Category Archives: Concert reviews

An Excellent Black Atlantic 2019 Festival

The second edition of the Black Atlantic series brought an excellent sampling of African and Afro-rooted music to Durham, North Carolina.

Kinobe, Derek Gripper and Jaja Bashengezi – Photo by Angel Romero

The first concert featured South African musician Derek Gripper, Congolese guitarist Jaja Bashengezi and Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe. Classically-trained Gripper has adapted the kora technique to the guitar. Kinobe played a fascinating Baganda harp called ndongo. This was a relaxed, virtuosic concert, focusing on the melodic side of African music. Derek Gripper has two albums related to his kora reinterpretations: One Night on Earth (2012) and Libraries on Fire (2016).

Fatoumata Diawara – Photo by Angel Romero

One of the highlights of the festival was Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara. I had seen her a few years ago when she was a rising artist. Years later, she has blossomed into one of the finest acts from West Africa and the world music scene in general. Her sold-out concert featured an explosive mix of modernized Malian traditional music, Afrobeat and Afro-rock. She speaks English very well and engaged the audience easily with her charisma and charm.

What surprised me (and the audience) the most is when she picked up her electric guitar several times and started soloing, ranging from Malian desert blues to Afro-rooted rock. Clearly spectacular. Fatoumata’s recent albums include Fatou and Fenfo.

Noura Mint Seymali – Photo by Angel Romero

The third concert in the series featured the captivating, trance-like Western Saharan sound of Mauritanian singer and ardine player Noura Mint Seymali along with her electric band. Her discography includes Tzenni (2014) and Arbina (2016).

Daymé Arocena – Photo by Angel Romero

Next was another highlight, spectacular Cuban singer Daymé Arocena. She also expressed herself in English very well, encouraged dancing and call and response interaction with the audience, and explained how Cuba is proud of its African and Spanish roots. Daymé bridges traditional Cuban, Afro-Cuban and American jazz. Her dazzling band featured world class Cuban instrumentalists, who obviously love jazz-rock fusion when they get opportunities to jam. Daymé’s highly recommended albums include Nueva Era (2015) and Cubafonía (2017).

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Friday and Saturday concerts, although a colleague reported that the Dafnis Prieto Big Band concert was stunning. The show featured a 17-member big band performing Afro-Cuban jazz and ballads. This format appears in Dafnis Prieto’s album Back to the Sunset.

Kudos to Duke Performances for this highly successful series and special thanks to Eric Oberstein and King Kenney for their support.

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Anoushka Shankar Live, a Dazzling Experience

Anoushka Shankar

Last night, March 21, sitar phenomenon, composer and world music star Anoushka Shankar performed at Fletcher Hall in the Carolina Theater of Durham, North Carolina. Anoushka charmed the audience with a remarkable mix of Indian classical music ragas, contemporary world fusion material rooted in Indian traditions and cinematic music.

The concert started with two spectacular ragas that showcased Anoushka Shankar’s talent as a sitarist and her equally impressive ensemble. Later, she performed material from Traces of You, her remarkable collaboration with Nitin Sawhney. The concert ended with excerpts from her first film score, the soundtrack to a silent epic film called Shiraz from 1928. The music for Shiraz reflected the intrigue and passion that occurs during the film.

Throughout the concert there were abundant examples of virtuosity with enthralling call and response interactions between the sitar, tabla, mrindangam and bamboo flute.

The ensemble included Ojas Adhiya (India) on tabla, Pirashanna Thevarajah (UK) on mridangam, Ravichandra Kulur on flute (India), Danny Keane (UK) on cello and piano, and Kenji Ota (Japan) on tanpura. For this concert, Anoushka invited a young Durham woman to join the ensemble on bass tanpura.

Anoushka Shankar will be performing in Washington DC tomorrow, March 23 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. She will later cross the Atlantic to perform in Dublin on Saturday, April 6 at The National Concert Hall; the Royal Festival Hall in London, United Kingdom on April 9; and she’ll fly back to the USA to perform at Campbell Hall in Santa Bárbara, California on April 17.

Special thanks to Eric Oberstein and King Kenney at Duke Performances for their support.

