Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival Presentation
Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival treated New York to a spectacular performance of the 7th century classic Arabic Bedouin tale of impossible love, “Layla and Majnun,” October 26-28. There are numerous secular and mystical versions of the legend all over the world, once described by Lord Byron as “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Over centuries, two key poets in world literature popularized the story throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. The story has become renowned and celebrated in the history of literature, visual arts, cinema, and music in many diverse cultures.
The 12th century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, whose epic poem of close to 5000 distichs rends the heart with the immense agony and longing suffered by Layla and Majnun, the two hapless protagonist lovers in the story 1. Their union is forbidden by their parents due to the all-consuming love madness of Majnun (meaning “possessed”). Nizami’s version eventually influenced the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Muhammad Fuzuli’s version. In turn, the Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, borrowed Fuzuli’s work to create the Middle East’s first opera that premiered in Baku in 1908. Considered a national treasure in Azerbaijan, the 3½ hour long opera is still performed at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater every year as the season-opener.
Through collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Silk Road Ensemble, the late British artist, Howard Hodgkin, and Azerbaijan’s famed singers Alim Qasimov in the role of Majnun, and his protege daughter, Fargana Qasimova as Layla, Lincoln Center’s presentation was a finely wrought synthesis of the theme story in music, dance, and visual art.
Intense and fast-paced, the performance is based on Hajibeyli’s opera score and the libretto on Fuzuli’s poem, Leyli and Majnun. Lasting just over 65 minutes, the original opera has been transformed into a chamber piece as a suite arrangement in 6 parts. It opens with a prelude medley of traditional Azerbaijani love songs, sung by Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov who play frame drums, while accompanied by players of kamancheh spike fiddle and tar lute. As an overture, the introduction foretells the passion, despair, and unbearable pain to come. They set the tone for the complexity of the drama to unfold, the desperate yearning by two separated souls in quest of love and union with each other.
The actual performance condenses the story’s many episodes into 5 acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise. 16 dancers stylistically fuse ballet, Azerbaijani folk dance, and Sufi dervish whirling over tiered stage levels. They enact the sequence of dramatic episodes against a screened abstract painting of vibrant green and red giant expressionist brush strokes created by the artist Howard Hodgkin.
The music is glorious and the dramatic binding force. Flashes and passages of western classical modalities enhance the foundation of Azerbaijani classical music, the mugham genre. In Lincoln Center’s program notes, Azerbaijani ethnomusicologist Aida Huseynova, notes,
Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia. An improvised modal music, mugham historically has been performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle). Mugham remains a precious part of the traditional music heritage of Azerbaijan. Since the early 20th century, mugham also has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers…. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2.
In concert with the featured star vocalists, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated on a low dais center stage,10 musicians expand the traditional mugham trio formation. On a diverse instrumental mix of kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa, hand percussion, two violins, viola, cello, and bass – they are true to the Silk Road Ensemble vision of global cultural cross-pollination and musical dialogue. Theirs is a grand symphonic expression of the story, illuminated by rapidly changing passages of pathos, glints of joy in hope, sorrow. Theirs too is delicacy and elegant refinement.
To hear the opening strains by the string musicians is to be transported to a realm of contemplation of the soul. They tug at your heart, gently. With a shift in tempo, all musicians join in, allegretto, and with urgency. The symphony swells, bearing the powerful melismatic wails of Majnun. Layla begins to lament, sob, and weep. The dancers whirl, swoop, and leap in rhythmic counterpoint movement with the orchestration. So begins the impassioned, doomed dialogue between Majnun and Layla, musically alternating with instrumental passages.
Although on one level this is a tragic secular story of unrequited love, the entire performance narrative carries mystical overtones of Sufism. Sufis have long interpreted the love story as a reflection of love for God. In allegory, Majnun symbolizes the Human Spirit longing for the Beloved or Layla as Divine Beauty.
Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires. Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities 3.
There is also deeper meaning in the Azerbaijani mugham itself. The musical experience is meant to bring about a transformation of consciousness. Aida Huseynova has commented: “Mugham is about a catharsis. You go through suffering and you purify your soul. You come to some new phase of your development as a human being. And this is the main meaning, spiritual and philosophical, of mugham. Mugham is just not music, it’s a philosophy 4.”
A universal epiphany occurs in the ending death of Layla and Majnun – their ultimate union with the Beloved Divine. Like a jewel, the facets of the performance still shine bright in memory. I still haven’t decided if I felt that the performance as a suite composition could have been longer or whether I wished to be caught in its spell for just a few more minutes.
In the notification in these columns about Ranjani-Gayatri’s upcoming concert in Muscat, I had predicted it would be a grand affair. An easy way to score a point as a clairvoyant, since their concerts are always grand! More than 800 people had a sublime experience, not one of them choosing to go – even after the concert! The organizers had to practically hustle the sisters away from the hall for some much needed dinner!
I have made a another prediction about Ranjani and Gayatri (R-G): that they will be the torch bearers for the restructuring of the Carnatic Music concert pattern – something their illustrious predecessor, Sri Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, did many decades ago. At a time where incredibly silly things are being tried in the name of innovation, R-G sisters are sticking to a format that all at once respects the basic tenets of the grandest of India’s music traditions, yet gives them ample room for experimentation. It is their ability to exercise freedom with a sense of discipline and reverence to our divine musical heritage that gives me the courage to say that their pattern will be the one in vogue in the coming decades.
They stuck to their formula yesterday – a crisp Abhogi varnam (although I must confess I was hoping to hear some kalpana swarams a-la the great GNB, another master innovator within traditions), a crisp Kedaram (Swati Tirunal’s Paramananda Natana) then a Rangapura Vihara in Brindavana Saranga (a special treat for the Indian Ambassador, as the composition is in Sanskrit, and the raga is common to both Hindustani and Carnatic systems); a detailed Todi (Tyagaraja’s Raju vedala) was followed by a composition in Dwijavanti (payorasi bhale). This kriti is by Smt Kalyani Varadarajan, whose wonderful compositions are gaining popularity amongst the top performers because of their intellectual appeal.
