My interest in world music , as they call it, is quite recent. For a long time, I used to listen only to Western music, and more specifically, the kind of rock that didn’t jar on the ears. I used to listen to the odd Santana and The Gypsy Kings, but by and large, non-english music was quite on the periphery. All this changed over the last couple of years. First, my interest in spanish, music, especially latino music increased like crazy, influenced in no small part by the latino crowd I found myself hanging out with in Israel, and I soon found myself possessing more music in languages I didn’t know than in the ones I did.
But it’s only recently that World Music has become a big part of my life. I find that as long as I know what music I need for a particular mood, I don’t even care what the lyrics say. In Carnatic classical music, there is a concept known as Bhava. It literally means emotion, and it refers to the certain mood or emotion that is evoked by the piece. Some mornings, I need a very calm atmosphere around the house, and so I pull out Ry Cooder and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s collaborative effort, A meeting by the River, or even that old workhorse, The Buena Vista Social Club. If I need a bit of cheerful music, the latinos are always there. If you listen to music based on mood, you hardly ever need to know the lyrics.
By and large, if you get over the fact that you don’t know what the hell they’re singing about, it opens up a whole world of music. Suddenly music from anywhere in the world becomes accessible. But just because I don’t mind the fact that I don’t know what’s happening doesn’t mean that I automatically like it. Over the last year or so, I have discovered, and dare I say, refined my tastes, so that I have a better idea of what I like and dislike. I am enthralled by fusion, I love the idea of cross cultural chaos. Take a traditional folk melody, twist it with a modern instrument, and add a bit of fusion. For example, last month I went to a festival of South American music, and there was this Andean band from Peru, and for one of the songs, they’d invited over a didgeridoo player. I can’t think of two music traditions more distinct.
All this has been a lengthy preamble to the Cafe Carnivale. For the year or so I have been aware of this organisation that hosts World Music concerts in the city. I came across them through a flyer that appeared in the campus. Since then I have been planning and dreaming of going to one of their concerts. It didn’t even matter which concert, I just wanted to go hear the music I loved being played live. I have a very high tolerance for live music, even if the band sucks, it’s sort of ok if I see them live. Growing up in Bangalore, there are not many places you can go to in order to listen to live music. Especially outside the main classical tradition. But the Cafe Carnivale venues were in an unfamiliar part of the city and besides I never could manage to convince anyone to go with me. Who want to travel for more than an hour on buses just to see some band sing in a language that they don’t even understand? A couple of times, I decided to go, only to be told that there were no tickets available, and once I even landed at the doorstep to find out that I was too late. In effect, the Cafe Carnivale concerts seemed to be jinxed for me. But all that was destined to change.
Last week,, I picked up the new season flyer from the Uni, and yesterday, I decided that I would give it a go. Come what may, I would attend a concert. And the concert was by Lucy Voronov and the Transylvaniacs. I convinced A. to come along with me, so maybe he’s the good luck charm, for we got to the show well in time, and they had tickets to boot. On the way to the show, I read the flyer, and it claimed that Lucy Voronov was a cimbalom player. I’d never heard of the cimbalom before, and it added a touch of anticipation, it’s not everyday that you come across a strange and exotic sounding instrument.
It was exotic, but it didn’t sound exotic. As we took our seats, we saw that the center of the stage was occupied by a trapezium shaped table, and there were microphones pointing at it. In the dim light it wasn’t possible to see the strings, but we spent some time arguing whether the trapezium was the instrument. When Lucy came on, and the lights brightened, it was obvious. She sat in front of the table and started playing. She used two curved hammers to hit the strings on the instruments, and it immediately reminded me of the Santur. Of course the Santur is a familiar instrument to me, I have whiled away many a sleepless night listening to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who adapted the Persian/Iraqi instrument to play Hindustani Classical Music. But this was way different in the way it sounded. Let me put it this way: as soon as I heard it, I realized that the cimbalom must be related to the Santur, but the sounds were quite different. Later research, courtesy Wikipedia, assured me that I was not mistaken in the resemblance.
Lucy was fantastic. She played with an energy that was fascinating to watch, her fingers flying all among the strings like that of a demented typist, and ever so often she did a curious dance like movement with her hands, which only served to accentuate the performance. She played with her instrument, in every sense of the term: she made the strings produce different sounds depending on how she hit the strings with the curved hammer, or by plucking the strings or by sliding the base of the hammer along the strings. Most of the performance was solo, but for two pieces she invited this guy, I’ve forgotten his name now [UPDATE: It was accomplished Australian composer and a multi-instrumentalist performer Stephen Lalor- see Lucy’s comments below!!] , to accompany her with a guitar. The effect was mesmerizing. Till now I was enchanted with her playing, but by just adding another instrument, the effect increased manifold. Lucy’s performance was flawless, she even dealt with broken strings with aplomb, just mentioning now and then how many strings she had left.
Extended applause later, she left the stage and the Transylvaniacs took the stage. I was under the impression that Lucy would perform along with the Transylvaniacs, but I was mistaken,- they were a completely different band. They had two violinists, a singer, a double bass player and cimbalon player, but this was a different version of the cimbalom- it was a Hungarian cimbalom, and sounded quite different. This band sounded uneasy together, and though they played a variety of tunes from Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Hungarian and Romanian, and everything in between, I felt that they really didn’t come together. In some parts of the some songs, suddenly they would come together and my foot would start tapping uncontrollably, but mostly, I was less than overwhelmed. I think, that while recreating folk songs is a good and noble task, a 21st century audience in the city needs something more. Just pure folk music divorced from its habitat just does not cut it for me. They needed some amount of cross cultural fertilization, if you ask me. And as if to prove my point, the last song featured a collaboration between Lucy and the Transylvaniacs. There were two cimbaloms, and they assured the audience that the two came from completely different traditions. If I may be so bold, I reckon that while Lucy went for the High Art end of the scale, the Transylvaniacs went for the Low Art end. And the moment they started playing together, it was pure magic. Lucy’s cimbalom took centre stage, but at no point did it overwhelm the rest of the band, and vice versa. It was the most delightful performance, the best was indeed left for last. Not even the fact that one of the hammers flew out of Lucy’s hand shook her aplomb, she just continued with a spare hammer. In the end, my conviction grew that all you need is a little bit extra, just a little bit of pushing the envelope, to create fantastic new music suitable for the increasingly interconnected world.