Archive for the ‘drumming’ Tag
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.
My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!
We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.
As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.
However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.
I started back at the Language School this week. Every term, I try to invent a composition project with each class that relates to a topic that will be under investigation in their classroom work. It turns out that all three classes – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary – are all doing Transport this term. So… three projects inspired by transport? Here are my early thoughts:
Once again, we have a very competent, functional class here, who have lots of ability, and good focus. I didn’t try to start any themed work with them; rather, I just took them through a number of ‘foundation’ activities, in order to get a better sense of how they are in music. I’ll keep you posted on how their transport theme will play out – probably a chant based on road safety, as I did last term at Pelican PS.
We listed all the different ways the students travel to school – train, tram, bus, car, walking, even bicycle. Then we experimented with a vocal percussion piece of ‘train sounds’. I have quite a few new students in this class, including a lively, easily distracted boy – Volodya from Russia, who is very cool and keeps breaking out into break-dancing (and comments on everything, but EVERYTHING I say!) Hmmm…. will need to get all of that creative energy channeled in a positive direction, quick-smart. Also in the class is Oscar, the very bright Liberian boy who started midway through last term, who can drum and beatbox with gallons of style and skill, and who I suspect will get bored with the slowness of the others in the class very, very quickly. With these two students in mind in particular, I think we will put together a hip-hop, beatboxing chant/song/dance about public transport, maybe utilising train station names, street names, tram and bus numbers, and so on.
It’s been a long time since I posted – I’m sorry, dear readers, I have been thoroughly entrenched in thesis-land, writing up, then writing some more… I am making steady progress, but it is not finished yet. Not yet. I am still to set the date for the post-submission party.
Meanwhile, work continues. It’s been busy. Back in the April school holidays, I had four great days at ArtPlay. The first two were working with this year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, and the second two were with a group of primary school students who were coming to music for the first time. That was with a program called City Beats.
Here’s what we did:
The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble composed music inspired by Rachmaninov’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini. We looked at the idea of composing variations on a theme, likening variations to musical disguises. I was particularly happy with my warm-up sequence for this project, which introduced a number of composition techniques that Rach makes use of in the Rhapsodie, but which explored them in game form. It was also interesting for me to observe my own role as the project leader, particularly on the first day, when the children spend a lot of time working with their adult musician (from the MSO) in break-out groups. (I’m paying particular attention to my role and pedagogy in this year’s project, as part of the large funded research project happening at ArtPlay). In the break-out groups, when I move from group to group, keeping an eye on how things are progressing, I was also able to spend time with individuals, sometimes because they needed a bit of extra support or direct encouragement, and sometimes because they needed challenging, and could be taken aside for a short time to develop solos or more demanding material of their own.
In my last post on my new explorations into developing the improvisaiton skills and understanding of the Middle and Upper primary students, I described how I had been getting them to start and finish on particular notes, keep track of a ten-count time length, and play a series of notes in-between.
I have been wondering what the next step should be.
Two weeks ago we tried out a kind of ‘jam session’ with the Upper Primary students. I asked different students for rhythmic ideas, and asked them teach me and other students. For many, as I have found frequently in the past, they may know a rhythm or phrase to play, but they can’t repeat it consistently, nor with a sense of regularity, so it is hard to use in a group jam session.
However, in that session, one of the Sudanese girls came up with something that she was able to repeat consistently, over and over again, upon which we built up a number of other layers.
The students’ first response, when all have an instrument and they are to play together without a great deal of explicit instruction, is to play as loudly as possible, speeding up as if it is a contest or a race. They get a big buzz out of doing this, usually laughing a lot and generally acting like it is just a mad game. That week, however, after letting them do this, I asked them what was going on. What was important in this kind of music? They were to be playing the same rhythm as the Sudanese girl on the lead drum (who was a lot quieter than them). How could they make sure they stayed together?
This was a really interesting discussion. Of course they worked out that they could listen to her, but that they could also watch her, and let her be the leader. The ensemble improved enormously, immediately, and everyone began playing with greater awareness and sensitivity.
Therefore, the following week (last week) I decided to work on this skill a bit further. I brought out my trusty metronome (which I have written about in most glowing terms in the past on this blog).
…but my brain already feels a bit mushy. Today and tomorrow I am at the Orchestra. No projects to lead this week so time to be in the office and catch up on administrative tasks – designing content and structure for forthcoming projects.
K (the magnificent new Education Manager) and I feel a bit like we are capsizing in white water – strong swimmers both, doing our best to keep our heads above water, but struggling against the strength of the currents that are pulling us in all directions. What would the Taoists say? Go with the flow of the current, don’t fight it, let it take you where it will. I am not sure how this wisdom applies to our overworked environment just now…!
We certainly have some interesting work coming up. Soon we will start workshops for our residency project, at a primary school in the Western suburbs. This is a pilot project for the State Government’s arts funding body, and there is a focus on improved education and school outcomes, rather than just on making the arts happen in the school.
We had a meeting there today. I have identified five strands of work that aim to respond to the information we are getting about the school, its community, and its current priorities:
I approached the second session in the prison with a certain amount of nervousness. The first one had gone so well – would we be received with more skepticism on this second visit? I wanted to push the guys a bit more, challenge them further musically – would they resist this? Did they want it? Maybe these sessions are more of an opportunity for them to chill out, than to build skills. Music can be a fairly hardcore discipline when you start to develop skills. It takes focus. I didn’t want to set up things that would give anyone a negative experience, or sense of failure.
Here is what I was aiming for:
- Work with rhythm and pitch separately to start with – try to encourage more detailed listening from the group, awareness of other parts, working in sections, adding more complex layers.
- See if we can stimulate some deeper expressive/emotional responses musically – in particular responding to R’s idea (R is our cellist) to use an extract from the Dvorak cello concerto as a stimulus for reflections on separation from home and loved ones.
- Try to build on the quiet ensemble singing that came spontaneously in the first workshop, during Y’s improvisation on Just the Two of us.
Getting through security takes time. We have to sign in, have our irises scanned (one by one – we are already on the system of iris recognition so this is faster than it was on the first day); we put our personal items that we don’t need for the workshop (wallets, mobile phones, keys, ID tags for the orchestra office) in a locker; we transfer the small items we need for the workshop into see-through plastic bags, and put these through the x-ray, along with our instruments. Then we walk through a walk-in X-ray machine, kind of like a cone-of-silence pod, one person at a time. After this we get scanned with the hand-held metal detector one by one (arms outstretched, back then front), collect our instruments and other x-rayed items, then go three at a time into first a sound-lock room, in which we do the iris scan again, and then out into the corridor and into the large light room where we do the workshop.