By M.V.Ramakrishnan

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! 


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. 

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.

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!

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