Category Archives: Concert reviews

IndiEarth xChange 2015: conference and showcase of world music and indie acts in India

xChange-500

 

The annual IndiEarth xChange, with four editions under its belt, is a must-attend event in India for industry professionals and fans of world music and indie acts. The three-day event spanning a weekend was held recently at The Taj Connemara Hotel in Chennai, and included a conference, workshops, film screenings and a music showcase.

The IndiEarth initiative, promoting independent musicians and filmmakers, was conceptualized by the founders of EarthSync India, a music label and film production company launched by Sastry Karra, Sonya Mazumdar, Yotam Agam and Kris Karra in 2004.

 

Panel on music venues Amandine Moreau (Cite des Arts, Reunion Island), Ruchika Tiku (Blue Frog, India) and Ruth Hardie (Southbank Centre, UK)
Panel on music venues Amandine Moreau (Cite des Arts, Reunion Island), Ruchika Tiku (Blue Frog, India) and Ruth Hardie (Southbank Centre, UK) – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Industry insights

Panel topics at IndiEarth xChange this year included music markets, temple instruments of India, multi-disciplinary art events, music education, international touring, copyright, business models, digital media, audience engagement, recording dynamics and festival programming.

I took part in a panel on ‘Media and the Arts: Finding an Honest Voice,’ on the agendas and activities in music journalism, and the role of music journalists in shaping the ecosystem of artists, labels, venues and festivals.

A workshop on music journalism was conducted by Simon Broughton, editor-in-chief of Songlines magazine. Two other workshops were offered for DJs, and one titled ‘Mindfulness for Creatives’ by Australian musician and yoga teacher Phoebe Kiddo. Music producer Howie B held an open session; he is hailed as one of the original exponents and creators of trip hop, and has written the music scores for major motion pictures (including the closing title music to Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street).

The Queensland University of Technology presented the Indie100 Program, in which Australian producers Lachlan ‘Magoo’ Goold and Yanto Browning recorded, mixed and mastered the works of 10 indie bands.

 

The Taj Connemara Hotel in Chennai
The Taj Connemara Hotel in Chennai – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

A number of useful artist insights were offered during the three days of panel discussions. For example, musicians have to learn to be entrepreneurs as well, though many just want to do music. For legal reasons, artists need to make a habit of documenting their activities during tours, live gigs, recording sessions and collaborative performances.

Industry connections will help with international exchange of music tours and talent enrichment. Touring artists have to do more than perform – they should teach, do workshops, talk at panels and jam with other bands.

Roots music is about more than entertainment, it is about keeping folk cultures alive. Sometimes, roots music can be changed during performances for new or international audiences, but should not degrade the original messages and forms. World music artists should be proud of their indigenous traditions but need not feel they have to restrict themselves only to these genres.

Though new bands may find it hard to get audiences to download their music, they should try techniques like giving away a couple of tracks for free in exchange for users’ email ids or social media connects. This can be used for deepening audience engagement and eventually converting them into becoming fans, influencers and evangelists – and ultimately paying customers of live music, merchandise or digital tracks.

Music venues and journalists have to figure out the balance between featuring established and emerging artists. There were also some hilarious suggestions at one of the panel discussions: what if smoke machines at gigs blew ‘different’ kinds of smoke?

The three-day indoor music showcases featured artists from a range of countries: India, Netherlands, Australia, Germany, UK, France, Reunion Island, China, Ireland and Denmark. Here are profiles and photos of some of the acts which I caught; the performances were held across three separate stages, and covered Indian classical, folk, roots, world, contemporary, alternative, and electronica artists (see my 2014 writeup here: worldmusiccentral.org/2015/03/18/indiearth-xchange-annual-showcase-of-world-music-and-indie-acts-in-india).

Day One

The first day of music shows kicked off with a hypnotic performance of Hindustani classical music by Saskia Rao-De Haas from the Netherlands. Now based in New Delhi, she has adapted the western cello with an additional set of sympathetic strings for Indian classical music.

 

Saskia Rao-De Haas
Saskia Rao-De Haas – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Lakhan Das Baul from Kolkata performed a haunting set of baul music, derived from the mystic minstrels from rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. This music is devotional but at the same time does not identify with specific orthodox religious practices in the region.

 

Lakhan Das Baul from Kolkata
Lakhan Das Baul from Kolkata – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The energy ramped up with qawwali music by the Hussain Group Qawwals from Hyderabad. Ustad Ahsan Hussain Khan Quadri has been performing traditional qawwali music for over 40 years, and is the son of the late Ustad Qurban Hussain Khan Sahab, a classical singer in the royal court of the Gwalior family. His son Adil Hussain Khan also joined him on lead vocals during their mesmerising performance.

 

Hussain Group Qawwals from Hyderabad
Hussain Group Qawwals from Hyderabad – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

A spectacular collaboration on percussion and dance was presented by the band Thappattam from Thanjavur. The folk troupe featured thunderous thappattam drummers, on the thavil drum (a barrel shaped drum) as well as nadaswaram (a double reed wind instrument). The powerful rhythms and percussive textures were enhanced by a bass guitarist and drummer, who drove the performance to a high-energy crescendo.

 

Thappattam from Thanjavur
Thappattam from Thanjavur – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Other artists performing on Day One were Zoo (electro dream pop, from Kolkata), Black Letters (indie rock, from Bangalore) and Komorebi (electronica and chillstep, from New Delhi).

Day Two

The second day of live shows kicked off with Tajdar Junaid, a singer-songwriter from Kolkata, drawing on influences from India and the US. He has collaborated with artists such as Karsh Kale as well as Fred White from Acoustic Alchemy.

 

Tajdar Junaid from Kolkata
Tajdar Junaid from Kolkata – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The Nagore Brothers from Nagore, south India, delighted the audience with a set of Sufi devotional music. The Nagore Brothers – Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer – sang in an ecstatic trance-like manner along with pulsating percussion.

 

The Nagore Brothers
The Nagore Brothers – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The electronica performances began with Australian-born Phoebe Kiddo, now based in Berlin. She describes herself as a ‘musical pilgrim,’ and her set revealed a wide range of influences with synth and sub-bass textures. Her albums include ‘Artefacts of Broken Dreams.’

 

Phoebe Kiddo
Phoebe Kiddo – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Ravi Chary, a leading sitar player from Goa, performed an enchanting set of Indian classical music accompanied by Suphala Patankar on tabla. Ravi’s father is the late Pt. Prabhakar Chary, a noted tabla player and musicologist. Ravi has also produced a range of fusion and world music albums, and has collaborated with artists like Salif Keita, Vikku Vinayakram, Ustad Zakir Hussain, and Robert Miles. He has performed at international festivals like WOMAD and Glastonbury.