Then came an elaborate alapana in Mohanam as a preface to the ever popular “kapaali” by Papanasam Sivan. This was followed by a scintillating thani avarthanam by Manoj Siva, who drew a massive applause for his efforts. By now, the audience was totally mesmerized.
In keeping with their charming ability to connect with the audience, they announced the details of the compositions they sang. After a melodious Nasikabhushani (Tyagaraja’s Maravairi ramani) they took up the main item of the concert: a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (RTP for short), a unique feature of Carnatic music. Ranjani and Gayatri, known for their sensitive handling of both heavy and off beat ragas, chose to treat the audience to an RTP in beautiful Hamsanandi. Every shade, every hue of this pleasant raga was brought out in consummate detail by both sisters – the transition from one to the other in mid phrase was so aesthetic, it drew repeated applause.
But this was nothing compared to the garland of ragas they weaved at the end – the ragamalika – composed of Nattai, Reethigaula, Hamir Kalyani and Sindhubhiaravi. Ranjani’s handling of Hamir kalyani once again underscored the in-depth knowledge of ragas derived from the north. The last, most deservingly referred to as the queen of ragas, was handled brilliantly by Gayatri – she was so engrossed, she could have gone on for an hour elaborating the raga. Sampath’s violin was sweet and soothing to the ears, and his repartee to each of the sisters’ volleys was remarkable. The audience’s joy was boundless at the end of the piece – no one seemed in any hurry to stop clapping! Then followed the “thukkadas”. The term may be translated to mean tidbits, but in their melodic intent, they were as weighty as the major kritis preceding them. There was a viruttam in karaharapriya, saveri and a delectable Maand, then Purandara dasa’s Narayana nine in Suddha dhanyasi, and a lilting bhajan in Khamaj (payoji meine ram rattan dhan payo). The finale was the much awaited abhang that the sisters are especially well known for – they chose Bhoota mothe in Chandrakauns, made extremely enjoyable by Gayatri’s explanation of the lyrics up front.
The true hallmark of a great artiste is their ability to deliver in the presence of adversity. A Tendulkar or a Roger Federer doesn’t get perturbed by the dryness of the pitch or the slippery court. They give of their best to the fans. In what could be mildly put as audio adversity, Ranjani and Gayatri delivered ace after ace, cover drive after cover drive, each one more pleasing to the senses than the other. Within minutes of the concert being over, accolades galore were clogging the whatsapp messages of all the organizers. This was Nadopasana’s 4th concert of the year, but quite easily the concert of a lifetime.
The annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) featured a special lineup of performances, workshops and cultural activities on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. The scenic Sarawak Cultural Village, located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea, hosted the performances on two outdoor stages and one indoor theatre.
The 2017 lineup of 22 international and 5 local groups included Abavuki (South Africa), Achanak (UK/India), Ba Cissoko (Guinea), Belem (Belgium), Bitori (Cape Verde), Calan (Wales), Cimarron (Colombia), Dom Flemons (US), Hanggai (China), Huw Williams (Wales), Kelele (South Africa), O Tahiti E (Tahiti), Okra Playground (Finland), Pareaso (Korea), Radio Cos (Spain), Romengo (Hungary), Saing Waing Orchestra (Myanmar), Spiro (UK), Svara Samsara (Indonesia), Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe (Taiwan), The Chipolatas (UK/Australia), and The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band (Thailand).
The Malaysian lineup featured Ilu Leto, At Adau, Lan E Tuyang and Sekolah Seni Malaysia Sarawak from Sarawak, as well as Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca.
Before the festival, some of the bands held preview concerts in local pubs and cafes, such as the Culture Club in downtown Kuching. Two bands – Romengo (Hungarian gypsy group) and O Tahiti E (percussion-dance troupe from Haiti) – gave the audience a tantalising taste of what was to come during their workshops and performances in the coming days.
In keeping with its usual tradition, the Sarawak Tourism Board also had a tree-planting ceremony the day before the festival. Members of the media and some performers together planted about 200 mangrove saplings at the Kuching Wetland National Park.
The stage was also being set for the festival workshops to follow, on yoga, meditation, tai-chi and martial arts. The festival had a crafts bazaar and food court as other highlights, along with stalls on aromatherapy and environmental recycling.
The morning media meet each day was followed by an afternoon of indoor performances and jam sessions. The indoor theatre performances on Day One kicked off with Pareaso (South Korea), followed by Huw Williams (Wales) and Lan E Tuyang (Malaysia).
The four youthful musicians of Pareaso featured traditional music from Ulsan, Korea, with instruments such as daegeum, geomongo, saenghwang, janggu, and gayageum. Huw Williams showcased clog dancing along with trademark Welsh wit and humour while playing along on guitar. Lan E Tuyang featured three sape masters of Sarawak from the Kayan and Kenyah communities: Mathew Ngau Jau, Salomon Gau and Jimpau Balan. They also showcased the nose flute, along with traditional dance moves.
Each afternoon ended with an outdoor drum circle facilitated by Malaysia’s 1Drum, followed by night-time performances on two adjacent stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies to bless the festival were conducted by local cultural groups and musicians.
The six-member all-women band Ilu Leto from Sarawak, Malaysia kicked off the outdoor performances on Day One. The group, anchored by Alena Murang, keeps alive the traditional music of the Iban, Kelabit and Kenyah tribes while also challenging other customs (the sape is usually not played by women).
Okra Playground from Finland then delivered a hypnotic set of electro-folk. They featured ancient instruments like the kantele and bowed lyre (jouhikko), along with solid grooves by bassist Sami Kujala – a perfect foundation for the three female vocalists (Päivi Hirvonen, Maija Kauhanen, Essi Muikku). Their debut album, Turmio was released in 2015.