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GlobalFEST 2019 Concert Review

Cha Wa

The band Cha Wa take the stage at the Copacabana, New York, on a cold night in January. The horns play precise rapid-fire funk as J’wan Boudreaux leads, “I say Mighty”. His voice is bold and clear. It is 1960’s soul. Two singers are front stage, whirling and rocking as they tap tambourines. At first, the audience is still frozen, soon they warm up. Some jump up and down: the music excites them. Others squeeze to the front of the stage. Cha Wa are having fun unlike some other performers.

They wear long, elaborate, costumes that they took a year to make – so J’wan told us with pride. They continue their forbear’s tradition of marching in the Mardi Gras parades of the 1800s. They wear blue, red, and silver feathers of those Indian tribes who welcomed slaves escaping their masters. Joe Gelini, the group’s drummer and founder says, “We wanted to take the roots of what we love about New Orleans brass band music and Mardi Gras Indian music and then voice it our way.”

The horns open a new song, moving with slow ease. “Get on out the way,” the chorus chants, and the audience joins in. The instruments echo the chant, accentuating it. More people start to dance, some climb up onto their seats for a better view. Midway through, an electric guitar breaks out of nowhere and improvises funk. The horn section adds power to the music and an additional punch at the end of the piece. This group could keep the audience dancing all night. And although Cha Wa’s set is only a handful of numbers, their heat sets everyone on fire.

Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness

The Copacabana’s dance spaces on all four floors are pulsating. But their atmosphere is filled with music from four continents. GlobalFEST highlights the best young groups in world music. They have each won a place on the stage. The high intensity Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness come from Soweto. The political edge of the group 47SOUL are Palestinians. Debashish Battacharya is Calcutta’s famed slide guitar master.

Orquesta Akokan

But Orquesta Akokán stand apart. When they come on stage in the main ballroom, you enter 1960’s Havana with its tailored suits and sleek dancers. They play classic Cuban dance music – Beny Moré’s mambo meets jazz. Akokán is a Yoruba word that means “from the heart,” and this soul reinvigorates the older music, just as Buena Vista Social Club did. The vocalist José “Pepito” Gomez on ‘Mambo rapidito’ picks out his words like a Dizzy Gillespie staccato solo over Cuban percussion. On “Un Tabaco par Elegua” he tells us about Elegua, a god and a guardian of the dead. He starts to sing, and an elegant acoustic guitar joins in. A steady percussive rhythm keeps rolling forward, and the horns punctuate the music. The musicians are dancing. The intensity grows. A chorus of vocalists opens up. And dancers in the audience weave ever more sensual circles around one another.

On “Yo Soy Para Ti,” the singer starts by translating the opening lyrics:

For you, for you, I’ve been born just for you:
Para ti, para ti, yo he nacido mi vida para ti.

The horns move in. The percussion plays a steady undercurrent. The vocalist stretches out notes to express love and longing. He goes beyond Spanish to communicate to everyone. The music and the musicians sway together. The lead vocalist calls: the chorus responds. Passion and precision. Emphatic unisons and graceful improvisations. Veterans and apprentices. The tradition continues.

Old school Cuban music heard live never ceases to captivate.

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Memorable Concert by Peruvian Legend Susana Baca at Carolina Theater

Susana Baca

Acclaimed Peruvian singer Susana Baca gave a remarkable concert at the Carolina Theater in Durham, North Carolina. The show was presented jointly by the Carolina Theater and Duke Performances.

Susana Baca was introduced as a living legend by Eric Oberstein, interim director at Duke Performances. Indeed, Susana Baca is one of the most significant and influential artists in recent Peruvian roots music history: famed singer-songwriter, ethnomusicologist, educator, and winner of two Latin Grammy Awards. 

The world music star performed a set of Afro-Peruvian classics, poetic songs by well-known Peruvian poets, and two songs celebrating the music of Argentina and Puerto Rico. At 74, she still charms audiences with her charisma and graceful dances on stage.

The band was an outstanding acoustic trio: piano maestro Hector Enrique Purizaga Aguirre; virtuoso bassist Alvin Oscar Huaranga Huaranga; and the versatile Hugo Rolando Bravo Sanchez on cajon, drums and other percussion instruments. Susana invited an excellent Juilliard-trained violinist and Duke University educator named Jennifer Curtis to collaborate on one song. To find out more about Susana Baca, read her biography.

