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By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, August 19, 2016

Versatile Canadian Guitarist Paints Spanish, South American And Classical Colors

Talking about guitars and South America in the preceding blog, I couldn't help recalling a memorable Spanish guitar recital I had attended and reviewed in New Delhi 30 years ago.

One of the rewards of writing on Western music in a prestigious English newspaper in India's capital city was that when reviewing rare performances of some genres of music unfamiliar in Indian music circles, it was necessary to view the events in a historic and geographic perspective for the benefit of most readers -- thus creating opportunities for writing wide-angled essays which would transcend the immediate context and would be readable even long afterwards, as part of a useful cultural chronicle.  

I hope the following text fulfils that expectation :- 
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Glossary


Carnatic music  --  Classical music of South India.

Kamani Hall  --  Spacious (600+) modern concert hall in New Delhi. 

Tamil  --  South Indian language, with classical roots, mainly spoken in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi

20 February 1987


Glamorous Guitarist From Canada

The powerful sound of the acoustic and electric versions of the metal-stringed guitar (played with a piece of metal, wood or bone called the 'plectrum'), accompanied by an array of other instruments including drums, has become universally familiar as a result of the increasing influence of Western popular music all over the world.   

But the subtle sound of the Spanish guitar (the gut or nylon strings of which are plucked or strummed with the fingers), played in a folk or true classical style, is a rare thing to hear except in the Iberian peninsula or the Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries of Latin America.

The ancestry of the modern version of the classical guitar can be traced back to the lute family of the Renaissance period ;  but its present shape, working repertoire and playing techniques have by and large been developed only within the last hundred years or so.  In Western classical music, the guitar has only a marginal role to play, like the clarinet in Carnatic music.  Generally, classical music for the guitar is provided by transcriptions of compositions meant for the piano, harpischord, etc. 

Although in New Delhi these days we have a fairly good flow of Western music, an authentic Spanish guitar recital is a very rare event.  The virtuosity of master performers like Andres Segovia, Manuel Lopez Ramos, Narcisco Yepes, Alexandre Lagoya, Turibio Santos, Julian Bream or John William  --  or the works of composers like Fernando Sor, Frederico Torroba, Francisco Tarrega, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Manuel Ponce, Antonio Lauro, Frank Martin or Malcolm Arnold  --  are quite unfamiliar to us here in India.

Mixed colors 

Therefore, the two guitar recitals given recently by the Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd (who has studied under Lagoya and Bream, among others), as part of the wide-ranging Canadian Week gala in the Capital, were very welcome.  I attended the second recital last Friday, and it was a rewarding experience.

Under the limelight, Liona's abundant blonde hair gives her the look of a majestic lion, in spite of her frail figure.  But the glamorous image she projects on the concert platform owes as much to the excellence of her performance as to the force of her presence. 

In the first half of the recital, she presented, among other things, three short classical works by Bach, transcribed from his scores for the harpsichord and the flute, as well as three modern pieces composed by the French-Canadian Richard Fortin.  This was followed by a lilting piece with a heavy Latin American accent, composed by the guitarist herself.

The second half of the concert was exclusively tinted by Spanish and Latin American colors, for which the finger-style guitar is ideally suited.  To start with, there were two transcribed numbers entitled Mallorca and Asturias, by the pianist-composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909), who was known for his patriotic fervor and had drawn considerable inspiration from the rich tradition of Spanish folk music.  This was followed by a famous work called Recuerdos de la Alhambra ('Memories of Alhambra'), by the Spanish guitarist-composer Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), who had written or transcribed nearly 200 pieces for the classical guitar.   

Ms. Boyd then took us on a delightful tour of South America.  The highlights of this section were two lively pieces with a Brazilian touch , composed by the guitarist herself, and a folk melody of the Inca tribes of Peru, which strongly resembled the nostalgic Gurani music of Paraguay and invoked visions of gray mountains, green valleys, and poncho-clad hillmen riding lethargic ponies.

The performance was characterized throughout by the measured and immaculate rendering of the chosen works, the tremolo sequences emerging as the performer's strongest point, especially in her recital of Tarrega's intricate composition Alhambra.

Apparently the concert was a rare treat for the enitre international community in the Capital, for the full gathering in the Kamani hall, which was dominated by foreigners, responded to every number with  resounding applause.
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PostScript, 2026


Wide range of mixed menu  


There's a Tamil turn of phrase which says that to test a whole pot of boiled rice, it's enough to test a single grain of it.   Seen in that light, the memorable performance by Liona Boyd in New Delhi 30 years ago was a convincing cross-section of the very wide range of her many-sided repertoire.

Reading my own review after such a long time, I was tempted to look for her name on YouTube, and found she's still very active.  The following and other related videos will give you a good idea of her colorful accomplishment :-


                                                La Malagueña 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Intriguing Impressions Of Intrusive Instruments

As an earnest lover of European and other foreign music living in New Delhi in the last three decades of the 20th century, I didn't usually have any opportunity to attend a live performance of South America's folk music.   So when such a rare occasion did arise in 1992, I had very great expectations of not only  getting entertained, but also being enlightened.  But what actually happened? . . .  just read on! 
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Glossary

ICCR  --  Indian C0uncil of Cultural Relations.

