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The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 3

On Saturday night, most of the bands were French to please the general public. The crowd around was younger on average than in the previous nights. Some just wanted to be there to get a buzz and jumped up and down on the faster songs, while talking throughout the quieter ones.

Trio Keynoad appeared on stage representing the Provence Alpes – Côte d’Azur region. The members of Trio Keynoad are Ameylia Saad Wu (voice and harp), Christian Kiane Fromentin (violin, saz) and Nicola Marinoni (percussion).

Ameylia is the daughter of Lebanese writer Michel Saad and a Chinese mother. The group’s lyrics are poems by Ameylia’s father set to music. She grew up on Reunion Island and quickly became interested in learning the Celtic harp and classical singing.

The song “Follow your star” featured a steady darbuka beat. We easily recognized the Eastern structure of the song containing intervals of three-quarter tones.

The remaining songs ‘Okinanoss “Sega islands” and “Night Wings” invited us to a journey in space and time. A mixture of neo-classical and world music.

 

 

The next performance I attended at the Chapiteau stage was Compagnie Lyakam ((India – France). Jessie Veeratherapillay performed Bharata Natyam, the dance of her Tamil ancestors. It’s a form of Indian classical dance expressing grace, purity, and sculptural poses.

 

Compagnie Lyakam
Compagnie Lyakam – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

The musicians on electric sitar, saxophone and percussion, together with vocal harmonies, delivered jazz and flamenco flavors.

 

 

Soadaj, from Reunion Island (France) brought a breath of fresh air at the Salle des Sucres. The musicians specialize in Maloya that is, along with the Sega, one of two major genres of Reunion.

 

Soadaj - Photo by Charles Eloy
Soadaj – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

Pan-African and European influences are mixed into their music reflecting the melting pot of the band.

On “Out ‘Po” the crystalline voice of the blonde singer Marie invaded the space, supported by the sound of the didgeridoo, plunging us into a shamanic trance. The voice of Laurence, the second singer in counterpoint, harmony or response fitted completely into the music of the band.

The musicians of Saodaj were full of beauty, talent and youth, with a solid background and life experience. They brought us authenticity and the enthusiastic reception of the public was fully justified.

 

 

Belgium-based duo Vardan Hovanissian (Armenia) & Emre Gültekin (Turkey) played at the Cabaret stage. Vardan Hovanissian plays duduk, an Armenian music instrument like a double reed oboe, while Emre Gültekin plays the saz, a long-necked lute.

 

Vardan Hovanissian & Emre Gültekin - Photo by Charles Eloy
Vardan Hovanissian & Emre Gültekin – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

Both musicians brought into life the coexistence of two cultures that existed under the Ottoman Empire until the tragic events of the early 20th century with the physical elimination of about 1.5 million Armenians.

Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin produced a duo album “Adana“, one hundred years after the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

 

Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin - Adana
Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin – Adana

 

The title song “Adana” is dedicated to Adana, a city which housed a large Armenian community in the late 19th century and was exterminated during the genocide. Emre’s voice expressed suffering.

“Daglar” (mountain in English) is a poem written by Emre’s father. Emre sang softly. The accompaniment by the darbuka and the saz created a sense of emptiness on mountain tops. Vardan and Emre were supported by two experienced musicians mastering the Turkish and Armenian music structures based on Eastern and Western scales.

The concert by Vardan Hovanissian & Emre Gültekin ended with a standing ovation of more than 1,500 persons.

 

 

The band 7SON@TO that performed at Salle des Sucres is the flagship of gwoKa, the musical style Guadeloupe of island. It is mainly played with drums of different sizes called ‘ka’, a family of percussion instruments.

 

7SON@TO - Photo by Charles Eloy
7SON@TO – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

On stage, a lead singer in the center, 3 singers (two women and one man) and four percussionists.

Durg the song “Péyi Dewo” a singer took over the lead vocals. Then other musicians, and part of the audience responded. “Ah Ta Mama Yayo” had growing harmonies. I recognized Central African words in the Creole songs. Indeed, gwoka was born during the period of slavery and was a means of escape and communication. The audience accompanied the songs and danced to the vibes of the Caribbean Isles.

I found that the representation was a bit too pedagogic, but 7SON@TO brought into light their traditions rooted in our time. Their concert enriched me with their culture.

 

 

I hope that the coverage of more than one third of the acts gives you an idea of the new discoveries and highlights. Babel Med Music is, without question, one of the important international events in world music. We were very lucky with music and Mediterranean sunshine.