Special thanks to Jeff Doyle at Maria Matias Music and Greg Landau for their assistance to World Music Central.

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Scintillating Concert by an Unsung Musician Vidushi Geetha Sundaresan

Geetha Sundaresan

Carnatic Music has a large number of heroes and heroines. But the list of its unsung stars is even larger. This list is crowded with great musicologists and teachers who are responsible for the success of many performing stars. Such people preserve the greatness of our rich heritage alive by their selfless service. They happily pass on their expertise to others, many of whom go on to become performers of repute. More importantly, many such students go on to emulate their teachers, training more students; thus exponentially increasing the spread and reach of Carnatic Music. Geetha Sundaresan is one such teacher of teachers in the field of Carnatic Music.

Geetha was felicitated by a grateful gathering of her students of all ages, parents of many of these students, and admirers, in a special concert organized to honor her on 22 September 2018. She was accompanied by Sudha Ramasubramanian on the violin, who had been flown in from Chennai for the occasion, and local percussionists Sri Rama Mohan and Sri Nandagopal on mridangam and kanjira respectively.

Geetha started her concert with Saveri Varnam (Sarasuda by Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer) which immediately set the tone for the evening’s program. This was followed by the Purandara Dasa kriti Saranu janakana kanaka rupane In Bilahari after a neat alapana. I have heard this sung by MLV in Latangi, but the Bilahari version sounded equally satisfying, including the chittaswarams in anupallavi and charanam. Later, I found out that the kriti has also been sung in Saurashtram. Wonder what raga the great saint sang it in originally?

Next was a brilliant Suddha Dhanyasi alapana, followed by Dikshitar’s Subramanyena rakshitoham. Geetha’s kalpana swarams were exquisite, yet not excessive. Young Sudha’s responses were equally impressive. At this point, the teacher in Geetha surfaced. She announced the details of the kritis she had sung so far, and prepared the audience for the Tyagaraja composition in the rare raga Manoranjani (Atu karaadani). The raga is a janya of the 5th Melakarta Manavati, although in the Dikshitar School of classification, it is itself designated as the 5th Melakarta.

Geetha Sundaresan

By now, the audience, already very aware of the singer’s status in the city, were totally hooked. Here was someone who could make the transition from an oft heard composition to a rarely heard one with consummate ease. The stage had been set by Geetha for a scintillating evening of music.

An elaborate alapana in panthuvarali was followed by Sambo Mahadeva of Tyagaraja. Geetha enlightened the audience with details of this kriti: it is one of the Kovur Pancharatna compositions, which sheds light on Tyagaraja’s devotion to Lord Siva. Her interaction with the audience continued with the next piece, Kannan maligaikke marubadi vandeno in Atana where Kuchela, on his way back from visiting his friend Krishna, unaware of the Lord’s graciousness, finds his house replaced by a palatial building, and wonders if he has wandered back to Krishna’s palace again. She informed the audience about Papanasam Sivan composing this song for the movie “Bhakta Kuchela” in 1961. Geetha then launched into her main piece of the evening – Syama Sastri’s “Ni sari evaramma” in Bhairavi, giving it the detailed attention that such a heavy composition deserves. A brilliant thani avarthanam by Sri Rama Mohan and young Nandagopal followed. If the mridangam sounded sweet to the ears, the Kanjeera was no less. Many in the audience declared they had never expected a limited-scope instrument like the Kanjeera to sound so melodious. The local percussion duo once again did all Muscat music lovers proud with their synchronization and laya precision.

Geetha Sundaresan

Eschewing an RTP, Geetha rounded off her concert with Kuntalavarali (Bhogeendra Sayeenam, Swati Thirunal), a lilting Bageshwari piece (Madhura Madhura Meenakshi by Swami Dayanada Saraswathi – Geetha mentioned about the honour she had of singing this song in the presence of the great Swamiji) and a Behag (muruganin maru peyar azhagu by Swami Surajananda), and a Kilippandu composed by her grandfather A K Mahadeva Iyer in praise of Tyagaraja. It was befitting that she invited all her students in the audience to join her as a chorus.