Bombay/Bangalore  --  British-regime names of West/South Indian cities, now called Mumbai/Bengaluru. 

Kamani Hall  -- Large, modern auditorium in New Delhi, with 600+ seats. 
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
21 February 1992

No fresh insights

One of the specific responsibilities assigned by the Government to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations is to improve the cultural relations between India and the Latin American countries.  Of course, much depends also on the initiatives taken by the concerned foreign Embassies in India.  Last week ICCR and the Venezuelan Embassy joined hands to organize a performance by a visiting instrumental quartet from Caracas, said to specialize in the folk music of Venezuela.  The group was to perform in Bombay and Bangalore also.

Unfamiliar traditions
Certain kinds of lilting South American band music (such as Rhumba, Samba and Cha-cha-cha) are quite familiar to many of us in India, thanks to Hollywood movies and gramophone records.  In recent years, music-lovers in Delhi were able to hear a little bit of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos during the visits of some Western classical guitarists.  But so far as the folk music traditions of South America are concerned, our awareness is very poor.

There is a particularly attractive genre of South American folk music called Gurani, which figures prominently in the cultural life of Paraguay.  Some 15 or 20 years ago, an internationally known ensemble called Los Chiriguanos popularized this music in Europe, singing and playing the Gurani harp and the Spanish acoustic guitar.  Their music was so authentic and arresting that the contents of their audio album could invoke vivid and romantic impressions of their homeland's hills and valleys, ranches and forests, birds and ponies, cowboys and village belles, love songs and rustic dances. 

What kind of folk music exists elsewhere in South America?  If one thinks of Brazil, all one can visualize are feverish scenes of urban festivities.  Argentina does suggest the folk dance form of Zamba, but what else do they have there?  What do they have in Peru,Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia., Venezuela?  There is hardly any knowledge of this in India.  So, naturally one imagined that the recital of 'folk and traditional music' by the visiting group called El Cuarteto from Venezuela would bring fresh insights and valuable new knowledge.   

Cosmetic treatment

From this point of view, however, the event turned out to be rather disappointing.  What kind of music does the petroleum culture inspire in a land where Spanish blood mixes with that of African Americans and American Indians?  This question was not effectively answered by the performance under review.

What the two guitarists and the double-bass and flute players did was to reel off a series of Polkas, Waltzes, and sterilized Merengues, which produced an impression of eclectic rather than ethnic music.  Some of the numbers obviously had their origin in folk traditions, which they seemed to echo faintly ;  but they were all cosmetically treated versions which failed to evoke any strong local colors.

It would only be fair to mention that  the evening's music provided excellent entertainment, and the sizable audience in the Kamani Hall responded warmly.  The proceedings were enlivened by the humorous explanations offered by the guitarists in mellifluous Spanish, which were translated into good English.

Strident flute

The intruding element in the music of the ensemble seemed to be the wind instrument.  The flute was well-played, but its aggressive tone obliterated the vibrant individuality of the guitars.  (Apart from the normal Spanish guitars, Venezuelan guitars with four and 12 strings were also used).  Whenever the flute fell silent over short spells, the guitars came into their own, displaying powerfully evocative qualities.  But as soon as the listener would begin to be wrapped up in that enchanting sound, the strident flute would step in and quickly erase  the half-formed impressions.  Ultimately no nostalgic memories of the music lingered in the listener's mind after the event, and only impressions of the overpowered guitars survived.  
  
The four musicians who constitute the quartet are the brothers Miguel and Raul Delgado Estevez (guitars), Telesforo Naranjo (double bass), and Jose Antonio (flute).  Each of them has some solid achievements to his credit as a musician and/or music teacher in Venezuela.  They seem to have got together as a group to prove something important.  Unfortunately it was not clear from this performance what exactly they wish to prove, particularly when facing foreigners living on the opposite side of the world.
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PostScript, 2016

Strong wind blows strings away!

As I keyed in this 24-year-old text here, I had a sudden misgiving that I might have made a big mistake when I blamed the flute for overpowering the guitars, because since then I have obtained many fresh impressions of South American folk music   --  (thanks to YouTube, of course!)  --  and am now well aware that wind instruments like the panpipes do have a loud and aggressive role in the traditional music of the countries situated in the Andes mountain range along the west coast of the continent.  And it occurred to me that the quartet's interpretation of Venezuela's folk music might have been quite authentic, and perhaps as an ignorant foreigner I had no business to question its character. 

So I found some videos of the El Cuarteto ensemble in YouTube -- (they seem to be still very active) -- just to see if and where I had gone wrong.  And quite intriguingly, I got exactly the same impression as I did 24 years ago in their live show in New Delhi :  that the flute is completely stifling the guitars and reducing their powerful sound to mere characterless background noise, except when it rests for very short spells. 

Just hear the following recitals and see for yourself :  and please note how forceful the guitars and double-bass sound when the flute isn't blowing them away for a minute in the second video :-
 
                     



So then, ignorant foreigner or not, perhaps I didn't really go wrong in my response to their performance in New Delhi!  But when I take a fresh look at the whole issue now  --  with the advantage of watching YouTube in a wider perspective  -- I realize that perhaps the intrusive element in this context was (and is) not the aggressive tone of the flute, as I had said in my review, but the excellence of the forceful guitars.  