Read parts 1 and 2:

The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 1

The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 2

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The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 2

On Friday night, March 18, the public showed up early to BabelMed and rushed in at the opening of the gates, eager to have a good time.
Born into a noble family and descendant of Mogho Naba Konkis Konkistenga the village of north-eastern Burkina Faso, Alif Naaba delivered us folk music at the Tent stage. The lyrics were in French and his native language Mooré, one of the two official regional languages of Burkina Faso. He revisited the musical traditions evoking the West African regions of today.

With the song “Manita” Alif Naaba explained that musicians do not have easy love relationships under pressure from the families. Who wants a man who cannot afford to buy a pair of shoes?

Alif Naaba is a singer with a clear griot (storyteller, poet, musician) voice like Baaba Maal orSalif Keita.

 

 

Autostrad, a self-produced band stating its independence showcased at the Salle des Sucres. The musicians from Jordan compose on western scales, but the lyrics are in Arabic dialect.

 

Autostrad - Photo by Charles Eloy
Autostrad – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

“Estann Schwai” was a nice pop song on a slow reggae beat that made me think of Chris Rea or 10CC. The super Zen melody ended with a saxophone solo.

“Habeetak Bel Turki” featured beautiful guitar solos with jazzy guitar riffs throughout the entire song.

The term “Arabic Mediterranean Street indie” suits the band.

 

 

Breabach emerged in 2005 from the Scottish folk scene to undertake an international career. The musicians entered the Tent stage in total darkness. We listened to a flute, then a voice…The lights turned on, the crowd went on shouting and whistling.

 

Breabach - Photo by Charles Eloy
Breabach – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

Spectators could not keep their feet on the ground and jumped on the tent floor. We were not in the Wild West, but the atmosphere propelled by the rhythm generated an infectious energy.

The band played “Proud to play a pipe”, a composition dating back to the 17th century claiming their Scottish identity. Megan showcased her vocal capacities during the last verses and choruses.

I discovered the best of Scottish musicians with an academic background and the passion to create. They were pleased to be in Marseilles, smiling and joking during the concert.

 

 

Ricardo Ribeiro is advertised as being the rising star of the Portuguese Fado. Most of the time, Ricardo Ribeiro kept his hands in his pockets at the Tent stage.

 

Ricardo Ribeiro - Photo by Charles Eloy
Ricardo Ribeiro – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

His mournful tunes expressing melancholy, resignation, frustration and fatefulness made me feel down. Some people in the crowd overwhelmed by the Portuguese saudade applied handkerchiefs to their eyes to wipe off the tears. It was a bit unrealistic watching people coming to a concert to cry.

 

 

French band Temenik Electric, including five musicians, appeared on the Salle des Sucres stage to (re) discover their Arabian Rock. The group mixes Western music, reggae, funk and North African roots. They sang in the Arabic dialect northwest of Oran, but sometimes make incursions into French or English.

 

Temenik Electric - Photo by Charles Eloy
Temenik Electric – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

On the song “Denia” the vocals were backed by an energetic rhythm section and a powerful bass line. The keyboardist added oscillating synthesizer sounds in clever arrangements. Meanwhile, the singer said “Salam aleikoum, we salute you“. ACDC is singing “For those about to rock (we salute you).

Indeed, Temenik Electric can easily appear on a rock, alternative or world music stage.

During the last song “Ouesh Hada” (what happens? In Arabic), the atmosphere was Middle Eastern trance, whipping the crowd into euphoria.

Temenik Electric is a band aware of the events in the world, but not engaged, without political or philosophical claims. Their language is the universal one.

There is no wonder that Justin Adams (Tinawiren, Robert Plant guitarist) became interested producing their latest album “Inch’ Allah Baby” given the outstanding qualities of the band.

 

 

Read The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 1

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The Cultural Richness of Diversity Showcased at Babel Med Music 2016 – Day 1

Three nights of music (17 March – 19 March 2016) at Babel Med Music, located in the Docks des Suds of Marseille with outdoor spring-like temperatures. What more could you expect? Would we discover a lot of new bands and creations?

I think that for budgetary reasons and cost effectiveness, the organizers try to get a fair balance between emerging talents for the professional participants and established ones for the general public. My review will feature fourteen acts out of more than thirty artists spread over three nights.