Geetha’s concert was an enriching experience for students and connoisseurs alike. Though Muscat will be the loser in Geetha’s repatriation to India, it was clear to all present that we rasikas here could not allow our selfishness to interfere with her class – she truly belongs in Chennai, where she will be able to rub shoulders with other artistes of her caliber.

Author: Dr (Col) Koduvayur M Harikrishnan with inputs from Mr. Ravishankar Rajamani.

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Bharathi Yaar – Musical Bio Play on the life of Mahakavi Bharathiyar by SB Creations

Mahakavi Bharathiyar

Tamil literature before Bharathi, and then there is Tamil literature after Bharathi,”  proclaims Appaduari, Subramania Bharathi’s  doting brother in law in one moving scene in the play. Never was a truer word spoken.

Mahakavi Bharathiyar, as he came to be known in his later life (alas, a rather short one, for he died when he was just 39), Bharathiyar is undoubtedly the Tamil equivalent of Shakespeare, a true watershed in Tamil literature.

His prolific writings spanned the entire gamut of literary forms. He introduced the Prose-Poetry form of expression, which to this day has not been bettered by any other writer. His passion for various social causes – women’s emancipation, equality of all religions, classes and castes, oneness of India’s peoples, and especially his love for freedom for the motherland, has inspired generations of Indians, across all sections of society, and all corners of the country.

Early in his career, he decided to wear the turban as a mark of respect for Sikhs whose indomitable spirit he greatly admired. His remarkably astute similes, his spontaneous lyrics, and his tenderness of approach to sensitive issues are legendary.

Few writers in any language can come close to his compositions extolling the love of a father for his daughter (Chinnachiru kiliye kannamma). Likewise, his poem about a naughty Lord Krishna epitomizes the love of a family for its mischievous, yet lovable son.

His song “ paayum oli nee enakku” is incomparable as a tribute to the “made for each other” philosophy. And all this in impeccable metre, each time and every time, without any contrived lyrics! This was not just genius – this was Muse in human avatar, although a cruelly short one. The mind shudders at the thought of what he would have achieved had he lived to be 70 or 80; and the heart goes heavy at this irreparable loss. But he himself would have spurned such thoughts – a man who lived life by his own rules till the end, defying the cruel English who battered him to death politically and economically, but whom he defeated with every word he wrote, every song he sang, every motivating speech he gave. In a most inspiring song (“Aaduvome, palli, paduvome”)  he declared many years before his death that India had gained independence, such was his conviction and belief.

 

Mahakavi Bharathiyar

 

As one among the millions of fans of Bharathiyar, I could go on and on about him and his contribution to literature and society, but I started this note as a review of the bio-play “Bharathi Yaar” (“Who Was Bharathiyaar”) by SB Creations in association with Thirukkural Pasarai of Muscat, staged yesterday (20/09/2018) to a packed hall at Al Falaj Hotel in Muscat, Oman. The organisers announced at the start that the play was 2 hours long, and that there would be no interval. They promised the audience wouldn’t notice the 2 hours passing.

When the show ended, the promise was more than delivered – no one left even afterwards for a long time, such was the wholesome experience everyone was treated to. The skillful combination of theater, film backdrops, music and dances was a clever move by the producers – it certainly held the audience’s attention better than a gripping storyline alone could have.  But then, the producers SBS Raman and Bharadwaj Raman, are son and grandson of the great Veena S Balachandar, a perfectionist in everything he did in his life, and those traits shine brightly through in the way the father-son duo have handled their production.

Scenes from Bharathiyar’s life have been strung together craftily, with background score made easy by the abundance of the protagonist’s own creations. The dialogues, written by Isaikkavi Ramanan, are outstanding, even when considering that Bharathiyar had made the task easy with his writings! What was even more impressive was Ramanan’s portrayal of Bharathiyar. His stature and bearing have an uncanny resemblance to the memory of Bharathiyar that generations of Tamilians carry (credit equally belongs to the make up artiste). He was ably supported by Dharma Raman playing Bharathiyar’s wife, and the famous classical musician Vijay Siva with his role as the self-appointed help of the family.