Wherever wind instruments (panpipes, flute, etc.) are the backbone of any folk music tradition, the guitar -- if used -- serves only as a percussion instrument to regulate and enhance the flow of the rhythmic pulse, merely as a substitute for drums.  On the other hand, where the guitar is a prime instrument, it can produce a very sophisticated blend of melodic and rhythmic sound effects.  So when very highly accomplished guitar players team up with a forceful flutemaster, their visibly diminished role as mere providers of percussion support creates a jarring element (which can be spotted by sensitive music-lovers even in distant foreign lands).  


So here's some sincere advice to the globe-trotting Quartet of Caracas, from an earnest and articulate layman living on the opposite side of the globe :  by all means, Señores, do carry on as you've been doing ;  but in every performance you give hereafter -- whether  at home or abroad -- please also include a couple of flute-free numbers which will create plenty of scope for the twin guitars to shine brightly, and your whole performance will be better balanced and far more exciting!

Friday, August 5, 2016

When Amazing Australian Puppets Performed In Awesome Indian Setting

I don't have a written record of my impressions of the dynamic folk dancers of the Moiseyev Ballet from Moscow in New Delhi's colossal open-air auditorium Rabindra Rangshala in 1972 (which I had  mentioned in the preceding blog) ;  but I do have my reflections on the amazing puppets of the Marionette Theatre from Australia which performed in the same awesome venue a few years later :-
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Glossary & annotations

Rabindra Rangshala  -- Colossal outdoor amphitheater on lush woodlands on the fringes of New Delhi (capacity 8,000), named after Rabindranath Tagore, world-famous poet in Bengali language.

Connaught Circus  --  Huge circle of imposing British-era mercantile buildings (with tall-pillared corridors reminiscent of London's Regent Street), surrounding circular open-air space called Connaught Place, in New Delhi.   The high-rise buildings were a late-20th century phenomenon.
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Evening News,
New Delhi
26 March 1976

Puppets on the ridge

When a puppet-show has achieved international fame, it signifies that an elementary art form has been transformed into a sophisticated technology, and it deserves a vast audience and an auditorium to match.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, when I learnt several months ago that representatives of the Marionette Theater of Australia were in New Delhi, inspecting the Rabindra Rangshala on Ridge Road, as a prelude to their performance of the puppet drama The Tintookies , which took place on March 24th and 25th.

My only complaint about the Rabindra Rangshala is that it is far away from the mainstream of metropolitan life, and is connected by a narrow road where regular bus services are few and it isn't safe at night.

But obviously this location will be more accessible in the foreseeable future, as areas under it are developed, and a wider and better-lighted road is laid.

Open-air wonder

Viewed from any angle, this open-air auditorium is a wonder.  It is structured into a vast, deep pit, with galleries which can hold five or six thousand people.  The design is superb, with widely-curving and steeply sloping rows of red-stone slabs (which serve as steps as well as seats), ensuring maximum visibility of the stage.

The acoustics are splendid, too, the sound being preserved by the high walls of the pit.  Yet the open air is very much there.

It's a long and many-stepped descent from the gate to the auditorium.  As you proceed you have a breath-taking view of the high-rise buildings of Connaught Circus far away, and you feel you are in some fashionable European city.

And a show like The Tintookies attracts an international audience, which enhances this impression.

Magic and mystery

Certainly any show which is staged in this gigantic auditorium has to have some unusual dimension if it is to be impressive.  And the Marionette show has that extra something which counts. 

The fairy-tale behind this puppet drama isn't much of a story.  There are The Tintookies, a magic people, some cute jungle animals, a pixie man, a magician, many magic effects, a balloon flight and a dream sequence.

The leaflet which was distributed didn't tell the story clearly, but that hardly mattered.  The important thing was the amazing dexterity of the puppet-masters, which didn't call for any commentary.

There wasn't a trick of the trade which was omitted.  The gesticulations of the puppets and the movements of their lips as they spoke were truly remarkable.  Even the silent fish were opening and closing their mouths constantly in an uncanny way.

Often a dozen or more life-size puppets occupied the stage and performed incredible antics.  How all those strings remained in position without getting entangled in a messy knot was a mystery.

Spellbinding shows

There were thousands of wildly enthusiastic children in the gathering, but the adults became adoring spectators too.  Here were a couple of hours of sheer fantasy, with some good background music, and a highly developed technology for you to marvel about.

The Indian Cultural Society and the Education Ministry's Culture Department must be congratulated for organizing this remarkable show, and we must thank the Australians sincerely for coming over and performing here.

