World music: a new tag

I sniff at the trendy commercial usage of the term “world music”, but at least it’s a shorthand for all the musical cultures of the world. So I’ve now added a new tag in the sidebar for world music, collating various dilettante excursions into the musical cultures of India, Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Uyghurs, and so on. Doubtless more to come…

cascais-singer

Dona Rosa, Cascais 1993.

 

More Messiaen

Yay! Messiaen was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the week!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058n84d

With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.

His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!

For yet more Messiaen, see here.

Singers of the world?

Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos.* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.

Bartok 1907

Bela Bartók recording folk singers, 1907.

And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. I don’t really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing, but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior.

 

*Another fatuous Bible quote:

The race is not to the swift.

Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?

Jottings from Lisbon

Just home from Lisbon, where I screened my film for a select and rather posh CHIME conference. How good to have a few days to enjoy cobbled streets, tiles, and little wood-lined trams—authentically scattered, as everywhere, among decrepit building sites.

Back in the 1990s, annual working holidays in Lisbon (as well as Parma, Ludwigsburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London—happy days) were a regular gig while we were doing Mozart operas with John Eliot Gardiner.

On the same principle as seeking out flamenco in Seville after the Matthew Passion, it was always good to go in search of fado in Lisbon after our concerts there. Fado can be great, as long as we don’t expect it to be flamenco—this is a bit like relationships altogether (tutti, bemused: “This is a bit like relationships”.)

The old-style fado bars, holes in the wall, have become ever more elusive, long outnumbered by glossy tourist restaurants. As ever, a good sign is the lack of a sign.

fado

Fado singing, 1993. My photo.

We found a good little fado dive this time too, rather by chance. And then on our last night our fine hosts kindly took us to the Boteco da Fa in the Alfama, a classy joint that nonetheless has a great atmosphere—it’s just a little room that can pack in around fifty aficionados. We heard Sandra Correia

and Augusto Ramos:

The quintessential saudade (“missingness”!), a first cousin of the duende of cante jondo in flamenco (and see several other nice intercultural equivalents under the saudade link), was much in evidence.

Both singers are well known performers in “concert”, and in a club like this the atmosphere is quite formal (the rather good food can only be a brief diversion between—not even during!—sets), but Augusto also doubles as a waiter there, and they’re pouring their hearts out just a few feet away from you.

Focusing as I was on the intensity of the singing, it took me a while to realise how great the two pluckers were too— Luis Guerreiro, the leading guitarra player, totally at ease, always exploring patterns and harmonies, his riffs even featuring the occasional soupçon of  Django.

pluckers

Brilliant fado pluckers. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Being in Lisbon, we were able to express our appreciation with warm applause—I read that

According to tradition, to applaud fado in Lisbon you clap your hands, while in Coimbra one coughs as if clearing one’s throat.

Could Coimbra have been a British colony?!

Our group from the conference included the brilliant Xiao Mei and two young Chinese conservatoire performers. I relish this recent rapport, this new sense of equality. Xiao Mei, most enlightened among Chinese musicologists, is always in fieldwork mode, lapping it all up, as were the younger musos, recording on their posh smartphones and chatting in breaks with the musos. A wonderful evening— Chinese Twitter will be abuzz with it, and that’s just so inspiring…

fado group

Sandra Correia, Xiao Mei, and Enio Souza, dynamic conference organizer.

In a small way, all this reminds us all why it’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music, if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be such a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg (cf. this post too).

Nor would any visit to Lisbon be complete without a serious overdose of nata:

Whereas the English custard pie is only good for slapstick. Typical

***

Meanwhile at our conference on Chinese music, it’s always good to hear Xiao Mei introducing her work on shamans and trance, with her amazing videos of rituals among the ethnic minorities within the PRC.

Since the conference was held at the Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, the music of Macau was one theme. With typical impertinence I suggested that studies of music-making in Macau might be inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s seminal book The hidden musicians, exploring all the diverse kinds of musical activity in Milton Keynes, whose population is less than half of that of the Chinese metropolis. Macau’s cultural life outside official institutions remains to be explored—for instance, no-one has yet made the connection with the household and temple Daoists there. [1]

***

Back in May 1993, we were doing a series of performances of Le nozze di Figaro:

That’s a live concert recording at the Queen Elizabeth Hall after we returned to London. Soon after that I returned to Hebei for my second visit to Gaoluo and further survey of village ritual associations.

On a free day between Figaro shows, I visited the resort of Cascais, a pleasant excursion just west along the coast. On the street I came across a blind busker called Rosa, then 36, from Almada just across the river. She accompanied her songs on the triangle, occasionally checking the lyrics in Braille.

Cascais singer

Rosa, 1993. My photo.