On Thursday night, I noticed a lot of professionals wearing a badge, who were attending the gigs. Canadian vocalist Alejandra Ribera started the concert series at the Tent stage. She was eye catching, wearing a long sleeveless black dress. Alejandra began the song “La Boca” in English, with a deep voice in a foggy universe, then switched over into another register, singing in Spanish with sometimes a piercing voice. Her Scottish roots took us into a melancholic mood as deep as a winter depression. Fortunately, the South American rhythms that followed made us jump with joy.

 

 

Also at the Tent stage, the project La Nuit d’Antigone (France – Germany – Turkey) presented the meeting of Mediterranean female musicians: Sylvie Paz on vocals, Perrine Mansuy on piano, Naïssam Jalal on flute, Diler Özer on percussion and DJ Ipek for sound design.

 

La Nuit d'Antigone - Photo by Charles Eloy
La Nuit d’Antigone – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

The lyrics were contemporary women’s poetry set to music. It was advertised that the performance was a history of women’s resistance. The singer read the lyrics in different languages on a page in front of her. It did not make it easy to get the message of feminine resistance through.

 

 

Baba Zula is a Turkish band from Istanbul, a metropolis located at the crossroads of the East and the West. The musicians grew up in the underground music scene and forged their own identity with traditional folklore, rock and heavy metal.

 

Baba Zula - Photo by Charles Eloy
Baba Zula – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

At the Salle des Sucres, Baba Zula plunged us into a psychedelic experience. We listened to the musical legacy of the Ottoman Empire that lasted from 1299 to 1923, and that ruled North Africa and the Middle East.

Baba Zula’s Murat Ertel on the electric saz wandered into the public. When she returned, singer Melike invited the audience to follow her during the song “Acis, Hopçe”. She swung, dressed in a green dress with veils floating between her arms and body.

Fuelled by the energy of the band, the young ladies in the audience started to shake their bodies. They were probably members of a fitness club teaching belly dance or Turkish tsifteteli.

David Bowie used to sing “We Could Be Heroes just for one day”. We were the queens and kings of the night with Baba Zula.

 

 

Djmawi Africa is an Algerian band formed in 2004. They practice a fusion of chaabi, reggae and Gnawa rituals with essentially a rock rhythm section. We felt the band has an international stage experience.

 

Djmawi Africa - Photo by Charles Eloy
Djmawi Africa – Photo by Charles Eloy

 

Djmawi Africa kicked off their performance at the Salle des Sucres with the song “Lala Aicha”. First, we could hear the violinist playing Middle Eastern accents. Then followed the guembri (a Gnawa bass lute) and the guitarist who played blistering solos and deep-rooted riffs.

African bands have a tendency to produce a festive atmosphere throughout the concert time, Djmawi Africa had a different approach. At times, slower compositions allowed us to enjoy the subtlety and diversity of their musicality, and then the band offered an energy-packed set.

Djmawi Africa love to explore the sounds and added the kora, djembe, the ngoni to their list of instruments.

Djmawi Africa, a progressive and eclectic Algerian band that pleasantly surprised us with its respect of Africanness and musical colors played on modern and ethnic instruments.

 

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Songhoy Blues, They Will Have to Kill Us First

Auditorium at University of Sheffield Student Union
26 February 2016

Where were the blues born? Were its rough-hewn riffs formed from the mud of the Mississippi delta, or do its origins lie in Africa, along the river Niger? Musicological conundrums aside, it is the people of the Niger basin who have a greater need for the blues’ cathartic lament today. In the West African state of Mali In 2012, a separatist movement snowballed into a radical Islamist campaign that conquered two-thirds of the country. Music – which provides the heartbeat of Malian culture – was banned under an extreme interpretation of Sharia law.

The response of Mali’s musicians is documented in the film They Will Have to Kill Us First, which provides the evening’s first act, playing to a teeming auditorium within Sheffield University’s Student Union. The film sets up Malian band Songhoy Blues to tell the story live, inspiring the audience to a studious engagement with Malian musical culture that gives way to dancing in the aisles.

They Will Have to Kill Us First opens with Songhoy Blues on scooters, cruising through the capital Bamako like Malian Mods. They carry their guitars with them, as if ready to unleash drive-by grooves on the occupants of the red dirt pavements. The film offers a music-as-unifying-force narrative amidst an exploration of the country’s near total fracture. As a young band drawn from different parts of Mali, Songhoy Blues seem to offer the best hope of a modern Mali that transcends the disunity. By the end of the film the young quartet have been picked up by the Damon Albarn driven Africa Express project and wowed the European festival scene. They have shown no signs of stopping since, releasing their debut album Music in Exile last year to considerable acclaim.

