Archive for June, 2016|Monthly archive page

Access All Areas: Researcher

The Galle Music Festival was an intense whirlwind of activity. For me it started with the “Inspiration” workshop that Sevalanka asked me to lead – this was a session for all the artists the day before the Festival, designed to welcome them and get them interacting and relaxing together. Some of them had been travelling many hours and Galle Music Festival would be their first major event. They were tired, very serious, and not sure what to expect from it all. But the games and creative tasks I introduced worked a treat, getting them singing, clapping, sharing rhythms, songs, and other musical ideas from their traditions and their imagination, as well as laughing and connecting with each other.

Then there were soundchecks for me to do. I’d spent the last few days observing a drumming collaboration between two all-female drumming groups (one from the North, one from the South), and I’d ended up being roped in to play as part of the act. That was enormous fun, and a very different way to connect with the musicians in the group than simply as an outside observer.

The Festival began with the Morning Program, held in a lovely market square in Galle where a weekly artisan market is held. Stalls were created for the different performing groups where they could display their instruments and costumes, and they gave informal performances in front of their stalls or on the small stage at one end of the market square. The Morning Program at the market had a lovely, chilled vibe, and I was happy to see that it also gave the musicians a chance to interact with each other a bit more, check out each other’s instruments, performances, and so on.


It’s hard to see what is happening in this picture – but she is balancing her head-dress while crouching down to get eye level with the tomato. There is a NEEDLE stuck in the tomato. She then blinks the needle out with her EYE-LID! This was an uncomfortable trick to watch, didn’t look so comfortable to do either.

At the Festival I had two particular researcher tasks – I had a small team of volunteers to help me administer an Audience Survey, and I remained backstage throughout the evening concert to ask each group of performers to complete Performer Surveys. This meant that I was part of the energy and excitement of the performers, as they gathered at the side of the stage waiting for their turn, and afterwards, as they milled about, buzzing with adrenaline, but also (for many) rushing to get their equipment together and their costumes packed away in order to start their long journeys home as soon as possible.

I therefore never really got to see the Festival from the audience’s perspective. That night, it started raining heavily (in fact the rains that came continued unabated and were the cause of Sri Lanka’s devastating floods just a few days later), so the audience was mostly seated further back from the stage under weather-proof awnings. I wonder how it was for them, seeing these performers of diverse folk traditions, many of whom were only experienced in performing for rituals in their own communities? There was an impressive amount of elaboration. I loved these leopard costumes, from a folk theatre group from Mullaitivu District.


Unfortunately I couldn’t get a photo where he turned to look directly at me – but you can get a sense of the detailed face-painting from this shot hopefully.

My role backstage, and following on from the ‘Inspiration’ workshop on Friday, enabled me to interact closely with all of these musicians. After attending my workshop, many of the artists greeted me warmly when they saw me backstage, wanted to chat and to have photos taken with me.

Some of the groups that I’d spent quite a lot of time with – like the all-girl drumming group from Kilinochchi – were particularly sad to say good-bye. One of the girls gave me her pottu (Tamil word for the forehead decoration). We’d first met about 7 weeks earlier, when I came to see one of their village performances and interviewed them about their experiences in the previous year’s festival.

GMF 2016 Me and Thappu girls

In the end, I had a satisfying amount of Audience Survey completions, and an even more pleasing number of Performer Surveys. My backstage pass for the Festival said “Researcher” on it, which was a definite highlight of my whole time in Sri Lanka! How many researchers can boast such Rock Star-like validation?


Access all Areas: Researcher

Summer weekend on the Oslo fjord

This weekend was the end of my first week in Oslo and a friend from work invited me to join her for a weekend trip to Hvitsten (White Stone), a small village halfway along the Oslo Fjord. We set off on Friday evening after work, and given how gloriously warm the weather has been this week (+/- 28 degrees Celcius each day), we were not the only people making a break for the coastline.


Wenche’s summer house is a small wooden cabin, nestled among trees overlooking the water. She told us how they’d recently updated the interior, painting it all white (floors, walls, ceilings) and drastically reducing the amount of furniture. The result is an incredibly peaceful, light-filled space, and with the sun barely setting at this time of year in Norway, it was like being inside a cloud!

It was her first visit in a while, and Wenche was horrified at the length of the grass, especially as she knew her lawn mower was a temperamental machine that (literally and figuratively) wouldn’t cut it. But Anne and I were charmed.

Like Australians, Norwegians love the outdoors and do much of their summer living outdoors. Wenche’s home as an outdoor patio/eating/sitting area, like a half-cabin, with its own fireplace and chimney, long dining table and couch. We ate dinner there both nights. From here the sunset views (starting from around 10.30pm) were magnificent and lasted for hours. I have no idea what time the show finally ended, as I’d gone to bed. But we are nearly at the solstice here (the ‘turning of the sun’, as the locals call it in English) and there are very few hours of darkness each night. In fact, I don’t think it ever gets truly dark.

