Making music, not boundaries

Staying in this country and absorbing its culture and values serves to prepare me for my concert in a very big way, muses harpist Gwyneth Wentink, who is part of a world music ensemble scheduled to play at Nehru Centre in Mumbai on Saturday. Wentink will perform at Banyan Tree’s festival Kala Viraasat, along with santoor player Rahul Sharma and oud and kanun players from Egypt, Mohammed and Hamda Farghaly.
Spread over two days and encompassing music and dance, the festival is now in its third year. On day one, August 26, 2011, percussion and dance take centre-stage with performances by Taal India, a percussion ensemble and dancers Birju Maharaj and Madhavi Mudgal. They are both expected to perform traditional compositions from their respective repertoires. Mudgal, who will be accompanied by her troupe, is known for her beautifully choreographed group productions.
Meanwhile, Taal India tries to incorporate sounds from across the length and breadth of the country. It picks the pung from Manipur, the mizhavu and edakka from Kerala, naal from Maharashtra and the dholak and khartaal from Rajasthan, among other instruments.
“The many flavours of Indian percussion will be on display as all these percussionists come up to the same stage and jam together. We have all worked with drums and other electronic instruments in the past, but here we only use traditional percussion instruments. This is a unique concept that has never been presented before,” says tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee, the leader of the group. While percussion ensembles might not be a unique concept — there have been earlier attempts, most successful, Taal India is perhaps interesting in the way it retains the context and ambience of the instruments it uses. Thus the pung drummers, who play in pung cholom, a section of Manipuri dance, might execute moves from their style as they play. The experience of percussion is not limited to the aural; it can be visual too.
Many of these instruments have also stayed within their defined role of accompanying instruments until now; some have strong associations with ritual worship and temple performances and have never really been heard outside those spaces. Chatterjee elaborates, “Most percussion instruments don’t even match the same scale. Some of them don’t have one, so we use tala as a reference point. This ensemble is entirely experimental in nature because we learn things and evolve on stage. We flesh out a structure based on tala and every percussionist has a small period of time to play solos in. Once we have agreed on the rhythmic aspects, we can work out everything else spontaneously. When I play with Amjad Ali Khan, often he doesn’t tell me what he is planning to perform. He announces it to the audience and that is when I find out too. A lot of our coordination then happens through eye contact while we are on stage. It is improvisational and we are trained to follow each other using eye contact.”
On the second and final day, the evening begins with the world music ensemble of Sharma, Wentink and the Farghalys. They will be accompanied by percussionists, a keyboardist and a bass guitarist. Sharma has composed three new pieces which he will play with Wentink and Mohammed Farghaly separately before they all come together for the final composition. Talking about the process of evolving a collaborative performance and its execution, he says, “The starting point is to listen to each other’s music; it gives me an idea of the style of compositions I’d like to use for a particular collaboration. I composed certain melodies and sent Gwyneth and Mohammed the compositional structure. We rehearse once before the concert to sort out all other aspects. Rhythm is a very important part of our music; it creates excitement. Usually I peak my performance with quicker compositions towards the end of the performance where the percussionists have a brief musical dialogue and then get back to accompanying us on the composition.”
Kala Viraasat ends on an exceedingly contagious note with qawwalis by the Sabri Brothers, a renowned musical group from Pakistan.

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