Songhoy Blues in Sheffield
Songhoy Blues in Sheffield – Photo by Danielle Mustarde

Songhoy Blues’ meteoric rise and youthful swagger bears comparison to a band that has graced many of the Steel City’s stages, the Arctic Monkeys. Where Alex Turner took inspiration from police riot vans, Songhoy Blues had machine-gun toting Toyota pickups to contend with. The band’s matinee idol impression is reinforced by the boy-band bar stools they occupy for their acoustic set. Since this is a Talking Gig – which offers reflection as well as rock – the initial atmosphere suits the lecture theatre-like venue and student dominated audience. Journalist Andy Morgan takes on the role of professor, skilfully spinning tales of Mali’s spirit world and medieval empire, which enrich the audience’s understanding of the music.

Songhoy Blues in conversation with Andy Morgan
Songhoy Blues in conversation with Andy Morgan – Photo by Danielle Mustarde

If you have heard of one Malian musician it will surely be guitar giant Ali Farka Touré, who emerged like a Hendrix of the Sahara in the 1970s, his music both urgent and antique. The African continent is commonly represented as the body of a guitar, and the iconic instrument remains the king of Malian music.

There is a certain guitar timbre that unmistakably evokes West Africa, its bright sound still characteristic of the DIY twang of the proto-guitars assembled from petrol drums and brake cables on the streets of Timbuktu and Gao. Songhoy’s guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – summons the timeless tone from his acoustic guitar. Garba’s rippling riffs enter into dialogue with charismatic vocalist Aliou Touré, punctuating his vocal lines with short solos delivered in stuttering style.

Unexpected breaks and tempo changes enliven a blues template that can feel formulaic in its strictest western form. The band perform album track ‘Al Hassidi Terei’, which begins with a ‘Stairway to Heaven’ like arpeggio before igniting, like one of those well-worn moped engines, into a raucous gallop of a groove.

Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré
Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré – Photo by Danielle Mustarde

For the last three numbers Songhoy Blues rock out, kicking away their stools and summoning the audience to their feet. Nat Dembélé’s percussion playing and Oumar Touré’s bass then come into their own, their grooves bouncing across bar-lines to conduct the crowd’s convulsions. Amidst the celebratory atmosphere we recall Mali’s trauma, summed up by Aliou’s vocals on ‘Desert Melodie’; “Once upon a time Mali was a land of unity, now they want to divide us”. If there is a force that will help bring the country back together, it is up there on stage, as Songhoy Blues rock Sheffield.

Songhoy Blues discography available:

In North America: Music In Exile, Re-Covered and Al Hassidi Terei

In Europe: Music In Exile

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Mehmet Polat Trio play Music of the Heart

Some fusions between musical genres do not work, because they sound too forced. Other fusions fail because modern electronics drown out ancient instruments. But, the Mehmet Polat trio form a true union between Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. Nothing about their music sounds too pre-planned. It moves in cycles and is as hypnotic as Philip Glass’s minimalist works. The trio is of three virtuosos: Mehmet Polat from Turkey plays the oud, Sinan Arat also from Turkey plays the ney, an end-blown flute and a very ancient instrument, and Bao Sissoko from Senegal plays the kora, a 21 stringed instrument from West Africa that has as its base a carved out calabash. The trio performed in New York during the annual APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) conference in January, which is where I heard them.

It was an intimate evening of instrumental music at the Chhandayan Center for Indian classical music in Manhattan, where both the Mehmet Polat trio and Sahba Motallebi (an Iranian-American musician) shared the stage. The room held an audience of about forty, sitting barefoot and some on meditation cushions. The trio sat alongside each other in a half circle. They performed without overt showmanship; no one musician sought to stand out above the others. Their simple, yet powerful unity was refreshing and provocative.

Their music was slow, gentle, simple. The elongated notes of the ney breathed into the air while the oud and kora danced together alongside the melody. This music rewards patience in a listener. It is not for fast paced and restless individuals. It tells you to slow down, take deep breaths as you listen, and it will calm you down. Yet, the languorous feel of the music demands your attention. And then you were introduced to a traditional West African song that was playful and light. The whole evening the three instruments spoke to each other gracefully. The sound was enchanting: the music was meditative.