While the regular cast were totally at ease with their lines and histrionics, the many local artistes who chipped in with small but significant roles did remarkably well for themselves. Notable among these were Venkatramani, Savithri,  Sundaresan, and Govindarajan, Muscat’s own regulars in plays and musicals. Of the original cast, special mention needs to be made of the young girl who played Yadugiri, Bharathiyar’s adopted daughter. Her portrayal of Darupadi in the “Panchali Sabadam” scene, enhanced by some intuitive lighting, gave me goosebumps.

 

Mahakavi Bharathiyar

 

The abundant talent of the visitors from Chennai was clear in the concise introductions, the genuine thanksgiving by SBS Raman, and the unique tribute to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos by Ramanan. Oman’s proud expats make it a point to express their gratitude to the country’s  ruler at each and every function, something they do out of true love and admiration for perhaps the world’s  greatest and most benevolent ruler today; but Ramanan raised the bar very high with his honey sweet Tamil, and with his allusion to Bharathiyar’s love for Arabic language and Islam –  an aspect of the Mahakavi’s life I learnt yesterday.

I only wish the producers had enough finances to make better sets, better and less intrusive microphones for the artistes, and a stricter sense of discipline backstage. But for these very passable flaws, this was one unforgettable experience.  I emerged from the hall somewhat of an emotional wreck, and I bet I was not the only one to have felt so happily drained. This is a bio-play not to be missed by any patriotic Indian. And if you love Tamil, this is a feast nonparallel. Full marks to dear Sundar Kaleewaran for his single-minded devotion in bringing this epic play to Muscat.

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Reverse (Cultural) Brain Drain

Sandeep Narayan

It is a common complaint that fine Indian brains get drained off to America. Probably true. But Sandeep Narayan’s concert on 28th April at the Sri Krishna Temple in Muscat, Oman, was an outstanding, and very satisfying, example of the reverse.

Nadopasana Muscat, in its mere second year of existence, arranged this demonstration of how an American born, American educated young Indian has returned home to India to pursue his passion for music. And how passionate his music was!

The temple hall reverberated to some pristine Carnatic Classical Music for over three hours, drenching the sizeable audience with music that was all at once traditional and original.

Sandeep stuck to the traditional format, and yet he sang soulfully in a style that could (should) soon be referred to as Sandeep Bani. There was no blind imitation of his illustrious Gurus, but a clear demonstration of his having imbibed the essence of their musical wisdom.

 

Sandeep Narayan

 

Sandeep started his concert by paying tribute to his first Guru, the famous Sri Calcutta Krishnamoorthy, with a varnam in Kathanakuthoohalam. He mentioned that he started learning from the great teacher at the age of 11, adding that his main interest was to escape school! But once smitten, he rapidly discovered the treasure he was introduced to, and has now staked claim to its legacy. He later honed his skills under the redoubtable Sangeetha Kalanidhi Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a trail blazer himself. In his subtle, yet appropriate use of brigas, Sandeep constantly reminded the listener of Sanjay’s tutelage.

His choice of keertanas for the concert was impressive. Behind him on the stage was the banner of Nadopasana Muscat, featuring the giants of Carnatic music. He sang compositions of them all, showing a keen presence of mind. Not only that. He had gently inquired about the local rasikas, this being his maiden trip to Oman. And made it a point to sing in all four major South Indian languages, besides, of course, Sanskrit, the favorite of many vaggeyakaras.

 

Sandeep Narayan

 

Giving center stage to the greatest of them all, Tyagaraja, he chose his masterpiece Upacharamulanu in Bhairavi; a detailed Santhana Gopala Krishnam Upasmahe by Dikshitar, which would have gladdened the celestial Maharajapuram Santhanam, had we been fortunate to still have him terrestrial. In this piece, he took up for niraval the usual phrase “Sri Rukmini Satybhama sametham”, which refers to the two wives of Lord Krishna.

Listening to the pure combination of laya and melody it crossed my mind that never before had bigamy, even by a God, sound so melodious! He remembered to honor the memory of one of 20th century’s great composers, Ambujam Krishna, with her composition in Ranjani. Every piece that preceded or followed these, deserves to be praised. But I will simply provide the full list below for the reader to conjure up the magic we the lucky ones in the hall experienced.

