hilde Bjørkum.
What really stood out again in the 2016 edition are the high quality acts, rich local musical traditions, flawless execution, creative programming, stunning scenery, Norway’s international efforts in music partnerships, egalitarian society, volunteer support, and superb hospitality.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival, now in its 37th edition, is regarded as the world’s largest jazz festival. The music lineup includes ambassadors of jazz and blues – as well as a generous dose of artistes in world music and fusion. See my write-up from last year’s edition here; fans of jazz and world music can check out my app ‘Oktav’ as well, a collection of witty quotes about music (available on Apple iTunes and Android).
The 2016 edition of MIJF featured artistes from Canada, USA, Japan, Norway, Turkey, Mexico, Senegal, Mauritania, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Guadeloupe. The festival organizers estimate that the acts drew two million attendees, spread over 10 days and two dozen venues. The long summer days of late June and early July made for perfect outdoor performances, along with ticketed indoor events as well.
Check out some of the highlights in this photo tour of MIJF 2016, and make sure you attend the 2017 edition!
Paris-based Mauritanian singer-songwriter Daby Toure kicked off Day One of MIJF 2016. He delivered a pleasing set of ‘Afropean’ music, featuring tracks from five of his albums, and occasionally drummed on his guitar as well. He has earlier founded the group Touré Touré, and sings in Fulani, Soninke and Wolof.
Formed in Beirut, Arabic alt-rock group Mashrou’ Leila played to a packed concert hall with their blend of indie rock, ballads and electronica. Their music has addressed topics such as politics, social taboos and religion in the Middle East.
Ceu – Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças – was born into a distinguished Brazilian musical family, and began her career at the age of 15. Her indoor set at MIJF drew fans from across North America, and she performed a mix of Brazilian popular music, samba, reggae and electronica. Her albums include Vagarosa and Ao Vivo.
Guitarist Denis Chang draws on gypsy jazz influences such as Django Reinhardt, and has studied with Fapy Lafertin, Ritary Gaguenetti and Emmanuel Kassimo. He performs across Europe and the US, and has released a series of educational DVDs. He performed two sets at MIJF 2016 in an intimate indoor café.
The Cuban Martinez Band had the crowd on their feet with an infectious set of salsa, merengue, bachata and more. Anchored by Yordan Martinez, the band performed in an astonishing venue at the back of a church near the jazz district!
A Haitian institution since 1963, the Orchestre Tropicana d’Haïti is a legendary big band on a 50-year mission to showcase and enhance Haitian culture. Their recent release is Bravo Tropic, and the band had the audience on their feet for a set of sensuous hip-swaying dance.
Samito is a singer-songwriter from Montreal, whose music blends acoustica and electronica. The lyrics and style are reflective of his upbringing in Maputo. Samito sang in Portuguese, French, English and Xitswa, offering a textured set of commentary on the changing times.
Born in Mexico and raised in California, award-winning singer-songwriter Lila Downs performed a sold-out standing-room only set reflecting her deep studies of musicology as well as stage charisma. Cumbia, jazz, ballads and stunning visual animation set the tone for commentary on women’s rights, immigration and poverty in Mexico. Her albums include Pecados y Milagros and Balas y Chocolate.
One of the extraordinary bands at MIJF 2016 was Baba Zula, with a mix of Turkish dub and psychedelia. Traditional Turkish instruments, wild costumes and theatrical delivery regaled the audience and provided them with a sense of Istanbul’s underground cult movement.
Mariachi Flor de Toloache, named for the legendary Toloache flower of Mexico, is an all-female mariachi band. They were nominated for the Latin Grammy in 2015. Their original costumes and ambience blended with modern takes on classic and contemporary tunes, and had the audience clapping and chanting along loudly during their two outdoor sets.
Singer-songwriter Malika Tirolien from Guadeloupe performed a superb outdoor set. She had the audience on their feet for a smooth mix of Afro-Caribbean jazz and urban beat.
Young Senegalese singer-composer Ilam has already won a range of awards in Canada, and receives wide radio airplay. His spicy outdoor set of reggae, blues, Afro-folk, pop and rock kept the audience dancing even during a slight shower; concert-goers were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow afterwards.