The adrenaline picked up with gypsy music by Romengo from Hungary, who played a rousing set of danceable numbers along with ballads (I also caught their performance last year at the Forde Festival 2016 in Norway). Vocalist Mónika Lakatos has won a range of awards including the Parallel Cultures award; she was joined on stage by singer Veronika Harcsa for soaring duets. The group’s first album is titled Kétháné, and the talented lineup includes Mihály “Mazsi” Rostás (guitars), Misi Kovács (violin), János “Guszti” Lakatos (oral bass, tin can), and Tibor Tibi Balogh (percussion).
The next group was pure percussive explosion: Svara Samsara from Indonesia. The quintet is inspired by the work of legendary Indonesian drummer Innisisri, and showcased a range of traditional instruments in contemporary styles. The high-energy poly-rhythms and call-and-response segments drew loud applause from the audience. The group is based in the Rumah Kahanan art space, and features instruments such as talempong, sarunai, taganing, hadrah, kancil, and kendang drums. Their first album was released last year.
Bhangra with a touch of bass and drums was featured by the UK-based band Achanak, whose members are of Punjabi origin. The group has released seven albums and has toured extensively.
An absolutely outstanding band on Day One was Abavuki from Capetown, South Africa. The group’s name means ‘Wake up, early birds!’ in the Xhosa language. South African rhythms blended with kwaito, samba and jazz, and the multi-instrumentalists wowed the audience with their prowess on a wide range of percussion (especially Mkhokheli Masala, Thulani Mtyi and Thando Sishuba).
Founded in 2001, the band showed their years of experience and expertise with a superb set of high-energy afro-beat music and dance, blending everything from marimba to a brass section. Their albums include Decade and African Rhythms.
The indoor performances on Day Two were kicked off by the Sang Waing Orchestra from Myanmar, playing a set of Burmese folk music. The musicians from Yangon and Mandalay performed on a range of traditional instruments, including saung (Burmese harp), clappers, cymbals, gongs, short drums and oboe.
Grammy Award-winner Dom Flemons featured a set of American roots, ragtime, blues, folk, and spirituals. The singer-songwriter and slam poet’s most recent album is Prospect Hill; Dom is also the co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band.
English folk band Spiro wrapped up the indoor performances. Violin, mandolin and electronic sounds mixed together with the lineup of Jane Harbour, Alex Vann (drums), Jon Hunt (guitar), and Jason Sparkes (accordion). Their albums include Pole Star, Lightbox and Kaleidophonica.
The talented young band At Adau from Kuching kicked off the outdoor performances, with an experimental blend of Sarawak sound with world music. They featured Borneo sounds of the sape and the perutong, along with congas and djembe. Their first album is titled Journey, with the lineup of Ezra Tekola (sape), Jackson Lian Ngau (zither, drums), Meldrick Bob Udos (cajon), Ju Hyun Lee (conga), Alfonso McKenzie (bass), Cerdic Riseng (guitar) and Luke Wrender David (sape, guitar).
The most beloved band of the festival took the stage next: O Tahiti E, a sizzling percussion and dance troupe from Tahiti, who had already wowed the audience through three afternoon workshop sessions. Founded in 1986 by choreographer Marguerite Lai, they showcased spectacular costumes and sensual dance moves. The youthful dancers roused up so much energy that the heavens opened up with thundershowers at the end of their set!
The rain would continue through the next performances, reducing the lawns to a mudbath, but the hardy festival-goers were well prepared. Spain’s Radio Cos entertained them with an energetic set of Galician music. The driving rhythms on pandeiro and tambourine kept the crowd on their feet, ably anchored by Xurxo Fernandes and Quique Peon. The musicians have been researching traditional music for over three decades, and the five-member band brought the pride alive for an audience half-way round the world.
The energy picked up several notches with the Inner Mongolia band Hanggai from China, with an unbelievable mix of traditional instruments and rock music. The folk-rock blend, anchored by throat singer Batubagen and vocalist Ilchi dressed in a full-length traditional coat, kept the audience engaged right through gusts of wind and rain. The band has also performed at Rosklide, Lowlands, Fuji Rock, Chicago World Music Festival, Sziget, and WOMAD.
An absolutely stellar set followed next, by Ba Cissoko and his band from Guinea. The son of the famous kora maestro M’Bady Kouyaté performed on guitar and kora, and sang in Malinke, Wolof, Pulaar and French. West African sound fused with salsa, funk and jazz, in a superb set by the five-member group. Their albums include Electric Griot Land, Djeli, Sabolan, Nimissa, and Séno.
Another amazing folk-rock band rounded up the performances of Day Two: the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band. They played instruments and rural tunes from northeast Thailand, blended with high-energy drums and power bass. Chris Menist, Kammao Perdtanon, Maft Sai, Phusana Treeburut, Piyanart Jotikasthira and Sawai Kaewsombat played a hypnotic set showcasing the khaen (multi-reed mouth organ) and phin (string instrument).
In terms of musical highlights, most festival attendees would later agree that this was one of the best nights at any world music festival ever. The crowd stayed on their feet through the rain and thunder – and there would be more come on Day Three!
The indoor performances on Day Three kicked off with the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe from Taiwan. They played the music of the Paiwan tribe from southern Taiwan. Anchored by Camake Valaule, they explained their culture and dances, and showcased instruments such as the twin-pipe nose flute.
Folk music from Belgium followed next, performed by Belem (Didier Laloy on accordion, Kathy Adam on classical cello). The indoor performances finished in fine style with the vocal harmonies of Africa, performed by Kelele from South Africa. Their members also form the band Abavuki, thus constituting an unusually creative combination and presentation of musical talent.
Their range of melodies and harmonies kept the audience spell-bound in a session of oral storytelling. Traditional instruments were also showcased, such as the mbira (finger piano), uhadi (bow instrument) and talking drum.
The outdoor performances were kicked off by the Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca, Malaysia. They presented a blend of Portuguese and Malaysian dance.