Mehmet and Sinan both come from families who are Alevi, a Sufi Community in Turkey. Mehmet grew up in the city of Urfa, in South Eastern Turkey. Before the concert, he told me: “Urfa has a big musical tradition with roots in ancient times.” There, he says, he was surrounded by the voices of his parents singing Sufi songs. The music moved him as he was growing up. And he says, “I knew at the age of ten that I wanted to become a musician. When I was about 13, I began exploring Anatolian folk music. There is a huge diversity of music in Turkey.”

DJL: So how did you learn about all of this music?

MP: By listening. At 17, I started with the oud lessons from oud masters in Istanbul.

DJL: But why oud, did you see or hear it being played?

MP: I was visiting a poet in Istanbul with my brother. And I was curious about an instrument on the wall. What’s this instrument? It looked so interesting. I grabbed it and I lost myself for a few minutes in it. And the deepness of the sound, it touched me so much that I decided to learn. But it is not only the instrument, it is the culture of the instrument that drew me to it. It has roots in the Ottoman Empire, in Iran, in all the Arabic countries, among others, so I got a chance to learn something of those influences. Afterwards, I became interested in Balkan, Flamenco and Indian music.

DJL: Indian classical music has a strong spiritual component, for example, we know that the great Pandit Ravi Shankar saw playing his instrument as a way of connecting to God. Do you relate to what he said?

MP: Yes, I do connect with that. Music for me is a kind of language. When I play music, my intention is to bring sincere feelings from my heart and share them with the universe.

DJL: But in the Indian classical tradition, musicians spend years learning, it is a real apprenticeship. So did you spend a long time learning?

MP: Yes, I studied Indian classical music officially for two years at school, but my study is still ongoing. I also like Western genres, also jazz, Latin, grooves. The musician has to be both a revolutionary and a master of his instrument to have enough ability to convey his emotions. And a musician has to have a broad vision and good taste. Without good taste there is no music.

DJL: This music has a very meditative quality, so are you approaching it from a meditative place as a musician?

MP: Yes, that’s why it sounds peaceful. Sometimes before the concert if I see that it is needed, I will say to the audience, ‘close your eyes, open your heart, let the music come to you and let us be one.’

DJL: How did you first hear the kora?

MP: I heard the kora live when I first came to Holland in 2007. In Turkey, there were African musicians, but on hearing the kora live I was moved, and thought about making something beautiful with it in the future. In 2013, after some musical ideas became clearer in my mind, I contacted my friend, the kora player Zoumana Diarra. (Diarra was the group’s first kora player and continues to play with them from time to time). I was interested in how Balkan rhythms in 7 or 15 beats to the bar would work with some African rhythms. It’s like teaching an Italian cook Chinese cooking. Bao Sissoko joined us from Senegal, and he has played with the band for the past three months. He’s risen to the challenge, and he’s dedicated to the music.

DJL: Bao comes from a very strong Griot musical tradition in Senegal, West Africa. So, you went to the kora second, and then to the ney as the third instrument, right? The ney is one of the oldest instruments still played today. It is a flute dating back four to five thousand years. It has a unique and ethereal sound.

MP: Yes, the time difference from the kora to the ney was one hour. (He laughs.) In Turkish, we say, ‘breathing out through the ney’. It has the sound of soul, the sound of spirit. The ney is almost like a human voice sometimes. Sinan is a very good musician, a great improviser, and a master of his instrument. He is a poet with a big vocabulary, and so he has an opportunity to speak out.

DJL: All three of you are gifted musicians, and you work together so strongly.

MP: For me, it is not only the meeting of three unique instruments, but also the making of deep connections, keeping the ancient and authentic traditions, and combining them in a contemporary way. This music is eighty percent improvised, and that makes it very exciting for me.

DJL: Something else I noticed is that the tone of the three instruments is aligned.

MP: When I compose the music, I try to use the full capacity of the instruments, and to keep them in harmony with each other. I ask the ney musician, for example, to play a lot of low notes.

DJL: These instruments are not combined with any modern instrument such as drums or electronic guitar. Is that deliberate?

MP: Yes, sometimes when I have played with other larger groups with drums and bass, or as a guest musician with orchestras, I didn’t like it. Because they do not hear or listen what I played or perhaps don’t care. They may have me there as a picture or as an image. I do not want that.

DJL: You added two extra bass strings to the oud, so you provide your own bass?

MP: Yes, I do that.