 

Ravi Chary and Suphala
Ravi Chary and Suphala – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Prateek Kuhad, a folk-pop singer-songwriter from New Delhi, then performed a set featuring some tracks from his recent album, Tokens & Charms. He has also been featured at Indian festival NH7 Weekender, and has toured in the US as well.

 

Prateek Kuhad
Prateek Kuhad – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Howie B from the UK had the audience on their feet with his set of trip hop and dubstep. He has worked with a range of artists including Björk, U2, Mukul Deora and The Gift, and has been releasing music under his own name since the early 1990s.

 

Howie B
Howie B – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Other artists performing on Day Two included Naezy (Indian rap in Urdu, fom Mumbai) and FuzzCulture (electronica duo from Delhi).

Day Three

The final day of performances kicked off with a melodic set of Carnatic music by violin maestro Lalitha Kalaimamani from Chennai. She hails from an illustrious family of musicians, and represents the fourth generation of musicians in her family. Lalitha has also performed in collaborative and fusion lineups, and has played at festivals in over a dozen countries around the world. Her passion is also keeping alive the story of traditional temple instruments in India.

 

Lalitha Kalaimamani from Chennai
Lalitha Kalaimamani from Chennai – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Bo Bun Fever from France had the audience on their feet with an insanely high-energy set of mambo and other Latin music. The story of their formation is hilarious: the members of the trio met in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, and after a wild night they discovered a strange inscription tattooed on their torsos in black Gothic letters: Bo Bun Fever!

 

Bo Bun Fever from France
Bo Bun Fever from France – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The musical textures switched to Asia with the band Tulegur from China, presenting a blend of of traditional Mongolian music along with ethnic rock. The duo featured hypnotic throat-singing (khoomei) along with electronic music, best described as ‘ethnic post-rock’ or ‘psychedelic nomadic rock.’

 

Tulegur from China
Tulegur from China – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The musical tour then switched to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, with the band Ziskakan and maloya Creole traditions. Anchor Gilbert Pounia is a charismatic storyteller-singer and has spearheaded the band since 1979 across its international tours in North America, Europe and Asia. The lively music blended the sounds of Africa (especially Madagascar) and India. Maloya was once banned under French rule, but has been kept alive and thriving by local artists.

 

Ziskakan from Reunion Island
Ziskakan from Reunion Island – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Irish folk music and jazz-funk blended together in the next set by Aldoc from Ireland. It featured Alan Doherty on flutes and whistles, along with a high-energy lineup on bass, electric guitars and two electronica artists.

 

Aldoc from Ireland
Aldoc from Ireland – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Do Moon ramped up the energy even more with a set of Afro House. The duo from Reunion Island blended groove, South African Ghetto House and maloya, and kept the audience on their feet swaying to their ocean sounds.

 

Do Moon from Reunion Island
Do Moon from Reunion Island

 

Another creative vocalist that night was Alo Wala, an American Punjabi who is now based in Copenhagen. The blend of electronica and hiphop with heavy doses of bass from Danish Copia Doble Systema also featured commentary and critiques of Asian and Western cultural mores.

 

Alo Wala
Alo Wala – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Other bands performing on the last night included AsWeKeepSearching (post-rock, from Ahmedabad), Parekh and Singh (alternative pop, from Kolkata), The F16s (indie rock, from Chennai), Sandunes (electronica/dance, from Mumbai), Nicholson (live keyboards and electronica, from Mumbai) and Fuzzy Logic (live percussion and electronica, from Mumbai).

I also picked up a good stack of CDs from the performers for review and radio play. We look forward to the next edition of XChange already!

 

CDs of performing artists
CDs of performing artists
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Shradhanjali – A Tribute to Pandit Sharda Sahai ji

Shradhanjali_Poster

 

The Tabernacle, London, 6 December 2015

Ever thought of moving in with your music teacher? To attain mastery of their instrument, devoted tabla students often live with their guru, undertaking a life-long apprenticeship. Insights into the traditions of Indian classical music were in abundance at ‘Shradhanjali’, a concert dedicated to late tabla master Pandit Sharda Sahai ji, which was staged at The Tabernacle in the Notting Hill area of West London.

Those with their ears open to the world will have come across the tabla. The Indian drum has lent an exotic flavour to western music of many modes, from jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s path-breaking collaborations with Zakir Hussain in the 1970s, to art-pop queen Bjork’s genre blurring material with Talvin Singh in the 1990s. Tabla masters can conjure a galaxy of timbres from a simple two drum set-up; a finger-print tap to the smaller ‘dayan’ drum elicits a high whip-crack, whilst a palm pump to the deeper ‘bayan’ drum yields a resonant bass tone, like air bubbling to the surface of a deep pool.

 

Shradhanjali
Shradhanjali

 

This concert provides a chance to see the tabla in its natural habitat, as the centrepiece in a night of Indian classical music programmed by Kaashi Arts. The evening’s main event is a tabla solo performed by Pandit Sanju Sahai ji (known as Sanju ji) in tribute to his late father and guru Pandit Sharda Sahai ji (known as Pandit ji). Like his father, Sanju ji is a master of the Benares school of tabla, which is the youngest of six schools of tabla instruction, and the only Hindu tradition, with its origins lying in the mystical city of Benares (Varansai) in the early 19th century.

We begin with one of Pandit ji’s students, performing as part of a small group. From the first phrases of Mehboob Nadeem’s sitar, the ensemble follows the melody wherever it leads, without reliance on a defined groove. Upneet Singh Dhadyalla’s tabla strikes up a rhythmic dialogue with Bala Chandra ji’s mridangam, a larger double sided drum originating from southern India. This conversation develops into a telepathic series of complex rhythmic patterns that hint at the master-class to come.

 

Shradhanjali
Shradhanjali

 

Taking to the stage after the interval, Sanju ji proves a playful guide to the intense world of tabla. His exuberance is complemented by the sage accompaniment of Pandit Ramesh Mishra ji on the sarangi, an intricate bowed string instrument. As if in scholarly debate with himself, Sanju ji reels off ‘bols’ – rhythmical lyrics that set the framework for his improvisations – before launching into astounding time-bending embellishments; his fingers tapping the tabla like a virtuosic Morse code operator. This is a learned audience, who pick up on Sanju ji’s semaphore, joining him in the physical flourishes that bookend his poly-rhythmic passages. These collective gestures create a sense of shared experience, akin to a gospel church congregation who are stirred by references to hymns and sermons they are deeply familiar with.

 

Sanju ji celebrates the contemporary by performing a piece one of the Benares masters used to score a Bollywood chase scene; a blitz of tension-inducing tabla. Traditions are also respected in a rare performance of some of the original compositions that helped to inspire the Benares style. These pieces are drawn from the five hundred that were taught to Benares founder Pandit Ram Sahai ji by his guru’s wife, compositions so precious they had formed part of her dowry.

