Went to a Bharata Natyam Recital held at the The British School in Colombo auditorium (a very spiffy place). Even spotted a bloggospheric celebrity in the audience. The event was part of the launch of Lirneasia’s 3R initiative. But I went because I was desperate for a dose of good classical Indian music.
The dance performance was inspiring at many levels. Particularly the fact that the artist, Rasika Khanna, has been practising her art longer than I’ve been alive. Her movements were fluid, gracefully precise and utterly confident. There was strength and flexibility a person half her age would envy.
The pieces performed seemed more suited to people well versed in Bharata Natyam and Indian/Hindu classical literature. I’m not one of them. The last Bharata Natyam performance I saw was almost a decade ago. If it hadn’t been for the helpful introductions she made before each piece I would have been totally lost.
It was the vocals by Kumari Roshni that had me mesmerised. She sang through the whole event – about 1.5 hours. I won’t bother looking for words to describe it. (I never said this post was going to be some sort of “unbiased” “review” btw). I’m sucker for any masterful musical use of the human voice. Besides the raw technique she had an honestly in her voice that carried something deeper than just an understanding of her art and its centuries of tradition.
The word loss is quite apparent when trying to describe what I feel when I hear such voices. The best I can say is that the sound expresses something profoundly honest about being human without any cultural baggage. For me (unschooled in the theories of any musical tradition) this is the critical, utterly intangible element that separates the profound from the fluff. Impossible to even attempt to describe (as demonstrated by the fumbling words of this paragraph). But I know it when I hear it (sounds like the hackneyed justifications of a philistine but the truth is weird).
It is in masters such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Billie Holiday. It is in a Tuvan throat singer and an unknown tribesman recorded with a hand held mic in the Rajastani desert. After a long time I encountered it in the voice of the evening’s vocalist.
Its sort of thing that would stop me if I heard it wafting onto the street. Discovered most of my best music through such chance encounters. Which is one of the reasons (the others being more complicated) I gave up using earphones in the last century. Paradoxically, the price for this is listening to music less often. To the point where I thought it didn’t matter – less craving/attachment of sounds anyway. Left most of the old CDs behind when I moved. The vocals of the recital hit home what I search for in human music. And just how bloody important it is.
Well no point writhing like an addict in withdrawal. The net offers some hope. The World radio show’s Global Hit introduces a new musician every day, five times a week. Andy Kershaw on BBC3 does something similar. Being in Sri Lanka offer’s a chance to discover something rare, interesting and off line.
About an year ago in used CD shop in a 1st world city, I came across an album of ethnographic recordings from the first part of the twentieth century. Sandwiched between an Afghan and a Cambodian folk song track was a “Kaffringha” piece by street performers in Colombo. Recorded somewhere between 1920 and 1930. I can still remember the liner notes photo. A greenish black and white of dark thin figures stiffly posing with their instruments – very similar to the feel of this photo on Dominic Sansoni’s site. Despite the scratchy sound quality (it had been recorded on an old wax disk) there was that honest sound which most of the other tracks in the lacked. So I didn’t buy it.
Well that’s spilled milk. Time to move on to other discoveries with less caution.
Postscript: 20th Sept 2007
Images of the performance are on the Lirneasia website’s gallery