 

H N Bhaskar

 

Any concert is only as successful as its teamwork. Sandeep was truly lucky. He had the brilliant H N Bhaskar on the violin, a complete disciple of the great king of melody, Sri MS Gopalakrishnan. Bhaskar’s delineation of ragas, and his rejoinders to Sandeep’s brigas and swarams, reminded this writer of the genius of MSG. I have no doubt we will continue to experience the MSG effect for as long as Bhaskar wields the violin and the bow. On the mridangam, the last minute entrant, local lad Nandagopal, sent clear signals that he ought to be the first choice for percussion accompaniment, not a substitute. The audience gave its affirmation with thunderous applause after his thani avarthanam.

 

Nandagopal

 

Oh, Sandeep endeared himself to the audience not just with his melodious voice and musical acumen. He communicated most effectively with the audience with well-chosen comments and anecdotes about the kritis – an increasingly common trait among today’s generation of musicians. May they flourish and prosper!

Varnam – Kathanakuthuhalam – Calcutta Krishnamurti
Mahaganapathe palayasumam – Natanarayani – Dikshitar
Polla puliyinum – Mayamalavagaula – Papanasam Sivan
Santhana gopala krishnam upasmahe – Kamas – Dikshitar; niraval at “Sri rukmini satyabhama sametham”.
Kaadiruvenu naanu Sri Rama – Ranjani – Ambujam Krishna
Upacharamulanu – Main piece Bhairavi – Tyagaraja
Thani by Nandagopal
Panimathi mukhe bale – Ahiri – Swati Tirunal
Parvati ninnu ne – Kalgada – Shyama Sastri
Durga RTP, (pallavi -Sri durge, sukhe, sangeetha rasike)
Gopala gokula – Vallabhi – Tulasidas
Thillana – Bindumalini – N Ramani
Karpagame – Madhyamavati – Papanasam Sivan

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Romance, Passion and Vigorous Salsa: Diego El Cigala at the Carolina Theatre

Perched on a stool center stage with a cloth covered table to his left upon which rests a bottle of water and a glass of pale orange liquid while light glints off bracelets, rings and an earring as he smooths back long curling locks and an equally long goatee, he waits. He cuts a fine figure in a sleek grey suit and a snowy white shirt as he pauses to let the crowd settle. There’s a brief moment of anticipation as we wait like the eager, greedy souls we all know we are. We wait for him to cajole us, romance us and entrance us with a voice that’s equal parts ferocious and aches of a thousand sorrows. That voice belongs to El Cigala.

Stepping away from his familiar flamenco fare, Diego El Cigala’s current salsa project and songbook from Indestructible takes fans on musical landscape from El Cigala’s native Spain to his adoptive home in the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, Cuba and Colombia, garnering a whole new enthusiastic fan base.

Backed by a razor-sharp salsa group that includes pianist Jaime Calabuch, trumpeters Cristian David Muñoz and Edison Muñoz, trombonists Richard Stella and Bernardo Aguirre, percussionist Denilson Ibarguen, timbalero Diego Mayorga, bassist Julio Valdes and backing vocalists Diego Galindo and Andres Gonzales, El Cigala takes fans through salsa favorites, emotive ballads and a few more intimate songs with only piano to accompany El Cigala’s roughed over vocals.

Tapping, clapping and finger snapping his way through the Duke Performances Saturday, March 31st concert at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, El Cigala and band had the joint jumping. Fans get doses of “Moreno Soy,” “Indestructible,” “Hacha y Machete” and “El Raton,” as well as some nicely done romantic songs, but I think the more intimate songs with just pianist were perhaps my favorite bits and those places where El Cigala’s voice really comes through in fine flamenco jazz fashion. But then again it’s El Cigala and any song is worth the price.

related stories: Highly Successful Black Atlantic 2018 from Duke Performances

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Highly Successful Black Atlantic 2018 from Duke Performances

For six days in a row, Duke Performances presented a series of concerts last week called Black Atlantic. The program brought to Durham, North Carolina, superb examples of African music and artists from the African diaspora. Duke Performances staged the concerts at two venues outside of Duke University to bring the music closer to the community: Motorco Music Hall and the Carolina Theatre.

The first Black Atlantic concert took place on Monday, March 26th, at Motorco. It featured traditional bachata artist Joan Soriano from the Dominican Republic. It was unmistakably a seductive dance event, with various dance instructors and practitioners enjoying and dancing to Soriano’s songs. A sizable group of Dominicans and other Latin Americans joined the party.

