Archive for the ‘traditional music’ Tag

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.


Sounds of the soul

Regular readers will know that in 2010-2011 I spent four months as a visiting artist in East Timor, or Timor-Leste, as it is officially known. East Timor is a fascinating, compelling, challenging place to be – each of these in turn! I loved my time there and I learned much about myself as a musician, and about music in other cultures. East Timor’s traditional music is rich and multi-layered but at the time of my visit there were very few publications or recordings that I could access to familiarise myself with it. East Timor’s complex and often violent recent history of colonisation by Portugal (until 1974) and military occupation by Indonesia (1975-1999), has meant that its musical culture was at first undermined and later forbidden, seen as an expression of resistance and nationalism. It was therefore not well-documented in formal, Western ways, but of course knowledge was retained and transmitted aurally and orally.

Therefore, the recent publication of Lian Husi Klamar (Sounds of the Soul: The traditional music of East Timor), a book with accompanying CD/DVD, is extremely significant, as it is the first comprehensive published archive of this rich musical culture. The author, musician and researcher Ros Dunlop (a colleague and friend) spent years visiting Timor, travelling to remote and almost-inaccesible parts of the country to talk with elders, meet musicians and record their performances. One of the beautiful and particularly noteworthy things about this project is collaborative involvement of many Timorese musicians and artists. These people were acutely aware of the importance of creating an archive of their musical heritage. Younger Timorese – including artists from the Arte Moris art school in Dili – helped in all sorts of ways with the project, translating, driving and guiding, advising, filming and organising the recording sessions. The book has been published in both English and Tetun (the national language of East Timor), and will be highly valued in a country where there are few books published in their own language.

I’m proud to say that some of my photographs and interactions with traditional instruments have found their way into Ros’s book – Ros was determined to include as many examples as she could find. There are many national groups and family clans in East Timor who each have their own traditions, and Ros followed up every lead she could.

It was a huge project that spanned many years, and now the book and CD/DVD of the archive, Lian Husi Klamar (Sounds of the Soul: The traditional music of East Timor) is available for purchase (here). There’s a great interview with Ros Dunlop published here if you would like to know more about the project.

Towards the end of the book, Ros describes a children’s song in an ancient form of the Fataluku language (spoken in the town of Lospalos where I was based during my residency) which ends with the children sitting in a circle and pulling each other’s ears. I realised I had footage of some Lospalos children teaching an ear-pulling song to my partner Tony. This may or may not be the same song Tupukur Ulute that is described in the book, but it may well be related in some way. Their performance of the song in this little clip is a bit rowdy, a bit chaotic – definitely authentic!

Post-colonial tensions in music-making and learning

A second theme that wove its way through both the Community Music Activity commission seminar and the main ISME conference in Greece this year was that of the (musical) tensions that continue to play out in post-colonial contexts between the former colonisers and the colonised, and the value of indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing alongside Western knowledge. It is a big theme and a complex one, but when I reflected on the two weeks’ presentations it was interesting to see how often it emerged, even if the post-colonial tag wasn’t part of the paper’s title or abstract. My reflections here consider specific projects in Brazil, South Africa, Timor-Leste, indigenous Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

On the first day at the CMA seminar, we heard about a project in Bahia, Brazil, to give wind players of the many community bands throughout the region some expert tuition in playing their instruments. Presenters Joel Luis Barbosa and Jacob Furtado Cantao explained that these ‘band courses’ are provided by the Brazilian government and involve teachers from the city conservatories and schools of music. However, the experts tend to come from a more formal, ‘concert music’ playing tradition – a legacy of the era of Portuguese colonialism, connected in style and approach to European/Western art music.

In contrast, the community band players are self-taught, or have learned the rudiments of their instrument from other players in the group. They haven’t studied music formally. (We watched some video footage of the bands playing and of individuals playing. The clarinet sound had a wonderful freedom to it – big, solid, bold colours with which they ripped up and down arpeggios, or crooned insouciant melodies). Continue reading

The instrument maker

Lospalos, day 96

We have discovered that our next door neighbour is a culture man, someone with knowledge about traditional instruments and how to make them. Timorese instruments are intricately connected with both the local environment and local rituals. For example, the kakalos we made on the weekend (following his design) were used by children in the fields, with the job of scaring away birds that might try and eat the crops. The hooters that he makes by twisting long coconut palm fronds into circular pyramids, with a folded piece of leaf making a double reed in the mouthpiece, also probably had a use originally as a ‘scarer’. Other instruments and music are connected with the rituals of every day life – such as the stone griding songs (I haven’t found any of these), and others are connected with more sacred rituals and celebrations.

He looked at my clarinet in detail one day, examining the way the silverwork keys allow you to close and open holes that are too far away for your fingers to reach. He liked this design – I understood him explaining it to someone else, “Look, see how this key here is augmenting the instrument”.

