In May 2019 Songlines Magazine and the PRS Foundation launched a competition to find the best remix of David Attenborough’s recording of a performance of Balinese gendér wayang, a style of Indonesian gamelan that features a quartet of ten-keyed metallophones. Among the reactions of gamelan enthusiasts was concern that the unnamed musicians (or their descendants) were receiving neither recognition nor royalties for this reuse of their work.
The music and instruments in the recording (said to date from 1956 but in fact recorded in 1968, as discovered by Edward Herbst since the publication of the article) were instantly recognizable to people who knew the repertoire of the village of Teges Kanginan; the gamelan set is presumed to have belonged to this village for at least 100 years.
Soon after the competition was announced, the American ethnomusicologist Edward Herbst met with the village leader, his staff, and local musicians, and listened to the original recording as one of the current players tapped out the basic melody on one of the historic instruments. All the pitches matched, and everyone agreed that the recording was of the Teges gamelan, and that the royalties should go to that village.
Herbst presented the royalties to the village leader, and all were elated that the royalties would provide seed money for restoring and reviving this legacy gamelan, and that Teges could regain its heritage.
This according to “Bali remixed and revisited” by Edward Herbst (Songlines 150 [August–September 2019], pp. 50-53).
Above, Herbst (center) with the gathered villagers; below, the recording in question begins at 1:05.
Since being listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010, Kalbelia dance from Rājasthān is now generally conceptualized as an ancient tradition from India. However, this same dance practice, also known as a form of “Indian Gypsy” or “snake charmers’” folk dance, appears to have originated as recently as the 1980s.
Ethnographic research with Kalbelia dancers’ families has elucidated how this inventive dance practice was formed to fit into national and transnational narratives with the aim of commercializing it globally and of generating a new, lucrative livelihood for these Kalbelia families. As a new cultural product of Rājasthāni fusion, the dance finds itself at the crossroads of commercial tourism and political folklorism and is grounded in the neo-Orientalist discourses of romanticism and exoticism.
This according to “Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan: Invented gypsy form or traditional snake charmers’ folk dance?” by Ayla Joncheere (Dance research journal XLIX/1 [April 2017] pp. 37–54).
Below, a performance from the archives of the Asian Music Circuit.
In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.
“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”
“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”
“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”
Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).
Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.
Filed under Asia, Performers
Created between 1960 and 1961, Escorting Lady Jing a thousand li (千里送京娘) is a kunqu masterpiece that continuously entertains audiences and stimulates discussions on Chinese opera, gender, and politics.
A mid-twentieth century dramatization of a traditional story, the opera narrates a journey in which the young Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Northern Song empire, escorts the beautiful Lady Jing home, falls in love with her along the way, leaves her to realize his heroic dreams, and vows to return to marry her in the future. Theatrically, the opera makes Chinese men and women ask how they should choose between desire and duty, realizing their personally, socially, and politically enforced gendered roles and values.
Having been performed over five decades, the opera and its performance practices and meanings have evolved, generating changing discussions and interpretations. Its recent performances, for example, underscore sustainability issues of kunqu as a genre of Intangible Cultural Heritage, thereby opening audiences’ ears, eyes, and minds to their Chinese cultures, identities, and politics.
This according to “Escorting Lady Jing home: A journey of Chinese opera, gender, and politics” by Joseph Sui Ching Lam (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI  pp. 114–39). Above the original 1961 production; below, an excerpt from a more recent televised version.
Çudamani, a sekaa (a communal club under the auspices of a ward) and a sanggar (a more tightly governed and broader arts organization) in the Balinese village of Pengosekan, is committed to studying and teaching Balinese music and dance; it is also a transnational arts phenomenon.
Çudamani is first a traditional sekaa, in the sense that it is committed to its local community, and one of the main missions of the troupe is to ngayah, or perform voluntary performance service at temple festivals. The original troupe was initiated in the late 1990s; today, the organization includes at least four different sub-groups (including children’s clubs).
The group is postmodern because of the transnational basis, the neotraditionalism, the mixing of new and traditional musics and the play of genre, the fluidity of local and global identities, and the fact that the troupe seems to defy preconceived notions of sekaa or sanggar and to transcend some principles upon which such organizations have been established. While its international notoriety distinguishes this group from most others, Çudamani’s global participation and embrace of neotraditionalism illuminates growing trends within Bali and provides a case study of circulating, 21st-century ideation on cultural representation and the role of the arts.
This according to “Between traditionalism and postmodernism: The Balinese performing arts institution Çudamani” by David D. Harnish, an essay included in Performing arts in postmodern Bali: Changing interpretations, founding traditions (Aaachen: Shaker Verlag, 2013, pp. 257–77).
Below, a performance in 2018.
Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.
The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.
An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.
This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.
BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.
Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.
Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.
This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.
Former RILM Editor Woo Shingkwan (胡成筠) has just won the International Musicological Society’s 2018 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The ceremonial music of Zhu Zaiyu.
Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611) was a mathematician, physicist, music theorist, choreographer, and composer; he is particularly remembered today for creating the theory of 12-tone equal temperament.
Congratulations to our former colleague! Above, a page from the dissertation.
Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.
These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.
This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).
Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.
The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!
In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:
“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”
The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.
This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).
Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.
BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!
Filed under Asia, Performers