DJL: Would you like to come back here to the US for another tour?

MP: Yes, we are planning it for the mid-August and the mid-September. Our hope is to reach more people and to learn more about traditional American music.

DJL: And you are now working on a second album. Do you see a development from the first?

MP: The second album will be more about developing the music. I would like it to include a more spontaneous feeling, more of a sense of oneness as musicians, uniting our energies. In the end, music is not just for entertainment, it can connect us to a more sincere spiritual world.

Recordings available: Next Spring

For more about the Mehmet Polat trio, you can visit: www.mehmetpolat.net

For US & Canadian Booking Inquiries, please contact Craig S. Hyman – Numinous Music at craigshyman@gmail.com or at (917)-854-6315

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A Middle Eastern Star in the Making

The Ragam Tanam Pallavi was in full flow. Nodding my head contentedly, I happened to see the artiste’s parents sitting a little away from me. And it occurred to me that Tiruvalluvar might have been inspired by a similar sight to write his famous couplet about what makes a parent most happy: undisputed evidence of their offspring’s accomplishments. And Archana Murali did just that for her parents on 5th February at the Krishna temple in Muscat. A chance attendee would have found it difficult to believe that this was her first ever solo performance. He or she would have thought yet another star of Carnatic music had come visiting the city.

As the curtains went up, one could see a young, somewhat nervously smiling girl, barely in her teens. But all that was forgotten by the time she finished her opening varnam in Vasantha ragm and launched into Papanasam Sivan’s “ganapathiye” in karaharapriya.

The chittaswarams were crisp and brisk, setting the mood of the concert. “Palimpa” in aarabhi followed, followed by “Muruga” (Periyasami Tooran) in Saveri where she gave ample evidence of her ability to handle a tisranadai talam. She had the attention of the audience fully by now.

When she took up a partimadhyama melakarta Dharmavati for alapana next, I was impressed by her choice. The alapana was elaborate, yet free of any shades of Madhuvanti. Udupi S. Srijith who accompanied on the violin gave a masterful and melodious reply. She went on to sing the popular “bhajana seya rada O Ramuni” of Mysore Vasudevachar.

After a brisk “Maakelara” in Ravichandrika, Archana launched into her main piece of the day, “ Koluvamare” in Todi. In the alapana she revealed her understanding of the wide range offered by Todi. Perhaps because the stage was very warm due to the bright lights, she found her throat going dry when she explored the lower octaves.

The kriti was handled like an expert, and she gave generous opportunities to her senior colleague on the violin, like a seasoned expert! The Tani avartanam that followed, with Muscat’s own Nandagopal on the mridangam and Trivandrum Rajesh on the ghatam, was impeccable, and added glory to the concert, which, by now, had the audience totally engrossed.

Nandagopal, a mentor of sorts for young Archana, produced yet another brilliant exposition on the mridangam, reinforcing this reviewer’s opinion that he belongs in the prime time slots in Chennai’s major sabhas. Rajesh was very impressive with his laya suddham, on his incredibly melodious instrument. This Tani will be remembered for a long time by all those who witnessed it.

For a first timer, wrapping up the concert with a few tukkadas would have been more than acceptable. But Archana had no intensions of being a mere beginner. She went on to prove her mettle by singing a short “bantu reethi” in Hamsanadham which she cleverly chose to start at the anupallavi, and followed it up by a surprisingly elaborate RTP in Kapi.

In both the alapana and tanam, she and Srijith regaled the audience with phrases soaked in bhava. The pallavi itself was not remarkable in its phraseology, but Archana scored again in the ragamalika, exploring charukesi, Misra Sivaranjani and Kalyani to her credit. By now, the concert had gone on for about two and a half hours. Archana has a wonderful voice, and it held steady to the very end, which came after another thirty minutes or so of soulful singing: Papanasam Siva’s “nambi kettavar evarayya” in Hindolam, the popular Maand piece “Muralidhara”, and the Purandara Dasa kriti “ Innu day barade” in Kalyana Vasantham.

She wrapped up her concert with Lalgudi Jayaraman’s lilting thillana in Karnaranajni to a standing ovation by the much impressed, and very discerning Muscat audience.

To have the fortune of being born to parents who are both excellent musicians is one thing, but to have the commitment and application to score so well in her maiden concert, deserved the accolade she got.

Well done Archana! Here is another Middle Eastern Star ready to light up the Chennai sky in the annual seasons to come!

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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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