We swam! This was a highlight of the trip. We put on bathrobes made of light-weight fleece (apparently they are Turkish, and used in hamaams there) and walked a little way from the cabin to the local beach. Wenche recommended that the best way into the water was via the ladder, rather than from the shoreline. With the nip in the air coming off the water, I wondered if I really wanted to do this. “Oh. You’re not a real Norwegian,” said Wenche dismissively. That decided it, I was in.


My God, it was icy. ‘Swimming’ is a misnomer; it was definitely more of a dip. No heads went under.  I went in twice on Saturday; the second time I managed 24 breaststrokes altogether before getting out. That was pretty good. A neighbour brought out a thermometer to check the water temperature – it was 14 degrees. And we went in twice – morning and afternoon! We cheered ourselves afterwards.

On Saturday I was excited to go to a local flea market. Packing for a 6 month trip where most of it is in tropical Sri Lanka, but 2 months are in much cooler Norway and Scotland, I knew I could use a couple of warmer bits of clothing. The Vestby Flea market (raising money for the local youth marching band) was right place to find these – I bought a warm Swedish-made merino jumper, and a pair of boots. I also found an atlas (my mental map of Scandinavia and northern Europe beyond the Baltic states and Poland had proved wanting in the previous night’s conversation) and an English-Norwegian dictionary. Anne found a very demure 1950s handbag. Good haul.


Anne’s new handbag

We also visited Hvitsten village, which is an incredibly pretty little place, with views up the fjord out to the open sea, many beautiful wooden houses, a fairy-tale wooden church, and with its many manicured gardens and public spaces punctuated with figureheads from old ships. The story is, Hvitsten is home to a family that made its fortune in shipping. All the figureheads have been re-purposed as civic monuments after the ships they decorated were decommissioned. Many of the village’s public spaces, along with the church, were also gifts from this billionaire family to the people.


The landscape is filled with wildflowers. Anne told me that purple and yellow are  considered “the colours of June”. As well the flowers that we picked near Wenche’s cabin, the roadsides were filled with giant pink and purple lupins.


All very pretty, all very idyllic. Nice to see some of the Norwegian countryside (which is so central to Norwegian identity) so early in my stay here. I brought some of it back to my small apartment in central Oslo, the flowers posing here with my flea market haul.


The Paraiyers’ drums


Another part of the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is the ‘village level performance’ program. Village-level performances give village elders that are custodians of rare and endangered folk forms (music, dance and theatre) support to put on a performance of their traditional work. Support can include funds to purchase instruments, for artist rehearsal time, to prepare costumes and props, and travel costs. This year, one of the village-level performances was in the Eastern province near the city of Batticaloa, and involved musician elders from four different villages.

The model that was used this year was particularly interesting. The musicians were all performers of the Parai drum tradition, which has for a long time been regarded as the instrument of the low-caste Paraiyers (see here for an interesting history of the Paraiyers). Because of this, members of the Paraiyer caste often reject this musical tradition, seeing the drum and its rhythms as markers of lowly status, and indeed, a marker of membership of that caste. Yet the musicians involved in this year’s village-level festival are adamant that the traditions and instruments should be preserved, and they have continued to play for rituals (usually funerals) despite the dismissive and often hostile responses from others in their community.


Therefore, building up the status and importance of the parai drum, and recognizing the work of the elder musicians in preserving it was one objective of the village-level festival. The next objective was to increase knowledge of the drum and its rhythms among young students of Tamil music. The Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) at Eastern University was a co-presenter of the village-level festival, and arranged for the elder-musicians to rehearse at the university each day in the weeks leading up to the performance. Students and lecturers of Tamil drum and dance worked with them closely, studying the artform. They worked outdoors, under big trees with a circle of benches surrounding the rehearsal space.

Bringing it into the University was a new initiative for the Music Cooperation, but it served two purposes – of helping to preserve and celebrate the knowledge of the elder musicians by training the next generation of performers, and of sidestepping the hostility towards the Parai drum within the musicians’ own communities.

I was able to observe two days of rehearsals during my research trip to Batticaloa two weeks ago, and these photos are from that visit. I saw a fascinating level of exchange taking place between the elders, the students, and the lecturers. Sometimes it was hard to see who was the authority, or the director of the project. One of the students explained it to me this way:

The elders are the experts in how to play this drum. They know all the rhythms and techniques and forms, and the students are eager to learn this from them. However, they have only performed for village rituals up until now, and they are not experienced in creating a performance for the public. So the students and the lecturers are contributing those ideas.

It reminded me that finding the balance between support and instruction, agency and collaboration, the authority of knowledge and the authority of institutions, and when to be expert and when to step back and give space for the content to emerge and evolve, is complex, messy, and somewhat infinite and imperfect pursuit. This project was tackling these challenges in what seemed to me to be courageous and thoughtful ways. I’m sure they all learned a great deal, and for me, it was an intriguing and thought-provoking process to observe.