Last time I spent a couple of spellbinding hours like this at Rabindra Rangshala was in 1972, When the Culture Department had invited the Moiseyev Ballet from Moscow.  I hope such exciting experiences will be frequent in the future.
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PostScript, 2016

Tragic turns :  dis-use and dissolution


There seems to be an intriguing bond between the Marionette Theatre and Rabindra Rangshala.  The puppet company was founded in 1960, and the auditorium was built at about the same time.  The company was closed down in 1990 for want of resources, and since about the same time the marvelous auditorium has remained unused (on account of a judicial ruling declaring it to be an encroachment on forest land) and has been ruined.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

When The Russians Danced On The Delhi Ridge


Talking about music and dance (of the kind we like), how long do we remember what we call 'memorable occasions'?  The answer, of course, is that it depends not only on the character and excellence of a given performance, but also on the frequency or infrequency (or uniqueness) of the occasions when we encounter the given genre of music or dance. 

Naturally, fine live shows of foreign music and dance (of the kind we like) are more memorable than equally fine live performances of our own native music or dance (of the kind we like), for the simple reason that we encounter them on our soil only very rarely. 

Anyway, 45 years aren't long enough to let my very first live encounter with Russian, Ukrainian and other folk dances of the  Soviet Union fade away from my memory.  I don't have a precise record of my impressions of that massive performance in front of an enormous audience, but here's my recollection of it in a humorous article I wrote in a similar context several years later :-
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Glossary & annotations

Ballayram  --  In the Evening News (as in Shankar's Weekly earlier) I liked to play with words and names, twisting or coining them in amusing  topic-oriented ways  --  an unconventional practice I had to give up when writing for THE HINDU later on.  And Ballayram was irresistible in the Bolshoi context, sounding so much like Balaraman/Balram, real South/North Indian names! 

Kamani Hall  -- Large, well-equipped, prestigious auditorium in New Delhi, with 600+ seats. 

Rabindra Rangshala  --  Colossal outdoor amphitheater on lush woodlands on the fringes of New Delhi (capacity 8,000), named after Rabindranath Tagore, world-famous poet in Bengali language.

Vish  --  I was signing Delhiberations with a pen name : RAJA VISHNU.  So naturally my imaginary friends who figured in the light-hearted column used to call me Vish.

Delhivision  -- What was more natural than Delhi TV becoming Delhivision in my column?  By the way, television in India was in its early stages in the 1970s, with a single Government-owned TV station in the Capital, telecasting a single black-and-white channel for just four hours in the evening, except in the week-end when there were some more programs.

Bharata'naatyam/Kathak  --  Classical dance of North/South India. 

Hindustani/Carnatic music  --  Classical music of North/South India.
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Evening News,
New Delhi

30 November 1977




Delhiberations


The Russians won't object!

My friend Ballayram and I are among the thousands of Delhi citizens who couldn't get either tickets or invitation cards for the Bolshoi and Russian folk dance shows at the Kamani auditorium.

We had warned each other that we should be alert and ensure our seats early ;  but somehow we've  been slack and have been left out.

"I just can't understand why they aren't having these shows at Rabindra Rangshala,"  Ballayram told me two days ago.


"Maybe the Russians didn't agree to perform in the open air theatre in this cold weather,"  I said.

"Are you out of your mind?  The temperature goes far below freezing point in Moscow in the winter!"

"But they must be having centrally heated auditoriums."

"But Vish, I remember in 1972 a Russian folk dance ensemble did perform in Rabindra Rangshala in February, when it was just as cold as it is now."

"Maybe the folk dancers didn't mind, with their warm costumes, but maybe the Bolshoi people do."

"In that case, why not organize at least the folk dances at Rangshala, even if the Bolshoi had to be in Kamani?"

"Don't worry, Ballay!"  I said,  "Maybe there will be good coverage on Delhivision."

Ballayram took my statement seriously, so day after day he has been sitting in front of his television set, waiting for the Bolshoi ballet and the Russian folk dances to materialize in a big way.

But except for some bits and scraps now and then, Delhivision hasn't brought the performances before the eager and expectant public at all. 

"Oh, why can't they televise the whole Bolshoi show from beginning to end?"  Ballayram laments.  "And why not cover a whole Russian folk dance show too?  Why must art and culture always get only 10 or 15 minutes?  Bombay films get two or three hours at a stretch!"

"Why only Russian dances?"  I grumble.  "Why can't they televise a full-length Bharata'naatyam or Kathak performance?  Or a full-length Hindustani or Carnatic music recital?  Or a Delhi Symphony Orchestra concert in full?  And those boys, Deepak Castelino and Julius Fernandes -- they just got 10 minutes on a Youth Forum program!  Why not give them half an hour to strum their guitars and sing, in or outside Youth Forum?  Why not give young people a couple of hours at a stretch to let off steam?  Why not scrap a Bombay film on some Saturdays and Sundays?"

"But dash it all, Vish, the Bolshoi is far more urgent!"  my friend Ballayram wails.  "You won't have another chance to see it for a long time!   What prevents them from projecting a full Bolshoi program on Indian TV, not only in Delhi, but elsewhere too?  You don't think the Russians will have any objection, do you?"
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PostScript, 2016

Russians and other 'Russians'

The 1972 'Russian folk dance ensemble' mentioned in the above article was actually the Moiseyev Dance Company (also called Moiseyev Ballet) of Moscow, which had an extensive repertoire of folk dances not only of Russia, but also of other Soviet Republics like Ukraine, Byelorus (White Russia), etc., and even of some non-Soviet countries.  Strictly speaking, therefore, it should have been called 'Soviet folk dance ensemble'. 