Thunderous rains picked up again as the youthful performers of Sekolah Seni Malaysia next took to the stage. They have performed the folk dances of Sarawak at festivals across Asia and Europe, and won awards in Bulgaria, Romania and Spain.
Welsh band Calan showcased foot tapping tunes and step dancing, with the five member band reinterpreting lively as well as haunting songs. Their debut album is titled Bling, and the band has played at the Cambridge Festival, Celtic Connections, Shrewsbury Folk Festival and Whitby Folk Festival.
The most sensational band of the evening was Cimarrón from Colombia. They performed the festive dance music of joropo, with soaring melodies and catchy rhythms of the Orinoco river region combining Andalusian, indigenous South American, and African roots.
Anchored by harpist Carlos Rojas Hernandez and vocalist-dancer Ana Veydó Ordóñez, the set blended bandola, cuatro, bass, and high-energy percussion. The ‘competitive jams’ between the youthful percussionists were hilarious and drew loud applause. The group has released a number of award-winning albums, including one aptly titled Orinoco.
Indonesian percussion band Svara Samsara took to the stage again for another set, followed by the closing act: Bitori from Cape Verde, playing funana music. This raw yet infectious dance music form was banned during the Portuguese rule, but is alive and thriving now. Anchored by lead accordionist Bitori (Victor Tavares) who is now almost 80 years old, the group performed an upbeat set with Creole vocals and unique instruments such as the ferrinho (iron scraper).
The five-hour performances, accompanied by five hours of rain, culminated in an unforgettable grand finale with most of the bands from the three days of the festival coming together on stage to take their final bow. The festivities carried on with a jam at the musicians’ hotel bar, and I departed the next morning with a stack of the bands’ CDs gathered over the three days of the festival.
We already look forward to the next Rainforest World Music Festival in 2018, with its unbeatable combination of legendary bands, emerging artistes, jam sessions, interactive workshops, media meets – and a bit of occasional rain! After all, what’s a festival in the rainforest without some rain?
The Montreal International Jazz Festival, now in its 39th year, is regarded as the world’s largest jazz festival. The music line-up includes ambassadors of jazz and blues – as well as a generous dose of artistes in world music and fusion. See my writeup from the previous editions of MIJF (2016, 2015); fans of jazz and world music can check out my app ‘Oktav’ as well, a collection of witty quotes about music (available on Apple iTunes and Android).
The 2017 edition of MIJF featured artistes from Canada, USA, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Congo, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Cameron, Guadeloupe and Switzerland. An estimated two million attendees flocked to the stages, spread over 10 days and two dozen venues. The long summer days of late June and early July made for perfect outdoor performances, along with ticketed indoor events.
Check out some of the highlights in this photo tour of MIJF 2017, and make sure you attend the 2018 edition!
Flavia Coelho from Brazil played for the first time at MIJF, and featured tracks from her third album, Sonho Real. Funk, forro, ragga, ska and dub fused together in a high-energy set at the indoor venue Club Soda.
Bixiga70 was another outstanding band from Brazil at MIJF. The Sao Paulo collective featured ten musicians with a combination of Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz and funk.
Gypsophilia played a joyous set of gypsy jazz blended with funk and Latin rhythms. Anchored by Adam Fines, the septet from Halifax kicked off a fine evening of music at the outdoor Club Jazz Casino stage.
Gypsy Sound System featured a broad range of gypsy music anchored by Swiss couple DJ Olga and Dr. Schnaps. The music blended Slavic salsa, electronica, and brass. The group drew loud applause for their energetic set and sheer musicianship.
The Django Festival Allstars paid tribute to the legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Featured artistes included Samson Schmitt, Ludovic Beier and Pierre Blanchard. Their indoor set at the Gesu venue transported gypsy swing into the 21st century.
Rosalía Refree is an outstanding vocalist from Barcelona, and was accompanied by Raül Refree on guitar for a soaring set of neo-flamenco. The youthful duo played tracks from their recent album, Los Angeles.
The Gipsy Kings, celebrated masters of flamenco, salsa, and pop fusion, have been on tour for over 25 years and show no signs of stopping. Their booming vocals and guitars had the audience on their feet clamoring for more, as the band played classic hits as well as new tracks from their album Savor Flamenco.
A-Wa was another astonishing band at MIJF, featuring three sisters from Israel: Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim. Their music featured Yemenite vocals, hip hop and electronica rhythms. Their hits include Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart).
Gabacho Maroc had an unusual lineup of eight French, Moroccan and Algerian musicians. The stage was filled with bendirs, drums, keyboards, darbukas, and jembes. The creative set fused gnawa, Afro, berber, trance, jazz and electronica, breaking new frontiers in world music and jazz.
Djmawi Africa brought a touch of Algeria to jazz, and the eight-member troupe blended gnawa, rai and reggae in their phenomenal one-hour outdoor set. The music crossed new domains of North African sound, particularly appreciated in an era of growing cross-border hostility.
Coyote Bill is a Montreal collective blending Afro-beat, jazz, funk and reggae. Their incendiary set was a perfect closing act in the indoor Metropolis venue, with hybrid beats and energetic horns.
Jazzamboka is a Montreal quintet powered by two Congolese percussionists. It brings to urban audiences the spirit of African village music (yamboka means village in Lingala, a Bantu language). Funk, rock, be-bop, soukous, and electronica brought the sounds of Central Africa to new frontiers in this outdoor set.
Afrikana Soul Sister were closing acts on two nights of MIJF 2017, with a high-powered set of electro-house. Artistes include Jean-François Lemieux on bass, Joanie Labelle and Fa Cissokho on percussion, and Djely Tapa on vocals. The quartet blended house with African musical roots, and played tracks from their latest album Mayébo.
Bokante played a spirited set of Caribbean and African music blended with jazz, thanks to the influences of Michael League (bassist-composer of Snarky Puppy) and vocalist Malika Tirolien. Malika is from Guadeloupe and is now based in Montreal. The high-energy performance drew loud applause for the percussion and vocal-bass duet with Malika and Michael.