 

Shradhanjali
Shradhanjali

 

We believe we can never be as good as our gurus“, explains Sanju ji. This deference for what came before is perhaps one of the most striking differences to western musical culture. The venue for the night’s event, The Tabernacle, was a regular haunt of punk hero Joe Strummer of The Clash during the 1970s and ‘80s. The ‘rip it up and start again’ philosophy of the Punk movement has a parallel in a western classical tendency to challenge and provoke the past, infamously demonstrated by the riots at the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Indian classical tradition offers the polar opposite to this impulse for the creative destruction of what went before, and this division could paradoxically explain why both traditions have found so much to learn from each other.

For the uninitiated, the evening’s tabla master-class is a dazzling and at times disorientating experience. Recognisable rhythms float by – a shuffle here, a semi-swing groove there – but they prove unreliable anchors; soon reversed, embellished, or subdivided in Einstein-grade displays of metric modulation. Whilst adrift however, even the inexpert listener can sense deep currents of technique and tradition. It is up to us whether we choose to dive in, or simply to use the evening’s insights to enrich our engagement with the fusion of tabla tearaways like Talvin Singh and Trilok Gurtu. One senses that Pandit Sharda Sahai ji, whose guiding philosophy was one of education and enlightenment, would approve either way.

 

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“Words Adorned”: The Sound and the Fury?

Words Adorned Concert 2015 - Photo by Chip Colson
Words Adorned Concert 2015 – Photo by Chip Colson

 

Rotarians abide by a simple but comprehensive ethical code, known as the Four-Way Test: 1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Along these lines, I have developed my own four-way test to apply to matters artistic (concerts, recordings, gallery exhibits, plays, books, etc.):

  1. Is it authentic?
  2. Is it well-performed (painted/acted/written)?
  3. Is it beautiful?
  4. (In rare cases) Is it uplifting? Does it improve my life?

After attending two Musical Spectacles organized by a Philadelphia non-profit, al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, and held at prestigious collegiate venues, I must admit that my system is stymied. What should have been exquisite and memorable concerts have ultimately proven to be more perplexing than enlightening. Last year’s flummery by world-renowned musician Marcel Khalife at Haverford College on November 15 (reviewed on this site) was patently inauthentic. Nor was it beautiful or uplifting. There was no question, however, about the quality of the musicianship. I felt it to be wasted, however, on Khalife’s chaotic and disjointed score.

This year’s offering, “Words Adorned,” on December 5, also featured compositions by respected musicians from the Arab world: Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach, natives of Syria who reside and work on the East Coast. Filling the stage this year at Bryn Mawr College were al-Bustan’s core instrumental ensemble (takht), of which cellist Abou-afach is a member, another female vocal soloist flown in from the Middle East (Palestinian Dalal Abu Amneh), and the customary companion Western vocal ensemble from the Philly environs (last year, it was the Keystone State Boychoir; this year, The Crossing, a superlative professional group under the impeccable direction of Donald Nally). How did this concert stack up?

#1: Authenticity

The audience experienced a visual element of confusion even as the first notes of the Roustom composition, Embroidered Verses, were played, following an excellent instrumental prelude and three muwashshahat. Anyone in the audience expecting a tribute to the sun-drenched Andalusian genre of the muwashshah would have been rudely jolted by the macabre funereal display introducing the performance. In an unusual move, the black-clad singers processed from the back of the house up to the stage, where they joined the takht, also wearing black. The lead vocalist, in contrast, was dressed in all-white, a strange choice of color (as it could symbolize either bridal attire or the garments used in Muslim burial).

Each of the 21st-century compositions were musical and emotional roller coasters, changing abruptly in the course of the sections. The somber visual introduction to Embroidered Verses was enhanced by bizarre aural effects, such as unnerving instrumental slides and extreme vocal harmonies. The soothing overtones in “Love Song” were punctuated with moments of turbulence. The faster tempo and virtuosic instrumental passages in “War Poem” required rigorous execution, with the plucked instruments, ud and kanun, functioning in a delicate and subtle manner to bridge the very demanding string sections.

Of Nights and Solace, the Abou-afach composition, offered only one section out of six which had the sound and feel of Arabic music, invoking the spirit of tarab. The rest of the music volleyed among the soloist, choir, and takht, producing a variety of unsettling effects. Vocals segued into a chaotic instrumental portion in “Forsaken,” featuring rhythms interlocking in a frenzied and tumultuous melee. “Sunrise,” the rhythmic finale to the work, left a sense of unfinished business rather than a decisive conclusion.

The traditional and familiar muwashshahat in the Prelude and Postlude were authentic to the Andalusian period, capturing the spirit of the genre for both the performers and audience. But this portion of the program also points out the discrepancy in tone with the two contemporary compositions, which demonstrated decidedly Western approaches.

#2: Musicianship

This is a tough one; the whole was not quite the sum of its parts, despite the fact that each component of the musical mix was top-notch: the solo vocalist, with her truly beautiful voice; the takht (peerless in its ability to play material of this punishing caliber); and The Crossing, an impressive vocal ensemble whose conductor kept the performance tight. The required expertise and ability were clearly there. So what was missing? Again, the traditional portions of the program as compared to the commissioned works epitomize the dichotomy of East and West, and perhaps also indigenous and classical. It was almost impossible for the musicians to lift their eyes from the scores due to the complexity of the compositions, with their sharp angles and cut-throat corners. There would be no opportunities for improvisation, which is standard in the performance of Arabic music, and certainly no option of responding to audience reaction. Precision performance and slavish attention to the printed score were required, in conformity to the Western classical mode.

The musicians’ demeanor and behavior during the performance of the traditional songs became transformed from tense to relaxed. In the absence of conducting, the instrumentalists (who used no scores) made eye contact with each other, relying on each other for cues and smiling and winking all along. Khoury and El Kotain were in communion throughout the performance… Chami and Abou-afach shared a clear complicity on stage… Even Oddeh, the Nazarene new kid-on-the-block, seemed at ease. The solo vocalist was clearly in her “comfort zone,” producing velvety and flowing sounds and unleashing her theatrical persona–maybe too much of it. The melodramatic arm gestures were at times detrimental to the listening experience.