However, 40/50 years ago, in ordinary conversations in India we normally didn't refer to 'Soviet Union' or 'USSR', but used 'Russian' as a generic expression covering the whole federation of Soviet Socialist Republics -- just as we often said 'Xerox-copies' instead of 'photo-copies' , and even said 'Xeroxing' for 'photo-copying'.  Thus, we always referred to the USSR Embassy in New Delhi as the 'Russian Embassy'. 

In the same spirit, in this blog's headline I have referred to 'Russians' in a specific as well as generic sense, though I have no idea whether all the dancers in the Moiseyev team were Russians, or some of them hailed from other SSRs or even foreign countries.  But I am now tempted to study the Moiseyev Ballet's history and geography thoroughly!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dynamic Folk Music And Dance From Ukraine

Here's one of my reviews of a folk music-and-dance event in the course of the well-drawn-out Festival of USSR in India in 1987-88 :-
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Glossary


Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's largest auditorium (2000+ seats) is located.  

Talkatora  --  Historic woodlands and garden in New Delhi, where its second largest indoor stadium (3000+) is situated.

Bombay/Madras  --  British-regime names of Indian cities now called Mumbai/Chennai.    
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
22 April 1988
(Extract from an article in my Friday column) 

Ukrainian folk ensemble


.  .  .  .  .  The Virsky Dance Company, a large Soviet ensemble specializing in Ukrainian folk music and dance, landed in Delhi on the hottest pre-summer day in 15 years.  But the dozens of dancers showed no apparent ill-effects, and looked fresh and energetic in their dynamic exertions in the cool Siri Fort auditorium on Sunday evening, when they gave the first of their four performances on successive days.  The music provided by a small group playing various resounding instruments, including folk flutes and an accordion-like Ukrainian fabrication, was as vigorous and full-blooded as the dancing.

Although several hundred people were present on the occasion -- including a large number of eager schoolboys in white uniform -- the audience looked rather small in the enormous auditorium.  The rows and rows of vacant seats created a negative ambiance.  It is true that this did not affect the liveliness of the proceedings ;  but when I talked to  some of the musicians during the intermission, they did sound somewhat disappointed. 

It will be recalled that the Moiseyev Dance Company had attracted a mammoth gathering of several thousands of people in the Talkatora indoor stadium on two successive days a few months ago.  The Ukrainian show is equally spectacular, and I wonder why it did not draw a full house in the Siri hall.  Was the publicity inadequate?  Was the pricing too high?  Or was there any other inhibiting factor?

The Festival of India Directorate would do well to look closely into the reasons for the unexpected and relatively thin attendance.   The USSR Festival in India is the result of extraordinarily painstaking efforts, and it is necessary that the largest possible number of people are able to have a taste of  the Soviet arts when the visiting artists are here . . . .
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PostScript, 2016

Indelible impressions

My Friday music column in THE  HINDU's New Delhi edition in the 1980s and '90s was mainly about concepts and colors, traditions and trends, styles and standards, values and organization, and not about tiresome technical details --precisely as things had been earlier in Bombay and Madras, and have been afterwards in Madras.   

So, looking at the above text now, I can't understand why I didn't follow up my impression about the audience and survey the scene on any of the next three days when the Ukrainian dancers performed in the same venue, particularly because the show was spectacular and was certainly worth repeated viewing.  And also because the Soviet Republics were usually very efficient and effective in organizing their cultural events in India -- as was evident, for example, in the context of the twin Moiseyev shows a few months earlier, both of which I had attended.  

Perhaps my reflections on those two formidable events would be very relevant and interesting in this context ;  but unfortunately I can't find them in my old records.  There was no online edition those days, and the contents of the newspaper were all stored in microfilm, where I'll have to look for the missing article now.  

Anyway, so powerful and vivid were my impressions of these infrequent performances by energetic and colorfully dressed  folk musicians and dancers from Russia and Eastern Europe that the memories of watching those few live programs 30 or 40 years ago are still fresh in my mind -- like, for example, a vigorous open-air Moiseyev show I attended in 1972.   So let me tell that story next!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Swimming In Foreign Cultural Streams : Folk And Art Music And Dance From Soviet Union

In the Cyberian universe of ours today, all you have to do for swimming in foreign cultural currents is to press a button on a keyboard or touch the screen of a computer or cell phone -- and musicians, dancers or actors from anywhere in the world will instantly materialize before you and start performing. 

Things were totally different even 30 years ago, and in India's Capital city New Delhi we had to wait for months (or even years sometimes) for the kind of foreign music and dance we liked.  Here's an extract from a vintage review of mine, which will show you how precious such rare occasions were in our cultural life :-
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Glossary

Siri Fort  --  Historic site in New Delhi, where the city's largest auditorium is located. 

Rashtrapathi Bhavan  --  ('President's Home' in Hindi)  :   Imposing British-built red--stone palace in New Delhi, with impressive grounds and garden -- official residence of Viceroy during British rule, and of President of Indian Republic now. 

Nehru Stadium  --  Large indoor stadium, named after Jawaharlal Nehru, legendary freedom fighter and first Prime Minister of India.

