Just as the common images of instrumental music in China are the conservatoire solos of erhu, pipa, and zheng, for south Asia many may think of solo genres like the sitar. However, in both of these vast regions the social soundscape is dominated by loud shawm and percussion groups, performing for ceremonial contexts in the open air, often on procession.
Alongside my interest in Chinese shawm bands, similar groups are common throughout the Islamic world and Europe (for links, click here).
And shawm and percussion bands are also common in south Asia; here I’ll give a little introduction to groups in Nepal and Kerala. As in China and elsewhere, one soon finds that they are among a varied cast of performers for ritual events. And not only do temple festivals require ritual specialists, minstrels, and so on, but we need to place the soundscape within the whole fabric of social life.
The Dutch scholar Arnold Bake (1899–1963) (see here, and here) did pioneering fieldwork in the 1930s and 50s—just as Robert van Gulik was exploring Chinese culture. And in 1969 Mireille Helffer released the LP Musician castes in Nepal.
Here I mainly cite the work of Carol Tingey:
- Heartbeat of Nepal: the pancai baja (1990), and
- Auspicious music in a changing society: the damāi musicians of Nepal ( 1994).
Citing Felix Hoerburger (1970):
Shawms, wherever they occur, from northwest Africa to the Balkans and down to southern Asia, are always played by outcasts of one sort or another: in the Balkan states and in Turkey only by gypsies; in Arabic countries by negroes; in Afghanistan by Jats (a kind of gypsy) or by the socially low members of the barber profession. Yet very important social tasks are associated with the playing of shawms.
she goes on,
In Ladakh, the shawm is played by an untouchable caste of carpenter-musicians, the mon; in Bihar, Orissa, and west Bengal by the ghasi leatherworkers; in south India by barber-musicians, and there are examples to be found throughout south Asia.
The panche baja ensemble is played by occupational damai tailor musicians for Hindu Nepali castes. Along with blacksmiths, tanners, shoemakers, and itinerant minstrels, they are low-class, outcasts—as in China. But they are indispensable, and serve an auspicious function, performing both for calendrical ceremonies of the devotional and agricultural year and for life-cycle rituals (notably weddings).
Throughout Nepal such bands are common in various versions; Tingey focuses on the west-central Gorkha area. I note that Nepal’s total population of 30 million is merely that of one small Chinese province.
The ensemble comprises shawms (sahanai, like shehnai), kettledrums, cymbals, and natural trumpets karnal and/or curved horns narsingha.
Yet again it’s worth admiring the wonders of the Sachs-Hornbostel taxonomy.
The trumpets and horns are played in pairs, or in even numbers, with a far more complex technique than in China. Whereas in China the two shawms play at the octave in heterophony, the south Asian bands tend towards unison. But on a blind tasting, so to speak, one might easily mistake many of the Nepali tracks for Chinese shawm bands.
Tingey gives detailed accounts of instrument-making and techniques. Many other features that she observes remind me of China. The repertoire is varied; and a more flexible use of more popular tunes from folk-song and film has been challenging the stricter sequences of ritual items. Tingey notes that “in the Gorkha area, during the course of a single generation, a whole repertoire has been lost”, giving instances of the rags formerly prescribed for each stage of a wedding. And she finds a growing perception of the bands as providing mere ostentation.
Still, Tingey details the complex observances of the ritual ensembles serving temples, more resilient to change. Meanwhile she pays attention to the varied soundscapes of social events, as in this list of recordings:
Nepal is also one focus in the outstanding research of Richard Widdess, such as his book
Dāphā: sacred singing in a south Asian city: music, performance and meaning in Bhaktapur, Nepal (2013).
For the shawm and percussion bands, you can find clips online, such as
and several playlists, such as
In Kerala (again, as in China) percussion ensembles (panchari melam, pandi melam) serving kshetram and kavu rituals, without the melodic component of shawms, are common; but shawms (kuzhal, or the long nadaswaram) and kombu curved horns may play a supplementary role.
South India was another site of Arnold Bake. And his 1938 fieldwork there was the subject of a 1984 restudy. Other notable work includes
- Laurent Aubert, Les feux de la déesse: rituels villageois du Kerala (Inde du sud) (2004)
and the three films collected in the DVD Sketches of Kerala.
Rolf Killius has produced several CDs, including
- Drumming and chanting in god’s own country: the temple music of Kerala in south India
- Drummers from heaven: panchari melam: the ritual percussion ensemble of Kerala
- Inde: percussions rituelles du Kerala (2 vols)
as well as a book,
His websites on the ritual and ritual music of Kerala and on the folk, devotional, and ritual musics of India provide much information, with further links—as well as this varied playlist.
For films by Bake, Tingey, Killius et al., see here.
* * *
So this is my latest valiant attempt to embed shawm bands in the public consciousness, whatever that is… It’s also a reminder that musicking in south Asia (and everywhere) is far broader than the so-called “classical” traditions. Adjusting the imbalance in the representation of folk and elite cultures involves exploring both context and class. Just as for China, an initial focus on “music” soon reveals the importance of ritual in local communities, demanding that we broaden our scope to consider the variety of participants who create the “red-hot sociality” of such events.
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