The contemporary works would have been a disaster in the hands of less-competent personnel on-stage. One could not have dreamed of a more ideal conductor than Nally, who kept it together and adroitly handled the demands of the Arabic and Western components of the evening’s repertoire. The vocalists of The Crossing stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. Despite the drawback of Abu Amneh’s penchant for histrionics, she managed to navigate the polar-opposite requirements of both the original and 21st-century incarnations of the muwashshah. And the musicians of the takht ensemble are unquestionably a special breed, one-of-a-kind (surely in North America but quite possibly the world) in their capacity to shift gears between Oriental and Western expressions: harmony, micro-tones, playing under a conductor, responding to voices on stage. As a dedicated fan of Arabic music, I am unable to name ANY ensemble comparable to this one.

Finally, It would be remiss not to acknowledge the craftsmanship and artistic vision behind Embroidered Verses and Of Nights and Solace. Roustom and Abou-afach are among the top tier of Arab-heritage composers in North America, with dozens of soundtracks, CDs, and traditional, classical, and jazz compositions to their credit.

 

 

#3: Aesthetics

But now we get to #3: How did it sound? Was it beautiful? There may be a clear East/West divide in determining this. For those in the audience unaccustomed to micro-tones, sustained listening may have been difficult and disorienting. And what of the original compositions themselves? Several segments can be described as dissonant and anything but easy listening. Yet the larger questions are: How effective was this collision of an indigenous Arabic genre with Western classical culture? Does this fusion ultimately result in dissatisfaction for both the Arab community and the Western members of the audience, pleasing neither? And perhaps the bottom line: Would a concert like this have any chance of succeeding in the Arab world?

Cheers and jeers: Kudos to al-Bustan for the informative and lengthy program booklet, which will be helpful for the audience to read post-concert. The acoustics of the concert hall were marvelous, although the hall’s architecture reinforced the mood of uneasiness at the beginning of Roustom’s composition. It must be mentioned that another odd element of the staging was the gratuitous pre-concert slide show projecting images of al-Andalus along with rehearsal shots onto an ugly screen which distorted the images and created a cheap movie-theatre ambience in the concert hall.

And what of next year? Will the repertoire be mainstream or unique? Populist or elitist? Authentic or hybrid?

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Fascinating concert by Dr. Pantula Rama

Dr. Pantula Rama
Dr. Pantula Rama

 

In her speech to felicitate the more than hundred odd children who had participated in the Trinity Day celebrations on Friday, 23rd October, at the Krishna Temple Hall in Ruwi, Muscat, chief guest Dr. Pantula Rama said that after hearing so many children sing so well, she felt that the future of carnatic music was safe. She proved this point beyond doubt through her own singing the next day. It was a veritable treat for Muscat’s burgeoning music rasikas. Nearly everyone stayed on till the mangalam which came around 10.30pm, unmindful of the next day being a working day. Such was the magic and classicism of Rama’s music.

She patiently sat through a rather elaborate introduction that went on and on. I have nothing against talented artistes being given their due, but perhaps the organizers should pay attention to starting on time, or pruning their introductions to save time – Rama’s music, as that of her able accompanists, spoke volumes about their collective vidwat anyway! Another suggestion to the organizers: subdued lighting, rather than a display of every available bulb in the city, would have been far more aesthetic and less distracting!

All this was forgotten the moment Rama got going with Tyagaraja’s gem Sadinchane in Arabhi. It set the tone for the rest of the concert, as can only be expected of such a wonderful masterpiece, when rendered with feeling and understanding. The first surprise of the day came in this introductory piece – Rama sang the swara-sahityas of the composition after sadinchane, rather than the conventional way of singing them after samyanidhi. She explained this to the discerning audience, pointing out that it was more appropriate to sing the swara-sahityas after sadinchane as per the sastras. She also emphasized the use of tanam in the singing of the charanams, underlining the boundless genius of the bard, who has packed more into his pancharatna keertanais than generations of researches can ever fully analyze!

She then sang a soulful Gopalaka Pahimam in Revagupti, showing her skill in avoiding any shades of nearby ragas like bowli or bhoopalam. Then came the less heard Tyagaraja kriti chede buddhi manura o manasa in Atana, with brisk swaras in keeping with the bhava of the raga and the kriti.

Rama then took up Bhairavi for a detailed treatment, and followed it up with Syama Sastri’s Kamakshamma, where she showed her sruthi suddham in chowkha kalam singing. She then brought back fond memories of GNB by singing vararagalaya in Chenjukamboji. I cannot but digress here to say that what he had done a good 70 years back still stands as the benchmark for this rare raga composition by Tyagaraja. If this was not evidence enough to say why Tyagaraja is called the sadguru, Rama also sang another of his eka-raga piece, Anadudanuganu in Jingala, apparently on the request on young Nandagopal who was her mridangist for the day. That came after a relaxed exposition of Subhapantuvarali, with Dikshitar’s Sri Satyanarayanam, a kriti that never fails to touch one’s heart.

MSN Murthy
MSN Murthy

She did a nereval at ‘satya gnana nanda mayam’, which was very impressive. She rounded off the tanam with Yathi ‘ananda mayam’, gnana nanda mayam, satya gnana nanda mayam, sarvam Vishnu mayam, in keeping with Dikshitar’s way of alliterative prose. Rama showed her good grasp of Hindustani music in the swaraprastharas. Sri MSN Murthy excelled in his repartee, both in the raga delineation and in the kalpana swaras.

So far, it had already been a veritable feast. We had had tanams in the first piece itself, and again in the Dikshitar kriti. When she started the mohanam alapana, I sat back to enjoy what I was sure would be a grand RTP.

The alapana and tanam were splendid. MSN Murthy displayed excellent bowing techniques, and his playing was very sweet to the ear. He proved, like his illustrious peers of the past, that the violin in indeed extremely well suited to negotiate the nuances of tanam playing. Rama surprised the audience yet again, by taking up nannupalimpa a kriti instead of a pallavi.

Later, when I asked her about it, she said she simply felt like singing nannupalimpa after the elaborate ragam and tanam. One can’t question her choice, but the impish twist was a bit disappointing – I believe a few ragas missed out the caressing treatment they could have otherwise received from a seasoned performer in a Pallavi rendering as raga malika!

The Thani followed. The Muscat audience is known to be very discerning, and there is never an exodus at the thani. Today was also special – the mridangist was Nandagopal, a local lad. And he justified the audience attention. His playing was tone perfect, crisp, and technically flawless. His accompaniment therefore constantly embellished the vocal and violin throughout the concert. In the thani he showed his immense maturity in handling percussion.

Rama was not done yet. Neither was the audience keen to let her go. Requests flowed in, and she accommodated most. A venkatachala nilayam in Sindhubhairavi, Jayadeva’s Ehi Murare in pahadi, and muddukare yasoda in kurinji had the audience swaying to some soulful music. She sang a lilting Sakhi marulu konnane, the male version of a javali in a startlingly different form of chenjurutti composed by Balamurali Krishna.