 

Emeline Michel at Black Atlantic – Photo by Angel Romero

 

The second performance, on Tuesday, March 27th presented acclaimed Haitian vocalist Emeline Michel at Motorco. Her style combines jazz and pop and her drummer incorporated addictive Haitian beats.

Ned Sublette, a well-known American composer, musician, record producer, musicologist, author and founder of Qbadisc, who attended the first concerts, said: “On the second night of the festival the super-sharp, utterly genuine Emeline Michel, freshly arrived from Haiti, played with a tight, professional 4-piece (including guitarist Dominic James) and an internationalized personal vision rooted in her home town of Gonaïves, with an overlay of music study in Detroit and a breadth of experience in various world cities. I’ve heard her music from her first album going forward, but I’d never had the chance to meet her; what a thrill. The Haitian public in North Carolina brought their shot of love to the room.”

 

Betsayda Machado and La Parranda El Clavo at Black Atlantic – Photo by Angel Romero

 

The concert on Wednesday, March 28th, featured Betsayda Machado and La Parranda El Clavo from Venezuela in the packed-out Motorco Music Hall. This Afro-Venezuelan ensemble of singers, drummers and dancers brought Venezuelan pride to a large group of compatriots who attended the event. Durham-based Venezuelan author and actor Miguel Chirinos provided details about the ensemble: “This group is originally from a town called El Clavo, Miranda State in northwestern Venezuela. Their music is based on percussion, especially the Barlovento drums; it’s typical music from the coastal towns of the country.

Talking with Betsayda, she told me that they have been making music for over 30 years and the music is the accompaniment during the processions of San Juan Bautista [Saint John the Baptist], patron of the Afro-Venezuelan community. In addition to participating in the different religious festivities, they had the opportunity to record their first CD, which includes their main compositions and which they recorded “under a mango tree”. They are also making a documentary where they will tell the story of the town El Clavo, its people and its music!

 

Betsayda Machado at Black Atlantic – Photo by Angel Romero

 

Ned Sublette articulated the following: “I expected to enjoy it, but didn’t know how rave-about-it good it would turn out to be.

Machado is a strong frontwoman, and the ensemble is first-rate. Their well-composed show was a model of how to work with traditional acoustic instruments in a percussion-based concert setting. Carrying a lot of instruments around on tour is troublesome and expensive, but they did it. This show included an Afro-Venezuelan instrument, the quitiplas [a set of bamboo sticks played vertically], that you never get to hear outside of Venezuela, as well as the furro (or furruco, a friction drum) energetically holding down the bass, along with a variety of drums. The voices of the group – five men and three women, all beautifully dressed – authoritatively affirmed melodies in well-tuned multi-part harmony, in hypnotic countertime with the drums, giving the group its own polyrhythmic texture. The longer it went on, the more the room got caught up in it.

Bad-ass Durham conguera Beverly Botsford got up with them for a hot minute, and that sounded good to me, too. It was all so compelling I couldn’t be bothered to go back to the bar to refill my delicious pint of Bell’s Porter when it ran out 20 minutes into the set.”

 

 

Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate

 

Fode Lassana Diabate

 

The fourth concert of the series, on Thursday, March 29th at Motorco, presented three of Mali’s finest musicians. Three jelis (griots) from well-known families displayed virtuosity and charm to a full house.

Chapel Hill-based producer and singer Bob Haddad, founder of the Music of the World label said: “Trio Da Kali is an extraordinary group of griot musicians from Mali. Fode Lassana Diabate plays his balafon (wooden xylophone) in the most fluid of ways; a true virtuoso. Mamadou Kouyate’s bass ngoni (West African lute) is rhythmic, percussive and entrancing, and Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate is the most accomplished female griot vocalist in recent years. Her placement of notes, the way she shapes her improvisations, and the way she quavers her voice, are truly outstanding. Together, these three musicians create a sound that is inspiring, evocative, mesmerizing and uplifting.”

 

Aurelio at Black Atlantic – Photo by Angel Romero

 

The last concert at the Motorco venue, on Friday, March 30th, highlighted the music of the Garifuna community. In this case, it was the best known Garifuna artist at this time, Aurelio Martinez, from Honduras. He delivered an exciting set of songs promoting peace and rights for the Garifuna people.