Just Wôan is a bassist-vocalist from Cameroon, and delivered a set of jazz blended with Afro-groove. He was born in Yaunde and already has three albums to his credit. He sings in French, Bassa, Duala, and Ewondo or Creole.
Huu Bac Quintet featured a range of instruments from Vietnam and China such as dan bau (Vietnamese monocord), erhu (Chinese fiddle), and even the quena (Andean bamboo flute). Multi-instrumentalist Huu Bac did a great job of blending Asian sound with North American jazz.
Fwonte is a Haitian-born Montreal artist who blends tropical rhythms with electronica. Caribbean sounds were reinterpreted for the digital age in his one-hour set.
Ife is a collective from Puerto Rico playing ‘live electronic music’ without remixes and computers. Their indoor set celebrated Yoruba cult music and explored new frontiers in fusion.
The Villalobos Brothers featured three brothers originally from Mexico and currently based in the US. The violinists, singers, songwriters and arrangers were all over the stage in their high-energy set, and reinterpreted original folk compositions with jazz and classical music.
Music criticism does not derive from musical censorship; it is based on conventional rules. Ive Mendes performed in Krakow at a jazz festival; criticism, according to convention, is based on the fact that Ive does not sing a jazz; therefore, in accordance with the same neat convention, I assert that the organizers acted… unconventionally.
The world music scene, like many other spheres of culture and art, is created basically in one of two ways: bottom-up or top-down. The story of a typical bottom-up musician begins somewhere in the home, a school, a small town, a musical family, often poor and devoid of cultural roots; this is the story of many masters of jazz, as described in biographies and memoirs. The story of typical musicians whose careers are built top-down usually starts a little later, not in childhood but in early adulthood. Wherever a business, a manager, or ready-made material for a record appears, it’s only a question of finding someone to perform the material on stage.
About Ive Mendes, one thing can be stated with certainty: she is a typical product of the global policies of the music scene, the product of interventions by an entire staff of managers, arrangers, and other members of a “shadow cabinet” who stand proudly (not without reason!) behind her success. This time it was Kevin Armstrong, the producer of Mendes’s latest album, who was promoted to the head of this cabinet. Nothing like this is possible in the jazz field, where musicians make their choices strictly according to musical criteria, and a stage-managed career is an absolute contradiction in terms.
Ive possesses a powerfully crafted charm and grace in the visual sphere. It is precisely her superficiality that affirms the misleading conviction that she comes from Brazil, yet it is indeed difficult to perceive any connotations from the musical culture of the region from which she originated. The artist herself does not conceal her inspirations, mentioning a fairly wide range of essentially pop music styles: “… I learned that I have a natural facility for moving from bossa nova to smooth pop, drum & bass, and even alternative country. After all, I’m a farmer’s daughter.” [www.newsweek.pl]. Unfortunately, in the same breath she adds bossa nova to this eclectic mix. The problem is that even if we can (though we need not) think of smooth pop, drum & bass, or “alternative country”—whatever that is—as mere categories of arrangements, that is, for the creation of hybrid sound forms (as Ive basically has made use of these styles, though in a different way than, e.g., jazzmen do, using groovy or funk rhythms and R&B just for some kind of dance fun, likewise “ontic background” for improvisation, etc.), bossa nova itself cannot be treated so freely. Indeed, the concept of bossa nova encompasses a deeper philosophy. It is a unique combination of samba and jazz.
The self-proclaimed comparison of Ive to João Gilberto smacks—to put it politely—of immodesty. And indeed, if Ive actually had something in common with bossa nova—apart from “reciting” a few standards—it might salvage her image as an artist fit to share a stage with artists of improvisational music. This, however, is not the case. Ive, in essence, does not understand bossa nova at all.
These are not the only reasons why I state that Ive Mendes is largely a phenomenon of the modern music industry, in which vocal talent is exploited for the benefit of a mass audience. A mass audience at the Jazz Festival? This is, of course, possible, thanks to, among others, Ive. The boundaries of jazz in Poland are not clearly visible to a public which accepts a rather pop Kenny G performance, often with just as much satisfaction as it would Kenny Garret or Nigel Kennedy, and similar case with Ive Mendes vs Kurt Elling. The Polish, indeed European, and perhaps even global (in the era of globalization) mass audience, while occasionally needing to commune with elegance, is thoroughly democratic. And that is a shame, because democracy does not serve the cause of high art. Thus my criticism concerns not Ive Mendes herself, but her presence on a jazz stage.
As a vocal star, Ive obscures the musical potential of the songs with “literary” quality and linguistic content. I am not thinking here at all of the lyrics (which play a less essential role in jazz in any case) of the songs, but of her stage presence. That is, Ive greatly expands the entr’actes, I mean the never-ceasing patter between songs, which at times took the form of motivational coaching, gave the impression of being an integral part of the artistic performance, whereas the songs seemed merely to supplement her verbal tirades, which many of the ladies present in the hall received with blushes of embarrassment.
Thus, Ive’s performance consists of, first and foremost, a kind of refined dance-calling; second, songs; and, in the background, arranging and musical potential, which usually remain strictly in the realm of the potential. For Ive, music seems to be effortless; it is not an area of great concern or creativity. Sounds, for her, are primarily a matter of a fixed esthetic framework of correctness in which her emotions occur (even if they are exploited extramusically). Ive sings safely within proven registers beyond which she consistently refuses to venture, avoids improvisation (or feigns it), while the band (and after all, Ive has a live band on stage: a smooth rhythm section, violin, cello, etc.), apart from the correct performance of sometimes arduously executed arrangements, is reduced to the role of a karaoke backing track.