Byelorussia  --  Byelorus in Russian (pronounced Byeh-lo-roos) -- means 'White Russia'.
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
27 October 1987

Speaking through music and dance

.  .  .  .  Masters of Soviet Art, held in the Siri Fort auditorium last Sunday evening, was the first indoor program of the Festival of the USSR in India (that is to say, after the inaugural open-air presentations in Rashtrapathi Bhavan and Nehru Stadium on Sunday) ;  and the fair presented was varied and condensed, giving us a preview of the kind of Soviet music and dance we would be encountering in several other programs spread over this whole week in Delhi.


Among other things, the 100-strong orchestra conducted by Alexandr Kopilov gave a polished recital of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italiano and the world-famous waltz occurring in the same composer's score for the ballet Sleeping Beauty.  Accompanied by the orchestra, Galina Borsseva rendered a lovely song from the opera Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Karsakv.  The orchestra then shifted to the spacious pit, and provided music for the Bolshoi dancers, who enacted a ballet sequence based on an orchestral version of some of Chopin's masterpieces, collectively called Chopeniana.

So far as the musical part of it is concerned, I must specially mention the spontaneous and vociferous applause which greeted the rendering of the immortal Chopin waltz which is best known to music-lovers as Opus 64, No. 2.  This exquisite composition, which so beautifully blends a sentiment of yearning with a sense of fulfilment, is too delidcate and fragile to be featured in a ballroom like the robust waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr.  If  its ethos is to be expressed in terms of  dancing, perhaps it can be done only in the ballet form, and who else in the world can do it better than the Bolshoi people? 

Folk music and dance

The gentle steps and movements of the Bolshhoi dancers were followed by some vigorous pounding and leaping by the Karoshky Folk Dance Ensemble from Byelorussia.  There were colorful costumes, with free-flowing blouses, skirts and sleeves.  There was much thumping on the floor by the heavy boots of the dancers, which constituted a rhythmic additive to the brisk tempo set up  by a small group of musicians playing an assortment of instruments like the accordion, folk fiddle, guitar, drums, xylophone and zither.  

The interest in the folk instruments increased when a group led by V. Nazarov appeared later.  Apart from the usual accordion, fiddle and drums, this ensemble featured a complicated stringed contraption from Ukraine, and a multi-reed panpipe from Moldavia.  The musicians set up a scorching tempo, which went well with the folk section of the program.

One of the delightful pieces projected during the evening was a sampling from the wide repertoire of the famous Moiseyev Folk Dance Company.  It was a scintillating dance called City Quadrille, performed by four couples robed in romantic costumes.  The men wore bright silk sirts, black trousers and knee-length boots, and a peaked military cap.  The women sported gorgeous gowns in different colors.  A seven-man orchestra provided some sizzling music for this sprightly and humorous exercise, which made us eagerly look forward to the full-length Moiseyev shows scheduled for this week-end. 

Foreign cultural streams

The concluding part of the program presented a very loud Armenian jazz orchestra, which sounded like a mid-century 'big band' from other parts of the world.  This phenomenon seemed to come as quite an anti-climax ;  but when a group of men and women singers joined the band and injected a choral element, the proceedings acquired some Soviet colors.
Organizing such a trans-national cultural festival is like capturing a series of powerful short-wave broadcasts from a distant foreign country.  The invisible and mysterious radio waves are present in the very air surrounding us, but we cannot breathe them unless we have the proper apparatus and the inclination to tune to the appropriate wave-length. 

The music and dance of the whole world constantly flow in many different streams, most of which are usually inaccessible to us ;  but every well-organized encounter with a rich and dynamic culture which exists abroad adds to our artistic experience and enhances our global vision.  In this context, the value of isolated but frequent visits by accomplished foreign artists must also be recognized.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Substantial Dose Of Authentic Russian Folk Music

Unlike the fairly frequent chamber music recitals given by visiting virtuosi from the West in New Delhi in the 1980s and '90s -- who usually either dispensed superior classical music to us in far-too-tiny doses in far-too-short programs,  or presented some bizarre styles of music which made no sense to us at all -- the infrequent foreign folk music and dance shows were usually very substantial affairs, particularly those from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

As a prelude to my sharing with you the memory of a delightful experience of that kind, let me quote some thoughts from my reviews of a couple of other similar events which I had recalled earlier (Rustic Rituals, Romantic Reveries and Poppish-Turkish Folk Music  --  19/24 Nov. 2012) :-

Much of European folk music and dance is related to rituals performed in ceremonial contexts like weddings, childbirth and funerals, or the  advent of spring, summer, equinox, etc.  A substantial part of it has a functional character, and is used to serve as an aid to (or celebration of) agricultural and rural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting, spinning, weaving or cattle-breeding . . . 

Folk music and dance in their authentic milieu would generally involve the active participation of a large number of ordinary people belonging to any given community, whether rural or urban . . .  This is no doubt why even the modern ensembles which project these traditional arts on the stage tend to be fairly large in the case of folk dances . . . 
Folk music . . . usually has a universal appeal, whatever may be the country of origin.  Folk songs by their very nature are simple and unsophisticated, and are not expected to have any intellectual refinement.  Therefore it is not really necessary to understand the meaning of the lyrics for enjoying folk music.  