 

Diego El Cigala

 

The final Black Atlantic show took place on Saturday, March 31st at a much larger venue, the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. Flamenco vocalist Diego El Cigala presented his latest project, a collaboration with salsa musicians. Soleir Gordon-Shaefer, host and producer of La Tertulia con Solangel on WHUP in Hillsborough said: “He’s one of my favorites. I totally enjoyed the concert, it was more than I expected since he not only promoted his Indestructible CD, but also sang other songs that were requested. The performance of the chorus and the musicians was tremendous, especially the pianist. It was a magical night with the audience’s euphoria.”

To learn more about Diego El Cigala’s performance, read TJ Nelson’s full review of the concert: Romance, Passion and Vigorous Salsa: Diego El Cigala at the Carolina Theatre.

Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances, revealed to World Music Central that the intention is to continue the Black Atlantic series next year. We are already looking forward to more of this superb series.

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Sri Tyagaraja – Musi-Drama: A Pongal Boananza for Muscat Music Lovers

T V Varadarajan’s Sri Tyagaraja Musi-Drama

 

Saint Tyagaraja strode the field of Carnatic music as a colossus. While there is no way of establishing how many kritis he actually composed (estimates vary from 6000 to 24000, but less than a 1000 are extant), there is no doubt about the extraordinary influence he had on the development of Carnatic music practice.

T V Varadarajan and his devoted team have put together important and interesting events from the saint composer’s life in the form of an eponymous musical play. It is creditable that a play lasting over two hours manages to keep the audience glued to their seats. This was demonstrated by TVV’s team, for the 109th and 110th times, at the Krishna Temple in Muscat on 11th and 12th of January 2018.

Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847) lived in South India in times when the Bhakti movement was in full swing. Kings and commoners alike believed in a Supreme Being and lived their lives in accordance with the tenets of Sanathana Dharma. For Tyagaraja, the Supreme Being was Lord Rama, in the form of a vigraha (statue) in his prayer hall. There was no room for anything else in Tyagaraja’s life.

Ascetic to the core, indifferent to the possibilities of encashing his talent with the local rulers, he lived as if in a trance, truly believing in his Rama, unshakable in his belief that He would provide deliverance from the mundane existence on earth. Naturally, this led to conflicts with his own kith and kin, who were more of a materialistic bent. All this and more from the saint composer’s simple yet event filled life were shown on stage with remarkable clarity by Varadarajan’s team. There was no hint of unnecessary dramatization, no meaningless exaggeration or populist twists.

 

T V Varadarajan’s Sri Tyagaraja Musi-Drama

 

The entire cast demonstrated their total commitment to the play – this was not a performance for earning kudos for them – this was duty fulfilled, time and again, commemorating the great soul whose story they felt honored to depict on stage. Varadarajan lives the part of Tyagaraja in every syllable, every move, every muscle and sinew. His portrayal of Tyagaraja’s anguish when he finds his beloved Rama taken away from him had many in the audience wiping away tears. That he continued in the bard’s garb during the presentations after the play, was ample evidence of his total devotion to the storyline. Indeed, he said in his thanksgiving speech that his team had decided not to dilute their commitment by doing other plays while engaged in this labor of love.

Every single character was portrayed by the artistes with utmost professionalism. The timing and lip sync of the various singers was so accurate, it was difficult to believe they were not actually singing one beautiful composition after another. Every actor on stage was alive and involved, adding value to emotions conveyed by some superlative dialogues. And the genius of Bombay Jayasree Ramnath shines right through the play in the lay out of the music and the choice of kritis.

Everything, from the selection of the songs to the extent of its portrayal was just apt. She along with other singers (OS Arun, Kunnankudi Balamuralikrishna, Vignesh Ishwar, and others), have done a remarkable job of providing the necessary background music.

There have been movies made – very well made indeed – on the saint composer’s life in the past. But to do it more than a hundred times on stage calls for a level of devotion that can only come from a team committed to the cause. This writer came away drained – and extremely contented – from the experience. The organizing team, comprising of Venkatesh, Savithri Raghu, and others deserve whole hearted thanks for their wonderful Pongal gift to the discerning Muscat audience.

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