There is no room here for improvisation and musical freedom; Ive does not play at all with her voice, with sounds, or with rhythm in the sense of musicality (as deeply understood). Instead, her show is reminiscent of harvest festivals, but obscured by a snobbish veil of supposedly higher culture, while deprived of the vibrancy and unpretentious naturalness of country bands. Ive’s performance is so smooth that she loses, in the correctness of the performances, a whole range of expressive musical possibilities, substituting non-musical stage theatricality, whereas the songs themselves, differing very little from studio recordings, are so safe that they sound like something played on a boombox in an adjoining room. I also have the compelling impression that Ive often sings out of tune, slightly below the correct note. Perhaps this is a question of wrong stage listening monitor setup, but the effect is permanent: she sings consistently sharp.
Ive, however, has several patented theatrical devices up her sleeve to exert a narcotic effect on the emotion-seeking audience. She possesses the ability to stimulate the emotions of a large crowd with two or three stage tricks. Undoubtedly, she also possesses an original voice, with a characteristically deep, rather low, vibrating, sensual color. There is a distant similarity to Sade, and, still more distant, to Cassandra Wilson, but without their musical consciousness, personality, or charisma. Other aspects which attract attention include her stage image, exotic beauty (probably the most authentic aspect of her Brazilian heritage), outfits, mysterious gestures, movements, dances, etc. This is essentially a good recipe for the conquest of the unsophisticated heart of a standardized, democratic listener.
In Krakow, the singer performed the repertoire from her latest album, Bossa Romantica, about which she says in one of many interviews: “This is music characterized by complex chords and rhythm guitar in a free samba rhythm. I made this music in the same way that João Gilberto created bossa nova: trying to create versions of American songs in a specific way, in a Brazilian atmosphere.” [www.polskatimes.pl]. The album was supposedly created under British (Ive recently obtained British citizenship) and Brazilian influence, which Mendes often mentions (although the comparison to Gilberto is lip service as well as an exaggeration) along with the musical inspiration of smooth jazz (or rather, perhaps, smooth pop), with which the singer is also identified. These were, I believe, her intentions, but their effect can be described simply as free eclecticism. Her album is not a very good example of World Music; no matter whether it draws from Brazil, England, or “smooth,” the esthetic and artistic effect of this album was a foregone conclusion before Ive entered the studio. It betrays her superficiality, the excessive esthetization of her style, idealized romanticism, and the renunciation of harsh or folk-derived elements.
Among other songs from the album Bossa Romantica, Ive performs covers like “The Girl from Ipanema.” This performance, however, blends in with the overall character of her music, blurring in places the expressive syncopation of bossa nova which we associate even with the singing of Astrud Gilberto. Freshness, lightness, and the aforementioned unpretentiousness are also lost. Another cover, “Killing Me Softly,” is played for no apparent reason, or, as already mentioned, as a sure-fire heartbreaker, completely devoid of expression or of any ideas.
In jazz, performing standards makes some sense, if only in terms of musicians making use of familiar themes for further musical exploitation. Themes are only pretexts, or gateways to great adventures on the verge of beginning. With Ive, everything starts and ends with the theme. This would make sense, of course, if the artist proved the value of her contribution to the work, if the listener at least discovered individual hallmarks of musical expression. With Ive, this never happens. This is not another beautiful rendition, as we hear with Perry Como, Roberta Flack, or even the pop Fugees. Instead, Ive turns it into hack work, potboiler gig, potboiler gig, a number trotted out for shows like The X Factor.
Ive Mendes says that her voice works in many styles. Certainly the concert at Krakow’s ICE Arena was a good showcase of her vocal abilities and her typical stage esthetics. Her emotions are expressed primarily extramusically; they are naively feminine, romantic … which means that her repertoire appeals to the taste of many—but not to fans of jazz, improvised music, or (as widely understood) world music.
Ive Mendes deserves a much more favorable review, on the condition that we evaluate her in terms of pop music, though here I am not referring to great pop music artists such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or female celebrities to which Mendes might be compared, such as Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, the quasi-Latino Shakira, or even Lady Gaga. She is not in that league, but rather in a class with festivals of the Eurovision type, connoisseurs of soap operas … in Poland, Ive can also count on fans with a sentimental attachment to the old Brazilian serial feature A escrava Isaura [Isaura the Slave Girl], whose main heroine recalls Ive to mind.
In the press there are many extremely passionate positive opinions about the work of Ive Mendes; thus the present critical opinion, expressed here with the conviction of its justice, may serve as a badly-needed counterbalance in contemporary reflections on music.
As announced in these columns recently, Nadopasana, a Muscat (Oman) based voluntary organization devoted to Indian classical music, staged a double concert on Saturday, the 25th March 2017. It featured two young and promising stars of the Carnatic genre. The morning session was a vocal concert by Nandini Neelakantan, while the evening session featured the vocal recital of Vignesh Ishwar.
M S Ananthakrishnan accompanied both artistes on the violin. All three artistes flew in from India, while the percussion accompaniment was provided by local artistes. The ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) very generously sponsored the travel of the visiting artistes. The whole thing was made possible by the encouragement and enthusiasm of HE Mr. Indra Mani Pandey, the Ambassador of India to Oman.
Both Nandini and Vignesh are in their twenties. At the end of their concerts, I felt in the depths of my heart that Carnatic Music as a cultural treasure and tradition was safe for the next many centuries, if these two youngsters were to be seen as yardsticks. This was not a parade of memorized kritis and swaraprastharams, not a mere show of virtuosity and voice range, but a true reflection of commitment to an art form born out of choice, even of passion for the music. Both of them revealed an understanding of the nuances of music which belied their age.
GN Balasubramaniam, who is considered by most authorities as a watershed phenomenon in the world of Carnatic music, was 18 when he gave his first concert on stage. These youngsters are not much older, and yet were able to hold the audience at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, spellbound throughout their concert – be it heavy kritis or thukkadas. A scintillating Kalyani by Nandini, and a superlative Todi by Vignesh spoke the same message – a complete understanding of the raga Lakshana, and a manodharma in doing niraval and swarams that was nothing short of awesome.