Moreover, the strange and unfamiliar language of foreign folk songs even lends a touch of mystery to the music, and adds to its appeal.  It was interesting to see how enthusiastically our folk music was received in France and the U.S. during the recent Festival of India organized there . . .


Now, read on!
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
29 July 1988

Continuing impression of Soviet folklore

It is an excellent idea that the USSR Festival in India should come in waves, instead of hitting us like a cyclone.  It gives us some scope to have repeated exposure to the different facets of Soviet culture without getting mentally fatigued, and such recurring experiences are necessary for enhancing our familiarity with those art forms.

This is particularly true of folk music and dance.  While a daily folk-arts program over a fortnight is likely to become quite tiresome and may prove to be counter-productive, a substantial series of such events, spread over several months, does cumulatively consolidate our impressions in a positive way, giving us a worthwhile insight into the foreign cultural tradition -- which is precisely what such a festival is meant for.  Let us hope that even after the current festival commitments of the USSR are over, the Soviet Cultural Center in New Delhi will organize similar shows from time to time, not only in the Capital but all over India, so that the popular impressions created by this tremendous effort will not gradually fade away in the future.

Course correction

Ushering in the third phase of the festival, the organizers had announced a twin-event to take place in the Kamani Hall last week, featuring the Karagod Folklore Ensemble from Russia and a variety entertainment group from the USSR's Asian Republics.  The latter ensemble, whose music is said to be tradition-derived but with a jazzy outlook, could not perform because some sophisticated equipment needed by them had not been cleared by the Delhi Customs  .  .  .  and the whole evening was devoted to an extended performance by the Karagod Ensemble. 

Personally, I did not mind this at all.  Being an old-timer, I do prefer to have more of the original Soviet culture as I knew it or used to visualize it in my younger days, and less of the jazzified and pop-oriented music of this Glasnost era. 

The Karagod Ensemble specializes in performing the traditional folk songs and dances of Southern Russia, with a great deal of bantering between the performers (four women, six men).  The accent is on a continuous and elastic exchange of witty remarks and razor-sharp repartees, all expressed in vocal music, accompanied by folk instruments.  The dancing is rather marginal, meant to be an aid to artistic interaction and not a visually refined activity, although the costumes are elaborate and colorful.

Humorous show

Few people among the audience could have understood the precise meaning of whatever was being sung, but the humorous element which dominated the performance was never lost on the gathering.  To add spice to the show, some of the gorgeously-dressed women artists stepped down, walked along the aisles, and dragged a few men and a young girl up to the stage -- and made them participate in some of the group dances, no matter how clumsily.  This added greatly to the spectators' sense of involvement.


All told, the program, which was unexpectedly prolonged, turned out to be a very substantial dose of authentic Russian folklore.  Short of actually visiting a village in Southern Russia and personally taking part in the public merry-making, one could not perhaps get a more vivid impression of the fascinating tradition.
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PostScript, 2016


Jazzy & jarring


Talking about jazzified and pop-oriented Russian folk music, you may find it interesting to read (or read again!) my comments in  Jarring Trend Ruins Russian Folk Music  (8 Jan. 2013). 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shepherd's Flute And Sheepskin Pipes Create Authentic Balkan Atmosphere

Just as in the case of European secular music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras, the authenticity of the folk music of any country in the world in present-day performances depends a great deal on the integrity of the instruments used.  The closer they are in character to the original folk instruments of the culture and times  concerned, the more faithfully and convincingly do the true character and colors of the traditional folk art seem to materialize.

This was the impression we had consistently obtained whenever earnest and well-accomplished  foreign folk music-and-dance groups came over to perform in New Delhi -- as, for instance, on the following occasion :-
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
28 November 1986


Folk dance and music from Bulgaria


The Indian Council for Cultural Relations organized an interesting performance by a Bulgarian dance ensemble last week in Kamani Hall.  European folk music and folk dance are very closely related  to each other, and it is generally difficult to distill and separate the music.  Therefore this program was of considerable interest to lovers of folk music as well as folk dance.

The ensemble, known as Atanas Manchev, hails from a beach resort called Bourgas in Bulgaria.  About 25 performing artists figure in the current foreign tour.

The recital consisted of five mixed group dances, featuring upto eight men and eight women in each.  All the dances were performed to the accompaniment of music provided by a small folk orchestra of five men, who played a 'kaval' or shepherd's flute (Stoyan Arabadzhev), Balkan bagpipes made of sheepskin (Hristo Boev), two accordions (Dimitr Yanulov and Pietr Kobalyev), and a drum ((Mikhail Todorov).

Between dances there were short musical interludes, which presented kaval and bagpipe solos with accordion and/or drum accompaniment, or involved the whole orchestra ;  there were also a few songs vocally rendered by Nikolyna Kobalyeva.

Inverse influences 
  
It is a well-known fact that the folk music of many parts of Europe has considerably influenced several great composers of European classical music, especially those moved by strong nationalistic sentiments -- as may be seen from the works of Liszt, Bartók, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, and others.