Rama’s strength lies in her ability to do sancharas in the antara sthayi – she made full use of her ability that day. The concert was thus clamoring for the label of a perfect performance. On a special request from one of the organizers, she decided to sing Papanasam Sivan’s naan oru vilayattu bommaya, and proved she was only human. There is no doubt any number of Andhrites, Kannadigas and Malayalees flinch at the enunciation of their words and phrases by the Tamil singers. Rama proved it was a two way street! The charanam phrase oru pugal indri, meaning without any other refuge, was degraded to oru pughazh iNri (the hard N as in kaNN (eye)), which took away some of the genius of Sivan’s lyrics.

A brisk paraj thillana and mangalam saw to end of a nearly four hour, memorable concert. There is no doubt Muscat is not going to wait very long before demanding Pantula Rama and her concert partner (as well her life’s partner) MSN Murthy return soon. Very soon.

The heartfelt thanks of the audience to the magnanimous grace and patronage of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said for such lovely classical music concerts was well expressed by the organizers of the day.

Glossary

Mangalam: Means auspicious ending, A thankful prayer and conclusion to the musical event.
Sadinchane: One of the 5 of the revered compositions known as the Pancharatna kritis.
Tānam: is rhythmic / rhythm based improvisation of the rāgam. It is done with rhythm based syllables like tha, nam, thom and na. It is usually included as second part in a Rāgam Tānam Pallavi renderings.
Thillānā: is a composition consisting of rhythm syllables, like Dheem, thom, tarana and thaani in first two stanzas, followed by a one or two line lyric. In instrumental performances, it is a melodic rhythmic piece
Vidwat: Erudition.
Yathi: is shape of rhythmic pattern and swara rendering pattern which is one of the 10 elements in prosody, particularly used in Telugu and Sanskrit, where the opening letter of a line, repeats at measured intervals.

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Concert Review: Buena Vista Social Club, Luminaries Of Cuban Music In Durham

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club headliners, left to right: laud player Barbarito Torres, vocalist and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, vocalist Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, and vocalist and trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos - Photo by Alejandro Pérez
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club headliners, left to right: laud player Barbarito Torres, vocalist and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, vocalist Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, and vocalist and trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos – Photo by Alejandro Pérez

 

Done wowing Europe on their farewell tour, the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is several weeks in on the North American leg of the Adios Tour. Having soaked and stored up the sheer wonderfulness that is the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club last night, October 26, at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of the Duke Performances 2015-2016 season by way of Duke University’s performing arts program, I can only sigh and wish for another fix of this gold standard of Cuban music.

It was clear upon arriving last night that the concert was sold out so I didn’t need to have one of the staff tell a hopeful arrival that there wasn’t a single ticket left. With just a few dates left, I would guess that anyone still without a ticket will have to stand outside and look horribly pitiful or lay on some serious obsequious patter to those with an extra one.

Providing the backbone of the ensemble are tres player Papi Oviedo, double bassist Pedro Pablo, pianist Rolando Luna, vocalist and percussionist Idania Valdes, vocalist Carlos Calunga, bongo player Alberto La Noche, timbales player Filiberto Sanchez, conga player Coayo and trumpeter Luis Alemany. That would certainly have fans begging for more, especially with flashy bassist Mr. Pablo, the simply stunning work of Mr. Luna and the vocal riches brought by the curvy deliciousness of Ms. Valdes and the charismatic Mr. Calunga, but this tour features some of the luminaries of Cuban music made famous by the 1997 recording with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and Ry Cooder on the World Circuit label and the 1999 Wim Wenders documentary capturing the group in performance in Amsterdam in 1998. Those luminaries featured vocalist Omara Portuondo, vocalist and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, laud player Barbarito Torres and the current director of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, vocalist and trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos, ramped up the talent and energy to a feverish pitch so much so that one could feel the electricity in the audience.

 

Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club
Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club

 

Fortunately, past talents behind the Buena Vista Social Club were also in attendance by way of series of revolving photographs run on a screen overhead that included pianist Ruben Gonzalez, vocalist Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, vocalist and tres player Compay Segundo, vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, vocalist Pio Leyva, double bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, percussionist Anga Diaz and guitarist Manuel Galban. It was more than just a sweet tribute, but a testament to the riches brought about those who had a hand in musical history of Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club.

Led by Mr. Ramos, the ensemble works its way through a couple of numbers before Eliades Ochoa appears on stage in his signature hat and electrifies the audience, especially with the favorite “Chan Chan,” but it is when Ms. Portuondo takes the stage that party really begins. Full of an irrepressible energy, despite a little trouble walking, this slip of a woman has a voice that simply took over the space and mesmerized the audience. So enthralled, we were all a little surprised when she had the audience join her for “Besame Mucho.”

 

Omara Portuondo - Photo by Tomás Mina
Omara Portuondo – Photo by Tomás Mina

 

Filled with the richness of the Cuban sound, taken over by the need to clap along, the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club sings, plays and dances, including the shamelessly flirty Ms. Portuondo, astonished, dazzled, hypnotized, stupefied and generally bowled over the audience. Treated to a couple’s dance with Ms. Portuondo and her husband and tres player Mr. Oviedo, some interplay between singer Mr. Calunga and laud player Mr. Torres (who can play the laud behind his back) and some group number, this ensemble is worth any amount of begging, pleading or blackmailing you’d have to do to get a seat at one of the few remaining concerts before the Adios Tour ends.

 

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Estusha’s EXIB Música Bilbao 2015 Concert Review

Estusha en EXIB 2015 - Foto realizada por Angel Romero
Estusha en EXIB 2015 – Foto realizada por Angel Romero

 

The concert by Mexican singer Estusha Grinberg, better known by her stage name Estusha was personally one of the best in the event, setting a very high standard. Her modern and at the same time simple proposal consist of creating hypnotic musical atmospheres through her voice, fusing it with ancestral indigenous Mexican songs and from other parts of the world, supported by traditional drums, and the rhythmic and ambient music made by computer.

In short, it was a risky proposal with a more contemporary and modern interpretation of her own tradition. A song of love for nature and humanity.

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Review of the Global Beat Festival

Feedel band
Feedel band

 

Arts Brookfield has existed as an organization for over twenty-five years. Part of its work is to bring free and open arts events in public spaces to audiences across the world. The Global Beat Festival is one such event. The festival took place this year from Thursday May 7th to Saturday May 9th and offered some of the best and most exciting acts in contemporary world music. Ranging from the powerful vocals of Emel Mathlouthi of Tunisia to Feedel band who merge jazz with traditional Ethiopian sounds and instruments. The real significance of this festival is its free accessibility to anyone with an interest in music. It gives audience members the opportunity to approach all kinds of world music on their own terms, whereas a music event that charges money may not.