Even in the selection of items for the evening, as well, both showed a maturity that was way beyond what many of us “senior” rasikas expected from such youngsters (see below for details). The pieces chosen were not populist keertanas aimed at pleasing the masses. Yet, impress they did: Nandini’s Theerada Vilayattu Pillai, the ultimate expression of a father’s love for his daughter written by Bharathiyar, the Tamil Maha Kavi, left many in the audience with a lump in their throats, such was her bhava.
The Bageshri piece Sagara sayana vibho would have had its composer, the legendary MD Ramanathan, clucking away contentedly from his divine abode for sure. Between her and Ananthakrishnan, they showed their mastery of the Sruti Bedham technique, by transcending briefly from Kalyani to Suddha Dahnayasi during the alapana – not an easy feat by any standards. Nandagopal, elder brother of Nandini and her first source of inspiration and introduction to music, was in his usual brilliant elements, something that the Muscat audience have come to expect of him. The applause after his thani laid to rest any questions about who was the darling of the local crowd!
Vignesh, for his part, made full use of his voice, showing flashes of brigas at breakneck speed, without in any way compromising melodic content. He also demonstrated his depth of understanding of the maestros. His concert was laced liberally with anecdotes about the composers and the great masters who had popularized the kritis he sang. He demonstrated how Madurai Mani Iyer or GNB would have handled the swaras for the ever-so-pleasing Kapi Narayani (sarasa sama dana) – after himself giving an excellent account of kalpana swaras. It prompted this reviewer to sit and listen to the kriti sung by various artistes after returning home, and realize how little I had observed of them in all these years! His humility in underscoring the contributions of the great stalwarts in Carnatic music reflected how and where he viewed himself in the broad sense of the Carnatic tradition – a sterling quality which he would do very well to nurture and adhere to. Vignesh’s elaborate Todi (Koluvamaragade by Sri Thyagaraja) was followed by a short tani by Srinivasan. Srinivasan’s style a mellow, soft and suave one rendered an able support through the concert.
Both Nandini and Vignesh exhibited another quality which is often overlooked as a success factor – the art of team work. Both of them ensured their accompanists were always in the limelight, by repeatedly showing appreciation for their efforts.
Not that Ananthakrishnan would have gone unnoticed otherwise. With his astute anticipation of the vocalist’s moves, and the ability to explore the higher octaves with the single finger technique, he showed how he has established himself as the scion of the Parur family of violinists. That he seamlessly shifted pitch from accompanying a female to a male voice within the space of a few hours, spoke volumes about his oneness with his instrument. Of especial note were his repartees to Nandini’s Jayanthasri (Marukelara) and Vignesh’s Poorvikalyani (Deva deva jagadeeswara).
Summing up the two concerts of the day, everyone agreed that this trend of multiple concerts could well see Muscat transforming itself into a Cleveland or a second Chennai – something that would be very welcome to the growing Carnatic music fan following in Oman! Nadopasana, an abecedarian just the other day, is indeed making great strides in its very first year.
Morning Concert: MJ Nandini (Vocal) – MS Ananthakrishnan (Violin) – N Nandagopal (Mridangam)
Some years back, I wrote an article titled “What makes for an interesting concert?” Although it was part of a concert review, I was doing some introspection while trying to find a solution to that question. I should have waited. Prince Rama Varma’s concert at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, on 25th February, under the auspices of Nadopasana, provided the answer unambiguously. I came away immensely satisfied, and can now understand not only what makes a concert interesting, but also what gives a sense of fulfillment to the discerning rasika. And this, despite the concert not having an RTP. A remarkable feat indeed.
The success of a concert, I realized, lies in the ability of the main artist to communicate with the audience, and not just by a show of his repertoire or virtuosity. Rama Varma and his team were sitting on the stage. But for the audience, they may as well have been sitting in their midst, talking, making eye contact, and wholesomely reaching out, to almost everyone in the audience of over 400 people.
The proof was there for all to see. No one, not a single child, moved during the entire concert, no phones rang, and extra chairs were pulled to accommodate curious entrants to the temple hall who were drawn into Varma’s enchanting web of music mixed with conversation. He introduced every kriti with an anecdote that took you an immense step closer to the creative instinct of the composer. He has a sense of spontaneous, inoffensive humor which he uses liberally in all his concerts. He can play on words like few others in his field. (for example, he urged people to Google the meaning of various keertanas, gently reminding those present that they were not missing out by skipping a Tamil play (based on Google) that was going on at a nearby venue). I think that by the time he was done, he had aroused the interest of many students and rasikas into exploring the world of composers, sahithyas and meanings of the thousands of wonderful kritis now extant.
Not for nothing is he well known for bringing rare kritis to the concert platform, in keeping with similar work done by his esteemed guru, Sri Balamurali Krishna. How many would have heard Mali’s immortal “magudi” piece in oral form? We were the lucky few last Saturday.
Rama Varma had accepted a request from the local organizers and came to the city nearly four days prior to the concert. He gave of his fullest during this time: three elaborate classes for aspiring musicians of the city (age range 7 to 71!). He indulged a mixed audience to a lecture demonstration on Indian classical music and its position viz. other forms of world music. The lec-dem was at the Indian Embassy, Muscat, and the brain child of the ambassador of India.
The students he taught had been forewarned that they may be asked to sing along at the end of the main concert, but he still managed to make it all exciting: He announced to the audience that he had “discovered” a few people knew some of the songs he liked to sing, so would they please join him from wherever they were sitting? It was a kind of a musical Flash-Mob, if you like, and one that endeared him to every single person in the hall – his students and their parents (or children!) beaming with pride, the unknowing amongst the audience pleasantly surprised, and the whole hall reverberating to an orchestra of classical Carnatic music in its purest form!
When it was all over, as all concerts must, there was a deep sense of longing in the hearts of all rasikas, lay and connoisseur alike. It was reflected by the most asked question when people queued up to meet him and his team – when do we see you again?