I assumed she was just another blind beggar who never comes much to anyone’s attention, unless you count me. So imagine my surprise, today, when none other than Xiao Mei saw my photo and told me that Rosa (now “Dona Rosa“, with a backing band) had come to give concerts in China! And sure enough, she’s now become a star on the world music circuit, having been “discovered” (not by me—I kept her to myself) but since 1999 and more widely since 2004.

How was I to know?! Can I indeed claim to have discovered her, like Yang Yinliu discovered Abing?! Hardly, since I’ve sat on the fruits of my casual fieldwork for 24 years. I am reminded of the occasional blind bard from Shaanbei who materialises, bemused, on Chinese TV extravaganzas.

Here’s one of several youtube clips of Dona Rosa:

As usual, the exigencies of the world music big band distract from the atmosphere of her solo singing. Try this instead—from a concert at New Year 2008 in the Concertgebouw, no less:

Still, from a BTL comment by fjcnunes I also learn:

It’s sad and lamentable that this great lady is still begging on the street of Rua Augusta, Lisbon. This was the case in June 2014, when I saw her there and took a picture with her. In her words, she gets paid “next to nothing” to play in Portugal and is forced to play on the streets to make a living. Probably the promoters and organizers get the lion’s share of the revenues from her concerts. I wonder if the same would have been allowed to happen to Cesária Évora? If you happen to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, please pass by Rua Augusta and purchase one of her CDs, directly from her. At least you’ll know where the money’s going.

***

Anyway, that chance find in Cascais was typical of the kind of superficial yet rewarding little jaunts one can fit in as a touring muso—like dance houses in Budapest, Tralallero choirs in Genova, and so on.

The Alentejo, just across the river (a kind of poor man’s Pudong?!) is famed for its folk choral singing. I haven’t caught it live yet, but it’s evidently a rich tradition.

In Cascais I also enjoyed the parade for voluntary fireman’s day.

firemen

Parade for voluntary fireman’s day, May 1993. My photo.

All this belongs to my recurring theme of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse. In the present climate, we must relish our cultural diversity all the more. And yes, that does include Mexican migrants and Syrian refugees. All those Brits who find themselves (not) with an extra 350 million squid a year to spend might lavish a bit of it on educating themselves about the traditions of their newly-alien neighbours.

[1] See e.g. http://www.macaotaoist.org/澳門道教科儀音樂/http://www.baike.com/wiki/澳门道教科仪音乐http://www.chinataoism.org/showtopic.php?id=1005; for a major community ritual for the 2003 SARS epidemic, see http://www.cciv.cityu.edu.hk/macau/3/2.php.

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi (fine website here).

I won’t try and cover the various bowed lutes of China here, and I only mention the erhu (least traditional among them) to remind you of this astounding playing.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands:

Some amazing kamanca playing from Azerbaijan:

(BTW, just in case there are any romantic purists who are even holier-than-thou than me, I do like the filming and the scene—without fancy fakelore costumes, but with naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and the mobile phones. All good authentic visual anthropology…)

In related vein, for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar:

http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQ5NzM2MzY1Mg==.html?from=s1.8-1-1.2#paction

And they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:


Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I’ll leave jazz fiddling to another post…

Ashiq: the last troubadour

Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨 is an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, the four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion.

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the youtube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms. The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut.

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures.

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.

[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

Rag Kafi Zila

kafi

From the late 60s, at a time when it was hardly possible to be amazed by the riches of Chinese traditional music, I was devoted to Indian music (which then meant mainly the solo traditions, as it mainly still does in the popular image).

If Heart of Glass reminded me fleetingly, impertinently, of Rag Marwa and Nikhil Banerjee, I still treasure his lyrical rendition of Rag Kafi Zila, which appeared magically on Radio 3 in the 1970s.

It’s an entrancing raga, for the second quarter of the night. Within its basic minor scale with flat 3rd and 7th, it sometimes features the major 3rd degree.

The suave BBC announcer’s introduction (citing Alain Daniélou) remains etched in my heart:

Of shining whiteness,
Kafi, who inspires lust,
tenderly sits on the lap of her playmate in the royal palace.
Fond of parrots,
she is dressed in blue
and decked with jewels.
She is the image of sensuousness.
In the Lotus of my heart
I cherish her,
lovelier than Lakshmi
the goddess of Fortune.

Of course, as with Bach, I’m just reporting my own infatuation, which is merely a product of a particular place, social milieu, and time—far from the responses of indigenous audiences of various types.

Here’s one of several exquisite versions by Banerjee:

Training in Indian sargam solfeggio is a basic grounding in monophonic musics—far from a mere conceptual exercise, it draws us towards the heart of the music.