On the last night of the festival, true magic happened. Here we were carried into the world of music that is Honduras, a Central American country with music ranging from reggae to Garifuna music (more about that later) with a touch of salsa to liven it up.

 

Guayo Cedeño
Guayo Cedeño

 

In the first set we were introduced to Guayo Cedeño and his band Coco Bar. This was Latin surf, as the guitar whirred, we felt as if we were stepping into the wickedly danceable soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The music was light and playful: the sea side sound of the Beach Boys met Ry Cooder’s electric guitar. This group’s sense of fun was like coming up for air after hearing so many bands that take themselves way too seriously. The sound was simple. Just three instruments: drums, bass, and guitar grabbed our attention. Their music made us want to get up and boogie down on surf boards. The first number was uptempo, almost ska in sound. By the third number, “La Charanga,” we heard the full expressiveness in Guayo Cedeño’s guitar playing as he elongated the guitar notes. The musicians were enjoying themselves, bobbing up and down to the jangling sound on stage. On the fourth number, “Black and White,” they moved their hips as they danced side by side to a psychedelic guitar that merged with reggae. The set built in excitement and energy, as Guayo’s guitar playing became more elaborate, ecstatic even.

But Aurelio Martinez was the musician to capture our attention. He held an acoustic guitar and was dressed all in white, even wearing white shoes as he moved with elegance on stage. His Garifuna Soul Band were the second group to take to the stage that night. His band was large, encompassing two round percussive drums, a drum set, clave, maracas, electric guitar and bass. His is the music of the Garifuna people, who are indigenous to the coasts of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. They are the descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people. The pulse of West Africa is kept alive in their music — in its highly percussive sound. This music is closest to what we in America would call folk music, yet the vocals are arresting and haunting. Garifuna music was bought more to worldwide critical attention in 2007 by Andy Palacio a musician and activist who was a friend Aurelio. Andy sadly died in 2008, but Aurelio now continues the work of bringing this music to a broader audience.

 

Aurelio Martinez
Aurelio Martinez

 

Aurelio’s was a powerful voice, a voice of longing, a voice echoing the cry of the blues. His smile was beautiful as he sang, inviting us in, welcoming us to the warmth of his music. Pablo Blanco who is a cultural advocate of the Garifuna people and who lives in New York says that the voices of the Garifuna are prepared by their ancestors. And Aurelio’s voice soared with an expressiveness that reached to the back of this packed audience. The plastic seats stretched way back in rows that could almost have been in a church.

The festival was held in a wide open space, the Winter Garden, in a shopping mall in downtown Manhattan — not what you might imagine as a typical venue for live music. The ceiling was curved glass opening out onto the changing night sky. Yet the space was refreshing. Here was not the smoky, cramped atmosphere of a dingy night club where people are packed to the walls. Here you could relax as the percussive drums or segunda were a steady, constant undercurrent throughout this music. They never ceased playing. Pablo Blanco says that the “Segunda drum is a spiritual drum, they are used to call down the spirits. Segunda drums are vital when we perform our spiritual ceremonies. People go into trance when they hear the thunderous sound from five Segunda drums playing in unison along with the chanting of our ancestral songs.”

After a few songs, we too are lulled into a trance, swaying with the steady, hypnotic rhythm. We were held by the easy, gentle sound, almost a lullaby in feel. Aurelio caressed his acoustic guitar and rocked us with his vocals. He danced too, putting down his guitar for a moment, he jumped and twirled around with extended arms, electrifying us on “Chichanbara” as the percussion took flight under his vocals. The segunda grew more powerful as the night progressed, cascading in steady ripples. By the end, in “Yalifu,” the steady undercurrent of percussion held us in its grasp. We could no longer sit still, but were moving with the power of this music.

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Babel Med Music 2015 Review

Tcha Limberger Trio, one of the highlights of Babel Bed 2015
Tcha Limberger Trio, one of the highlights of Babel Med 2015

 

Babel Med Music – World Music forum (Forum des Musiques du Monde) took place March 26 through 28, 2015 in Marseilles, France. This is regarded as the second largest European world music congress after WOMEX.

Participation figures were similar to the previous edition in 2014, without experiencing significant variables. Organizers provided us the following figures: 2.000 registered professionals, and 160 booths in the fair area. As far as concert audiences, there was an important variation during the three concert nights. It was a total of 15.000 concertgoers (two thousand more that in 2014). Here, we were able to verify the atmosphere, especially with the sold out and somewhat suffocating concerts on Saturday night, where most artists were local or regional.

The Forum’s venue was the usual the Dock-du-Suds. This industrial warehouse converted to new use is located very close to the new port, in an area of modern buildings and new hotels, where we witnessed the great urban change taking place in this Marseilles neighborhood. This time, the demolition crews tore down our favorite restaurant called “Jupiter” so we weren’t able to taste its humble, well-cared for home cooking menu..

During this edition concerts took place on three stages, like last year. The largest one, “Salle des Sucres”, featured the large format acts. Inside the same building there was the “Cabaret” space, where we watched the most intimate and acoustic concerts, as well as the ethno electronic performances. The remaining venue called “Chapiteau” was located under a huge tent outside the building. ,

We counted a total of 13 conferences, presentations and panels As far as the 31 showcases, I’ll tell you about the ones that captivated me the most.

On Thursday, March 26, the great revelation of the Forum to me was the Tcha Limbgerger’s Kalotaszeg Trio, led by Belgian violinist Tcha Limbgerger, accompanied by veteran and efficient Romanian musicians, bassist Berki Victor and Toni Rudi on viola. Even though Limbgerger is blind, he’s a real devil playing the violin. He introduced to us his repertoire based essentially on the traditional music of Kalotaszeg, a small region in Transylvania, located in northwestern Rumania, with Magyar influences.

 

Azam Ali & Niyaz, another Babel Med 2015 high point
Azam Ali & Niyaz, another Babel Med 2015 high point

 

Another concert that attracted our attention was Azam Ali & Niyaz, since we’ve been following closely their career for years, listening to all the recordings they release (including Azam Ali’s, Loga Ramon Torkian’s or Niyaz trio). With some differences, all these musicians are separately, or grouped, under the brand, Niyaz, It is a project of musicians of Iranian origin who reside between the USA and Canada, and we never had a chance to see them in action. But thanks to this live performance through the Forum, we finally had the opportunity, and they did not disappoint us. It was consistent and identical to their recorded works. Their music can be described as a fusion of mystical Sufi music, atmospheric environments and rhythmic electronic music, adapting Persian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, with lyrics drawn from various poems of Persia, Palestine, Turkey and the Kurdistan, set to music and performed well and with sensuality by singer Azam Ali. In short, we left pleased after hearing their live music.