But it is not always understood or remembered that the urbanized and sophisticated art music has also influenced the rural folk music in many European countries.  In fact, there is even a school of thought which believes that all folk music is a form of diluted culture and is derived from the art music of earlier times.  This, of course, is an extreme view.  Wiser scholars visualize a via media, and draw attention to a two-way traffic of form and style between the folk and art music cultures.   

The influence of art music on the folk tradition, however, is less evident in Eastern Europe than in West European countries, due to various historic reasons.  Accordingly, the folk music originating there has truly authentic colors.

Rustic roots

Folk music invariably absorbs the linguistic intonations and poetry of the country where it springs from, and is often aligned to the the natural environment and the simple activities and celebrations of the people.  The preoccupation of folk music with the agricultural scene is noticeable all over Europe, but it is most conspicuous in the Balkan countries.

An important feature of the folk music of the Balkans is the extensive use of small intervals.  The tonal range is also extremely short.  Bulgarian folk songs are often compressed within a single octave.  All these aspects were clearly visible in the evening's music, which was mainly produced as an accompaniment to the vigorous performance of the folk dancers in colorful costumes.

Among other things, the dances depicted joyful revelries in the spring season and the ceremonial bearing of wedding guests.  Both the music and dance in the final number -- showing village workers celebrating fertility, rain, sunshine and good health -- were particularly animated and attractive.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweden's Folk Music: Old Tradition Survives New Trends

European music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods had two distinct sets of successive or parallel traditions :  secular and spiritual.  The events I had recalled in the preceding blogs were of the former kind.  I shall be turning the telescope round towards the others shortly ;  but  meanwhile, the spotlight on authentic instruments in the contexts mentioned in the last four posts  reminds me of a performance by a Swedish ensemble because it had also projected a clear vision of some old-world musical instruments. 

But this was a presentation of Swedish folk music, which in turn reminds me of some other vintage events featuring the folk music and dance of other cultures,  particularly of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Let us change the track with this recollection, then!
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Glossary

ICCR  --  Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's most spacious auditorium (about 1900 seats) is situated. 
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THE HINDU,
New Delhi
 13 December 1991


Enjoyable fare

And now Sweden is taking some initiative to bring some of its art and culture to India.  This is on a subdued scale, which is welcome.  In the context of international cultural exchange, it is useful to organize a series of artistic events at reasonable intervals, whatever may be the merits of concentrated cultural festivals.  It seems the Swedes intend to make a steady, well-spaced-out presentation of their country's cultural life, in several Indian cities.  Let us hope that it will all add up to something substantial in the long run.

There was an exhibition of Swedish designs in New Delhi some time ago.  There will be an exhibition of Swedish art shortly, and a program of Swedish jazz after some time.  Between these, there was a performance of Swedish folk music last week. The event was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Swedish Embassy, in collaboration with Svenska Rikskonserter (Swedish National Institute for Concerts, which is a Government-funded institution, like ICCR here).

Tradition and trends

Contemporary folk music in Sweden, as in many other countries, has two distinct facets.  There is the old tradition, which the cultural conscience-keepers strive to keep alive.  And there is the new trend (gradually becoming a tradition perhaps) -- which looks to the past for inspiration and ideas, but feels free to develop different concepts altogether in style, technique and instrumentation, particularly in conjunction with jazz and rock.  The Siri Fort event brought this fact into sharp focus.  The overall impression of the Swedish folk music scene today, tastefully created by this balanced program, will not easily be erased from the memory of the 1,500 people who were present.

Thus, we heard the cow-horn and the shrill herding calls of by-gone days ;  the contrasting or combining sounds of the violin, the Swedish bag-pipe and keyed fiddle (called 'nyckel harpa'), medieval flutes, and the 'bouzuki' (a mandolin-like instrument of Greek origin) ;  and also jazzy, folk-oriented music featuring the  saxophone, clarinet, electronic synthesizer, and an assortment of percussion instruments.

There seems to be a conviction in Swedish music circles that the new trend will not destroy the old tradition, but will actually save it by attracting the younger generation to the folk idioms.  This approach would seem to gain credibility in the light of the fact that folk fiddlers' clubs and meets continue to flourish in Sweden side by side with the emergence of the new music, and there is also a resurgence of old folk instruments.

Inverse influence

The phenomenon of art music drawing ideas and themes from folk music is universal, and Swedish art music is no exception.  But a remarkable thing about Sweden's folk music as it exists today is that s major form of it -- called Polska -- is based on dance tunes imported by Polish art musicians who served the Swedish King's court in the 16th century.  In the concert under review, there was a fine demonstration of the Polska on the violin, visually enlivened by a handsome dancing couple.

A very enjoyable part of the evening's fare was the pulsating music created by the keyed fiddle in association with the ordinary fiddle and the bouzuki.  The forceful combination produced a torrent of melody and rhythm of an arresting quality, fortified by the droning sound of sympathetic strings.

Some members of the group stood out because they happened to figure repeatedly in the show, accompanying other musicians or dancing in different contexts.  It will not be fair to accord them star status by mentioning selected names.  The whole performance must be viewed as a collective effort ;  and everyone concerned -- including the Swedish Institute's representative who gave a very useful running commentary -- must be warmly congratulated.