Commonalities across boundaries
The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)
I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.
What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.
The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.
Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.
Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.
Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.
In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!
The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.
The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.