Pianist David Bontemps heads Montreal-based Afro-Caribbean jazz band Makaya. Formed in 2006, the quintet includes percussionist Cydric Féréol, guitarist and singer Jude Deslouches, bassist Nicolas Bédard and congas player Emmanuel Delly. Caribbean rhythms blended with jazz and Creole during their MIJF set; the band has also performed at Montréal’s Creole Festival and released their first album in 2009.
AfroDizz was one of the most sensational bands at MIJF 2016. This Montreal group is anchored by jazz guitarist Gabriel Aldama, who is deeply influenced by Nigerian Afrobeat maestro Fela Kuti. The eight musicians delivered a superb set of Afrobeat, jazz and funk. Their albums include Kif Kif, Froots (2006) and Sounds from Outer Space.
Inberoamerican Music Expo (EXIB) organizers were forced to move the outdoor showcase venues to the historic Teatro Garcia de Resende. The beautiful renovated theater turned out to be an excellent space to experience the live performances.
The first act on stage was La Colectiva Corazón, a multinational group of graduates from the Berklee College of Music – Valencia, Spain Campus. The collective plays what they describe as cumbia fusion. Bear in mind that it’s Chilean cumbia along with guajiras, boleros, funk, Andean music, and pop. Think of Chico Trujillo mixed with Manu Chao.
The slow dance beat immediately got members of the audience dancing (primarily women). The band brought a dance party atmosphere to Teatro Garcia de Resende and the performance was very well received.
La Colectiva Corazon was created by Chilean composer, vocalist and percussionist Gonzalo Eyzaguirre. The ensemble includes musicians from Puerto Rico, Slovenia, Ecuador, Colombia, Italy and the United States. La Colectiva just released its debut album titled “Viajero.”
The band included Gonzalo Eyzaguirre on vocals, charango and percussion; Travis Smilen on electric guitar; Sebastián Laverde on congas; Carlos Llido on drums and timbales; Eric Benavent on saxophone; Alfonso Benavent on trumpet; and Javier Giner Garrido on bass.
The second act was Portuguese singer-songwriter and guitarist Luiz Caracol. He’s a talented artist who combines the rhythms of Portugal with jazz and the music of African countries, Brazil and the sounds of Jorge Drexler.
Luiz Caracol has a captivating laid back song style supported by his rhythmic electric guitar and a fabulous rhythm section that includes a percussionist from Brazil and a West African drummer.
Caracol was born in Elvas right after his parents arrived from newly independent Angola, where they had lived before the African nation became independent. Luiz Caracol released his first album, Devagar, in 2013. Devagar includes special guest performances by Fernanda Abreu, Sara Tavares and Valete. He’s currently recording his new album titled Metade, scheduled for release later this year, in 2016.
Concert lineup: Luiz Caracol on guitar and vocals; Chico Santos on bass; Miroca Paris on drums; and Ruca Rebordão on percussion.
Mexico was represented by vocalist Zaira Franco. Zaira’s show crossed numerous musical boundaries. She was accompanied by a rock band and delivered a mix of Mexican music, boleros, funk, Afro Cuban sounds and rock. The band’s electric guitar player was impressive, releasing fiery solos using various types of techniques. At one time, Zaira’s band went into full blown progressive rock. Zaira Franco presented her latest album, Tumbalá.
Showcase lineup: Zaira Franco on vocals; Mario Patrón on piano; Federico Erik Negrete on bass; Alfredo Martínez on guitar; Fausto Aguilar on drums; and Luis Manuel García on percussion.
The fourth act was truly spectacular. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the entire event. C4 Trio is an award-winning ensemble of three Venezuelan cuatro players along with a bassist.
C4 Trio are highly skilled musicians who demonstrated virtuosity, creativity and delivered a captivating and fun show featuring ensemble pieces, solos and interplay. The repertoire included Venezuelan folk songs as well as pop standards played at dazzling speeds. The group received repeated standing ovations and was the only act that came back for an encore.
The C4 Trío lineup included Jorge Glem on cuatro; Héctor Molina on cuatro; Edward Ramírez on cuatro; and Gustavo Márquez on bass.
The closing act was 78 year old Brazilian vocalist and guitarist Dona Jandira. The charismatic performer started her career in 2004 after she met producer José Dias.
Lineup: Dona Jandira on vocals and guitar; José Dias Guimaraes de Almeida on bass and Eugenio de Castro Ribeiro on violin.
Headline photo: La Colectiva Corazón, courtesy of EXIB Música