When he makes instruments – the small hooters, the kakalo, or a flute from narrow pieces of bamboo, his many children and other family members also gather round. We got the impression they might not have known that their father could make these things. Or perhaps our presence next door, with all our blowing instruments, have reminded him of all the things he knows how to make.

Certainly, in the time I’ve been here, quite a number of ‘blowing’ instruments have appeared in the street. We’ve seen kids blowing pieces of tubing, or on bottles, and even a plastic recorder has made an appearance, passed from person to person.

He made a comment about the complexity of the clarinet compared with his bamboo flute. If my Tetun had been up to it, I’d have liked to be able to talk more about this with him – about how the instruments we play were developed for their own specific environment and set of rituals, as well as the way that they denoted power and status to those who could employ them. The Timorese instruments have also developed in response to their environment and the rituals in which they were used. What I like in traditional or indigenous music settings like Timor is the way that music performance is so often participatory, and linked to key community events. Western art music, on the other hand, has developed along a presentational model, and this – along with a perceived ‘higher status’ – is one of the things that can make it so excluding or remote for the general population.

Protecting cultural knowledge

I got to meet again with the Ministry of Culture’s representative in Lospalos at the Cultural Festival in Dili and I took the opportunity to remind him of my interest in studying some of the traditional music of the Lospalos area. However, he surprised me by saying it actually required special permission from someone high up in the Ministry and that I had to write a letter to request permission. I wasn’t clear if this permission was necessary because music is part of protected, privileged, cultural information, or because he was planning to teach me things as part of his standard working day and so needed to check with his boss that this was okay. Also, the person – his boss – I apparently needed to ask permission of was standing right beside him, so I would have loved to just ask her then and there. But I sensed it wasn’t supposed to be done that way.

Here is part of the letter I wrote:

I would feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity. My artist residency is for my own musical development as well as for the skills and ideas I can bring with me to share with people in Timor-Leste. It would be an honour for me to have time studying this instrument, with the help of experienced performers, and would be a very special kind of cultural exchange.

Later on, when I told Mana Er about this exchange she shook her head in surprise and patted me on the hand. ‘I don’t think he remembers you,” she said kindly. In other words, he thought I was just some mad foreign stranger cornering him at a festival and saying I wanted to learn the Kakalo’uta. No wonder he grabbed at an excuse!

Then again, another colleague reckons he was trying to look good in front of his boss, to look like he was doing his job very consciously. “That letter thing is just ridiculous,” she posited. “The Chief of the Ministry of Culture has far more important things to worry about.”

Who knows? I have written the letter now. One week later, no reply so far. We shall see what eventuates. And this is a picture of the instrument I am most keen to learn:

Back in Dili – errands and a cultural festival

Tuesday, day 47

I’m writing this in Lospalos actually, but I’ll summarise the last week that I have just spent in Dili. Mum was there with me so I had company as I went about my errands

There were a few tasks and interesting things to complete: voting at the Australian Embassy for the forthcoming state election; going back to the house in Comoro for a visit and to collect some household things  (where I got to say hello to some of the children I used to sing and play music games with, back in those early first days in Dili, when I was going to language classes in the morning and playing clarinet on the verandah throughout the rainy afternoons); visiting the UN Human Rights people in Dili to follow up interest in my Baucau project; writing and emailing a funding proposal to the UN; visiting the Truth and Reconciliation Museum; sussing out ptions for hire cars (this was hot and tiring work – lots of taxis to various sites and wandering around in the heat of the day); and shopping for various things I needed to take with me to Lospalos that you can’t get anywhere by Dili. Like cans of chick peas, for example.

But the week was very much shaped by the “Cultural Festival” that was on at the Presidential Palace from 25th-28th November, closing on Timor-Leste’s Independence Day. This Festival brought musicians, dancers and traditional craftsmen to Dili to perform and craft their particular articles, as onlookers moved around the site.

I loved the performances I saw. On my second day there, I was present for one of the Instrument Demonstration sessions. I saw four sets of performers from around the country. The audience gathered around, seated on floor cushions or standing up, and watched the demonstrations with great engagement. Most of the audience were in fact Festival participants from the different districts. There aren’t many opportunities for them to see the cultural traditions from different districts and watching them watch each other was for me one of the great bonus delights of the Festival.