I will break from the standard pattern of listing and elaborating on the nuances of each kriti he sang, for two good reasons: I have dwelled long enough on other aspects of this memorable concert. More importantly, Varma generously allows all of his concerts to be uploaded to YouTube, and it would be presumptuous of me to explain what was good and what was excellent – everyone is welcome to their own opinion. I notice that already some noble soul has uploaded the flash-mob bits at youtube.com. I must hasten to add though that the success of this master craftsman’s concert was to a large extent because of his longtime associates – Sri SR Vinu on the violin and Dr G Babu on the mridangam, both “musicians who are magicians” in their own right.
The Krakow appearance of the Arturo Sandoval Sextet at Centrum Kijów kicked off spring, which, thanks to Letni Festiwal Jazzowy Piwnicy pod Baranami (http://www.cracjazz.com/pl/) [Cellar under the Rams Summer Jazz Festival], arrived unusually early this year. Cuban and afro rhythms warmed us and infected us with dance fever throughout the two-hour performance.
Arturo Sandoval had such a great time onstage with music and rhythm that it would have been a shame for us to enjoy ourselves any less.
The performance also featured several jazz ballads, performed solo by Sandoval, on the piano; reminiscences of Dizzy Gillespie, a great friend and mentor of Sandoval’s who died in 1993.; a short but comical and substantial lecture, “What is bebop?”; and Sandoval’s excellent sense of humor. Thus no element of jazz was lacking.
Sandoval also returned to his classic repertoire, from which he had departed on Eternamente Manzanero, his latest album, recorded with Jorge Calandrelli, which was dominated by romantic ballads and even pop sounds.
Anyone wishing to be reminded of the mood of the Krakow concert would be well advised to dig To a Finland Station (1982) out of his or her vinyl collection.
In Krakow starring:
John Belzaguy – bass
Tiki Pasillas – percussion
Dave Siegel – keyboard
Johny Friday – drums
Kemuel Roig – piano
“Yiddish culture as it existed in Eastern Europe can never be revived as it was. Luckily, enough of the culture has been preserved in books, on recordings and by older mentors to have allowed us to pick up the thread and be a part of our tradition, even if it has evolved into something new and different.” – Lorin Sklamberg
On September 4, at an outdoor performance at Grzybowski Square in Warsaw, the Klezmatics celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. The fruits of the group’s activity include eleven discs (released from 1989 to 2011), and, among other awards, a Grammy in the category of World Music. The crowd was large, the artists gave us a demonstration of the best music, and the weather was surprising. The concert took place as part of the 13th Singer’s Warsaw Festival.
The Klezmatics gave a concert which can be summarized briefly as an expression of joyful thanksgiving: they captivated the audience, bewitching it with their singing, passion, and sound. The show will remain in our memory as a souvenir of holiday colors and sounds.
In the Klezmatics’ music, old Yiddish melodies come back to life, mingled with the sounds of contemporary musical genres such as rock, jazz, gospel and ethno/folk. In this music, the hybrid of styles and genres serves to affirm that Yiddish music is still part of living tradition and culture. The artists do not skimp on delighting our senses, reaching on stage for more than a dozen different instruments, both traditional and modern, and singing in several languages.
Today, the Klezmatics are already Jewish music classics. They create important arrangements and interpretations of traditional Yiddish songs, changing today’s view of the Jewish and klezmer culture of Eastern Europe. Thus, in a strange way, this music connects longing and nostalgia with a passion for life, love, and joy.
For this work, thanks and great appreciation are due to Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals), Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals), Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals), and Richie Barshay (percussion instruments).
Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium is a cool and welcome relief from the 85F heat of Manhattan. The room is crowded with more than a hundred people waiting for the Mehmet Polat Trio to take the stage. It is a packed house with a line out the door of 30 people waiting to get in, a turn-away crowd. Their performance is part of a weekly free concert series coordinated by Lincoln Center that runs year long.
The trio has an oud player Mehmet Polat, a ngoni player Victor Sams, and a ney player Pelin Başar. They are here at the outset of an almost month long tour across America. Mehmet introduces himself and the trio, he invites the audience to listen, “I am looking for a musical connection from heart to heart. I invite you to open your heart and let the music come through you.”
The performance starts with Polat’s gentle and languorous solo on the oud – a pear-shaped wooden instrument with strings that sounds like a lute. Mehmet is from Turkey, his family are from an Alevi Sufi musical tradition. But he has studied various musical styles, including traditional African, Indian, Persian music, and modern jazz. His sound is spare, folk-like, meditative. There are no electronic keyboards here or drum fills.
A silence opens up in the audience. People are rapt in attention, entranced. Mehmet seated center is joined in play by the ney player. The ney is a long and ancient flute. The ngoni, a long-stringed instrument, joins in. And the flute melody weaves in an out the accompanying strings of the other two instruments. There is a grace about this trio, nothing is rushed, time slows down. The audience is invited to relax and to contemplate.
The ngoni player initiates the second song, using his fingers in staccato taps at the base of his instrument. Victor Sams has a beautiful smile that radiates out to the audience. There is a happiness and versatility in his playing: the ngoni is magically transformed into a drum, then back to a stringed instrument, then again to a drum.
The ngoni and oud begin a conversation, shadowing each other’s sound. The two performers nod to each other as they sit side by side. The notes move round and round one another in call and response. One leads with a few notes and the other answers with a few more. Indeed, Mehmet has confirmed that this dialogue is vital for him, “The conversation is intended. I am interested in creating connections between different cultures and continents. I want to explore the common language, but also to look at how two different musical languages may correlate or vibrate together.”
The music is not afraid to breathe, to pause, and to create space in this large atrium. This sense of spaciousness is perhaps one of the trio’s greatest strengths. As the performance continues, Mehmet begins to sing. With his eyes closed, you sense his earnestness, his sincerity. He is humble, yet assured in his musicianship. The song includes some words of Fuzuli, who was a Sufi poet from Azerbaijan. The ney shadows the vocal notes. There is a cyclical sense to the melody, reminiscent of an Indian raga. The audience is pulled in, caught up in the compelling, lulling sound. The audience is transported on a journey of wonder and longing.