Also noteworthy was the concert given by the Egyptian duo formed by the great percussionist Tarek Abdallah, and Adel Shams el Din on Arabic lute (oud). In the same vein, we highlight the local “a capella” quintet Radio Babel Marseille, who presented to us its rich repertoire of traditional and original compositions.

Other showcases featured Senegalese singer Omar Pene, a living legend of the “mbalax” style, a very popular genre in Senegal and Gambia, but already well exploited and which we’ve heard before from the great Senegalese musicians. His performance did not go above average. It was followed in the same large “Salle des Sucres” stage of the by the versatile singer from Cape Verde, Mario Lucio, a musician, writer, painter, and currently the Minister of Culture of the archipelago. He made his presence accompanied by a brand new group, where Mario wore his most important songs.

The remaining concerts scheduled for that night, didn’t have much weight and moreover were preceded by excessive modernity. These included South Korea band, Jambinai, with its noisy and uncreative “post avant-garde rock,” and Portuguese act Batida, who provided something more appropriate for a “modern” disco club. The performance by Beninese female Trio Teriba was weak. The night ended with the presentation of the new Malian group, Songhoy Blues, whose “punk rock” style fused with “desert blues”, did not show us anything new.

 

Warsaw Village Band
Warsaw Village Band

 

Regarding the artistic activity on Friday 27, we highlight what we consider the best concert held in Babel Med 2015, offered by the Polish Warsaw Village Band performing together with Galician singer and multi-instrumentalist, Mercedes Peon (Spain). Being familiar with the beginning of their artistic careers and the musical and vocal characteristics of these two artists from very different cultures, we felt that this musical merger would have a powerful effect, and we were not wrong at all. The compact and spirited music of “alternative folk” (contemporary folk executed with energy and rebelliousness) has little in common with the melancholic American or Anglo “neo-folk” performed by the Warsaw Village Band, combined with the vibrant personal energy of Mercedes Peon, They created a powerful musical force onstage so attractive that it transferred as a hypnotic ray to the expectant public. The magical music we heard, banked between the rhythmic sounds of the two Polish voices and cellists, with the high pitched vocals and electronic beats of the Galician artist, perfectly supported by the rest of the Polish group unfolded. In short, a great concert of contemporary folk music. Still, we witnessed authentic musical hybridization, as well as the first fruits of these two great performers of current European “world music”. For many fellow journalists, especially French and Italians, who did not know the Galician artist, this will cause a big impact. To us she became the “Diva” of this Marseilles event.

 

Unni Lovlid
Unni Lovlid

 

Other fine concerts featured Norwegian singer Unni Lovlid, who despite the unexpected breakdown of her mini electronic equipment, which supplies her beautiful accompanying atmospheres, she showed outstanding professionalism and quality, offering an a capella concert, where her voice completely fascinated us. I do not want to forget my friends from Quebec, Le Vent du Nord, with their charming Quebec folk show, always cheerful and full of rhythm, caused by repetitive footwork as a percussion instrument.

Also great, Argentine virtuoso accordionist Chango Spasiuk, with a wide selection of “chamamé”, the curious traditional musical genre from rural regions between Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil.

There was also a splendid duo concert by New York multi-instrumentalist Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate of Guinea, considered the Jimi Hendrix of the “kora”. This couple played for us some of the songs from their latest award-winning CD, “Faya”. Lastly, I’d like to mention the multi-racial dance orchestra, Family Atlantica. Other artists with little to talk about included Spanish guitarist Chicuelo, French singer Françoise Atlan & L’Ensemble in Chordais playing songs of Sephardic Jews, and Lebanese pianist and singer, Bachar Mar-Khalife.

On Saturday, the program was rather dominated by local and regional artists, which brought a large audience turnout. The best concerts we witnessed were the project Saiko Nata, which in Mandinka language means New Vision. This is a Marseilles quartet, with a simple but innovative proposal, a fusion of classical pieces with African rhythms. The African foundation includes Senegalese kora (African harp) player Ousmane Kouyate and Fallou N’Diaye on percussion. Meanwhile, the classical foundation features first the presence of elegant pianist from Lyon, Agathe Di Piro, supported accurately by the bass grooves of Marseilles-based, Alain Rageot.

 

Moussu T e Lei Jovents
Moussu T e Lei Jovents

 

Another awaited concert we were looking forward to was that of Marseilles group Moussu T e Lei Jovents, a band we already knew. This time they delivered their anticipated new show inspired by songs from their land, Provence, and the so called called “operettas” that were sung in the thirties at Marseilles clubs, bars and the more eccentric theatres in the popular Old Port of Marseilles. In short, a cheerful and mischievous repertoire that delighted a totally devoted audience.

Average were the concerts by Portuguese fado singer, Gisela João; the Reunion Island female quintet Simangavole; and Moroccan musician Majid Bekkas & Afro-Oriental Jazz Trio. We were not captivated by the proposal of Israeli group Boom Pam, which was preceded by some good reviews. We found their performance sounded like “modern fairground” music.

There were other artists performing during the three nights, but our schedule did not allow for more, especially the DJ’s scheduled for very late hours.

The five awards that were handed out during BabelMed this year were: Babel Med Award to Senegalese singer Omar Pene and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur to French program Equation Musique.

The “Adami” prize to Mar-Lebanese pianist Bachar Khalife. The French World Music Award to Belgian violinist’s Tcha Limberger’s Kalotaszeg Trio. The Transatlantic Bridge Prize went to the Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate (USA & Guinea) duo, and the Mundial Montreal award to Quebec act, Le Vent du Nord.

In summary, I give the programming at Babel Med this year a high score. I won’t stop saying that Babel Med is of the very few “world music” conferences where you can discover new artists, or you have the opportunity to see live those whom you only know from their recordings. This was clearly stated on the lines I wrote about the showcases. At this sense, it goes above WOMEX.

During the final press conference, the pair of artistic directors of the event, Mr. Bernard Aubert, and Mr. Sami Sadak, appeared to provide all kinds of information and summarized the good overall development provided by the Forum this year. The formula of balance between “quality and commerciality”, continues to operate under Babel Med Music’s ongoing budget parameter.

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Zap Mama Zaps GlobalFEST

Zap Mama
Zap Mama

On a cold night in January, the group Zap Mama took to the stage at GlobalFEST. It is an annual event that hosts twelve international acts, often up and coming, on three different stages in New York City. Although many strong vocalists performed this year, including the great Tunisian songbird Emil Mathlouthi and the ethereal sounding Emil Zrihan, Zap Mama is spellbinding. Starting in 1989, they were among the first to introduce to the world African polyrhythmic vocals. These were singers of such strength and skill that they became instantly recognizable for their acrobatic vocal play. Think Bobby Mcferrin meets the rainforest people of Zaire and you begin to get the sound.