The crafts on display were also fascinating. There was a man carving ornamental birds from buffalo horn. There were two men working together to make wooden bowls from lumps of wood. There were women with weaving looms and tais (traditional woven fabrics) for sale. There were women weaving baskets, and selling these in all shapes, sizes and colours. There was a goldsmith, creating tiny pieces of jewellery with his traditional tools (my friend ordered two gold rings from him, one for each of her daughters. He engraved their initials on the rings, and they looked superb when we collected them the next day). There were men from Oecussi, the East Timorese enclave that is marooned in the middle of Indonesian West Timor (you either travel there overland, or get there by ferry, once a week), who were making small metal bells in a fireplace, which then were strung onto strands separated by narrow macaroni-seized pieces of bamboo, and then wound around the ankles as a percussive accompaniment to dance. These are called kini-kini, and I bought two sets. Hopefully I’ll be able to use them in my projects.

The Festival was the first of its kind. It took a couple of days to find its feet – the scheduled performances didn’t exactly happen to schedule, so it was a bit hit-and-miss what you got to see during a visit. The location was beautiful – the lawn of the President’s Palace has many thatched-roof traditional huts and shelters, and these housed the various displays, adorned with large banners of photographs from around the country. However, both Saturday and Sunday were hit by extremely heavy rains in the afternoon, which drenched the site and caused the road outside to flood. This impacted on some of the dance performances that were supposed to happen on the paved areas – basically, they didn’t happen.

I loved the conversations I fell into with some of the performers. I got to try a wind instrument made of bamboo (it is from Baucau and is apparently called a fahi kua-kua – fahi means ‘pig’ and kua-kua is an onamatopeic word for the sound the pig makes) that you play by putting the mouthpiece completely in your mouth and putting your tongue into the top of the tube. It only has three holes but they are quite far apart so you need the fingers of two hands to play them. I also was invited to join in with a group of women from Vicqueque playing their traditional local drums – small, skinny goblet-shaped drums with a surprisingly resonant sound. You tuck the drum under your arm to play it.

However, the place to be on Independence Day evening was at the Godbless concert in the heart of Dili. Godbless is a very popular Indonesian band (does that seem odd to anyone else – an Indonesian band being the headline artists at the main government-sponsored Timorese Independence Day celebrations??) and a large stage with stadium lighting had been erected in the plaza in from of the Government Palace building.

The crowds were satisfyingly huge. People of all ages were there – but Timor Leste is a young person’s country with a significant proportion of its population under the age of 18, and so they were in a clear majority at this concert.

The Timorese aren’t great clappers. I gather that applause isn’t really something they do, culturally. It must make it difficult for a rock band to have its audience be so quiet and restrained. As the guy making the introduction tried to rev up the crowd before the band came on, there were a few whoops and cheers, and a decent burst of applause, but it all subsided pretty quickly. By the time the Dire Straits-ian long guitar and drum atmospheric intro solos (with accompanying requisite stadium light displays) had subsided, any applause and cheers were long over. There was a group of hard-core fans who made a mosh pit in front of the stage and did their best to make up vocally for the silent majority, but it was a pretty tough crowd to play to overall, I’d say.

I have already been warned that I should try and strategically prime and place some ‘lead clappers’ if applause is going to be needed in any of my project performances! The Godbless concert confirmed this for me.

Singing sevdah

Christmas in Sarajevo with K’s mother was particularly special and memorable. Firstly, she made a special cheese pie (sirnica) for our breakfast. Then, in the evening, I got my clarinet out and started playing some of the sevdah (traditional Bosnian songs) that I remembered. K’s mother and auntie were there, along with K and Kemo (his cousin) and it was an instant party. Everyone sang, and I mined my memory for different songs. K and his mother would also sing some to me, line by line, so that I could play them.

Then more relatives arrived. I assumed it was a planned gathering, but K told me later that his mother had got on the phone and called all her siblings, saying, “Come over, come over, Dzil is playing clarinet, we are singing sevdah.” Soon a crowd had gathered, and the songs and wine flowed fast.

 K also whispered to me that this is not something that they normally do, and it is very special for them to sing these old songs together, very positive. He said that it needed a catalyst, like me being there with my clarinet, to make it possible for everyone to relax together in this way. He also said they were very impressed by the way I could pick the songs up while they sang them! Good to know those years of solfege training prepare you so well for something like this!

Everyone sang, even Kemo who was only 11 years old when he left Bosnia for Norway. I asked him where he had learned the songs, wondering if his parents had sung them, if he remembered them from his childhood years in Bosnia, or if he had learned them later. (It is an ongoing curiousity for me, what happens to the musical culture of people who are displaced from their homelands). He said that he learned them mostly with his friends, other Bosnians living in Norway, during and after the war. When they got together at parties they would often sing the sevdah songs, so this is how he knows them.

There were frequent tears this night, as many of the songs are sad and very emotional. The first song that I played, right at the start  of the evening, was one that I had been told was partiuclarly special for people. However, later in the evening, K translated the words for me, and I was alarmed at how stark and unflinching the song is about the horrors of war and the possibility of young soldiers not returning. I had offered this as a song to play?? Such a responsibility I had assumed, so blithely!