Marie Daulne, the group’s lead singer and composer, (also known as Zap Mama), is strong and elegant, with hair wrapped tight in black curls above her head. She is a forceful presence, demanding our attention as she walks across the stage in gold stiletto heels. She could be a ninety forties actress in a thriller alongside Humphrey Bogart. She has vocal power and self-confidence that a younger musician may not have. She announces, “We bring you joy, love and happiness. I am going to zap you to another place.”

All eyes are on her, three other female vocalists and two males, as she invites us to join this drama. But the other female singers in the group (Maria Fernandez, Lene Christensen and Judith Okon) are no slouches. They are not just backing singers, they have a real interplay with Daulne as the team move in synchrony across the stage. Here is a group whose emphasis is vocal, their voices are the instruments teasing the audience with a sound that is at once Hip Hop and funk. They are a group that relies only minimally on the occasional accompaniment of guitar and keyboard.

Zap Mama Music Video ‘Brrrlak’

After a simple, funky opening song, it is in the second number where the groups inventiveness comes to the fore. This song includes the words “somebody text me” and seems to make fun of people’s obsession with texting. At one point the vocalists mimic the sound of a message being sent with quick fire staccato notes. There is not a moment of stillness, we are kept on our toes.

The pace does become gentler though, as we move into another song and are transported to South Africa. Here we feel the inspiration of Miriam Makeba’s vocal style as Daulne annunciates quick breaths over the microphone. This is a slower song that allows space for her voice that the quicker songs do not. Daulne not only has the vocal skill and technique of a seasoned performer, but hers is an expressive voice that both captivates and holds the audience in a strong embrace.

Look for upcoming collaborative tour dates from Zap Mama as they perform with the Afrobeat band Antibalas.

You can visit Zap Mama’s website at: www.zapmama.com

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Quo Vadis, Marcel?

Marcel_Khalife_Haverford

A concert by a renowned–one might say legendary–musical figure from the Arab world is always cause for celebration. So much more so when that person has shown a deep and abiding concern not only for Arab culture but for justice in the region. How much more bitter is the disappointment, then, when such a venerable musician “pulls a fast one” on his loyal audience base.

The sold-out November 15 concert at Marshall Auditorium on the campus of Haverford College in a Philadelphia suburb marked the long-awaited return visit of Marcel Khalife, for the U.S. premiere performance of his “composition” entitled Chants of the East. The concert was also notable for its sponsorship by a Philadelphia-based cultural organization, al-Bustan Seeds of Culture; and its partnership with the orchestra and choirs of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, and Keystone State Boychoir, all energetically coordinated by conductor Thomas Lloyd. The foundation of the instrumentation was provided by the professional al-Bustan takht ensemble, under the masterful directorship of violin virtuoso Hanna Khoury.

The source of disappointment was rooted in any assumption that this work was an original composition; rather, it turned out to be a random and incomprehensible pastiche of familiar Arab songs, inexplicable snippets of Western pieces and genres, and minimal Khalife compositions. This listener sat in amazement during the hour-long bombardment of sonic elements: here a waltz, there a Carmina Burana knock-off, everywhere an undercurrent of hyperkinetic frenzy.

Question: is it ethical to subject an audience to this kind of uncharted musical territory without a roadmap? More helpful program notes with a roster of the elements of the piece, along with their composers/origins, would have provided some basic level of understanding.

Frankly, the only moments of sanity in this sonic jumble occurred during the few segments devoted to the vocalist, Abeer Nehme, and the takht (violin, oud, kanun, violoncello, percussion) which ever-so-subtly backed her, as is the tradition. A side-bar about this instrumental ensemble: most of its members have been performing together for ten years. They first dazzled audiences with their Sayyed Darweesh “Soul of a People” tour in 2004, and have continued to deliver sheer excellence ever since. It can safely be said that these ensemble members represent a rare commitment among professional North American (if not global) musicians in performing the authentic repertoire with authentic performance standards. “Fusion” is not in their vocabulary (or was not, until Chants of the East mandated it).

During the concert, the ten-year veterans could be singled out for their respectful attitude toward the other instrumentalists: not overpowering the others (except when the sound system regrettably made the kanun and violin barely heard unless they were playing solos), and playing seamlessly together. The solo taqasim (improvisations) were the accepted occasions to “shine,” with versatile percussionist Hafez Kotain nothing short of super-amazing–providing a jaw-dropping interlude to the delight of all. The oudist, remarkably in-sync with Khalife, with whom he tours, and their over-long duets demonstrated the symbiosis of two generations of oudists.

The overarching vibe of Chants of the East was that of a spectacle, a Hollywood-inspired soundtrack; one which begged not only for a larger venue but for visual enhancements. During the enthusiastic performance, the imagination supplied any number of incongruous images: Cossack dancers, Rockettes, belly-dancers (but of course), Biblical epic-type grandeur, even Disney-esque twittering birds, a-fluttering to expansive stringed whimsies. How does this piece involving one of the living masters of the field contribute to capturing the treasured legacy of traditional Arabic music? Throwing in a few bouncy bars of an Egyptian song just doesn’t cut it. But no matter. Marcel’s mish-mosh of an assemblage brought the audience to its feet. Apparently, both the Arab and Western attendees got caught up in the exotic mystique and grandeur of the piece, buoyed by the youthful exuberance of the student musicians and the mastery of the takht.

Those who weathered the first half of the concert were richly rewarded after the intermission with the signature repertoire of the Marcel audiences worldwide know and love. The downside was that a late start (8:15 p.m.) and lengthy program had the audience filing out at nearly 11:00. Mutterings of “too long” could be heard among attendees. But for the die-hard fans of traditional Arabic music, THIS is what we came to see and hear: familiar tunes, familiar lyrics, and a chance to respond as an Arab audience–with claps and shouts of appreciation, especially for Nehme’s soaring, range-topping vocals. This set consisted of folk-infused Khalife compositions, among them Rakwet Arab (“Arabic Coffee Pot”), two songs with lyrics by Mahmoud Darwish, and Ghanni Qalilan Ya ‘Asafir (“Sing a Little”).

The crowd-pleaser Mountassiba al Kamati was, oddly, not on the list. The takht, backing Khalife and Nehme, was admirably complemented by the Western-trained Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, positioned on either side of the takht and soloists; their mastery and engagement in the purely Arab-style repertoire added immeasurably to the sublime experience of the music. Thanks to the “second half,” there was definitely tarab (“ecstasy” or “enchantment”) in the house. But please, Marcel…don’t mess with us again.

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