Category Archives: Asia

Theravāda Buddhist music across borders

Theravāda Buddhist music of Thailand and China emphasizes the intricate relationship between time, space, synchronic and diachronic perspectives, and cultural memory. Synchronic structure acts as both an intermediary and a result of diachrony. In Theravāda Buddhism, music traces elements of cultural memory manifested in various types of ritual practice found in both China and Thailand.

Comparing the musical practices of these two countries enables an exploration of the similarities and differences in their musical characteristics within the organizational structure of their Theravāda Buddhist cosmological systems. Historical time in Theravāda Buddhist music, considered as “monumental time” or “social time”, correlates with spatial expressions of musical structure, highlighting the cultural affinities and contradictions that structure music in Theravāda Buddhist traditions across national borders.

Learn more in “Zhong, Tai Nanchuan Fojiao yinyue de jiegou erchongxing bijiao yanjiu” (A comparative study of the dual structure in the Theravāda Buddhist music of China and Thailand) by Dong Chen (Zhongyang Yinyue Xueyuan xuebao/Journal of the Central Conservatory of Music 2/171 [2023], 42–58). This Chinese journal is a new addition for 2023 in RILM Abstracts with Full Text.

Celebrating International Migrants Day on December 18 with music that crosses borders!

Listen to Thai Theravāda Buddhist monks chanting Dhammacakka Sutta below.

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Leenalchi, Korean music, and nationalism

The South Korean pop band Leenalchi consists of four singers, two bassists, and a drummer. Their 2019 album, entitled Sugungga, was based on a pansori piece, and the song Tiger is coming saw significant success after the music video was used to promote South Korean tourism. Leenalchi’s creative interpretation of pansori’s rhythm and harmony attracted over 50 million views for the video and launched their international career. Behind this success, one can also see the historical development of gug’ak (Korean traditional music) and efforts to restore, modernize, popularize, and globalize it. Part of this modernization process has been the fusion of pop music and gug’ak.

After 35 years of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953), the restoration of tradition became a national priority for many Korean musicians. Under the direction of the Korean government, installed under the Japanese administration, various aspects of Chŏson culture, including the education system and performing arts, suffered a drastic decline–court music was no exception. In this context, Korean traditional music sought restoration, and moreover, an increase in its repertoire through new compositions. 

Nationalism played a significant role in the modernization of Korean traditional music. According to Kim Hee-sun, South Korea sought a cultural identity that was uniquely Korean, and traditional music became integral to the narrative of nationalism. Cold War politics further reinforced the role of Korean traditional music as a tool to promote anti-communist ideologies in opposition to the North Korean regime. Through numerous overseas performances during the Cold War, South Korea presented itself as a civilized and cultured nation. Furthermore, Korean traditional music was performed at world events like the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to bolster national pride and identity among South Korean people.

Cover art for Leenalchi’s 2020 album Sugungga.

The modernization process also included establishing Korean traditional music departments in higher education. Historically, traditional music was associated with those of lower social status, due to the lower position of musicians in Korean society. However, the establishment of these departments, with government support, elevated the status of Korean traditional music from a low status art form to a respected and even elite profession. For instance, the four singers in Leenalchi are graduates of Seoul National University’s Korean traditional music program, which was established in 1959.

At the end of the Cold War, Korean traditional music adapted to the global market and was used as a tool of national propaganda. The increasing number of young musicians graduating from Korean traditional music programs opened new doors, allowing musicians to explore new forms of Korean traditional music. For example, several projects involved Korean traditional musicians in transnational ensembles, situating Korean traditional music in a global context. In 1993, under the leadership of Park Bum-hoon, a group of musicians from Chung-Ang University joined Orchestra Asia, a group consisting of musicians from Korea, China, and Japan. At the 2009 ASEAN-Korea Summit, musicians from Southeast Asia were invited to perform together with Korean musicians in a large orchestra. More recently, Korean traditional musicians, such as the members of Leenalchi, have taken different approaches to fusing popular music cultures and positioning themselves in a global market.

Leenalchi performing at WOMAD 2023.

Developments in Korean traditional music, situated in a new social context beyond the court, enabled musicians to explore their creativity in novel ways. Listening to Leenalchi, free from the constraints of the static “Korean traditional music” label, one hears the breaking of the aural connections between traditional music and national politics–signaling a new era of Korean music as Leenalchi and others venture beyond the realm of tradition.

–Written by Shiho Ogura, RILM intern and MA student in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Below is Leenalchi’s well-received video promoting Korean tourism.

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“Asadoya yunta”: An Okinawan song’s history

マタハリヌ チンダラカヌシャマヨ Mataharinu chindara kanushamayo (See you again, for you are beautiful)

Asadoya yunta (安里屋ユンタ), a folk song that originates from the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa, is one of Japan’s most famous traditional songs. Believed to have been composed in the 18th century, the song’s popularity extends beyond Okinawa, especially after the Nippon Columbia label released a recording of it in 1934 with lyrics in standard Japanese written by Katsu Hoshi. Since then, Asadoya yunta has become a favorite among everyone from traditional Okinawan musicians to enka and contemporary J-pop artists.

The term asadoya refers to the name of a house and yunta is the name of a genre that peasants sing while working. In live performances of the song, singers are usually divided by gender and sing in a call-and-response manner, as if engaged in conversation. Later, the song was transformed into Asadoya bushi, with the sanshin (三線), an Okinawan banjo-like instrument, added as accompaniment along with a faster tempo. This transformation added a touch of grandeur and artistry, distinguishing it from the more straightforward original version.

The original lyrics to Asadoya yunta narrate the tale of a beautiful woman named Kuyama, believed to have lived in the 18th century. As the story goes, Kuyama received a marriage proposal from a local official but declined the offer. The official tried in earnest to persuade her, claiming that marriage would secure for her a better future. Kuyama, however, insisted that she was better off marrying a man from her village. Eventually the official gave up, and Kuyama married a villager.

The birthplace of Kuyama.

In 1934, the Okinawan folklorist Eijun Kishaba was approached by the Nippon Columbia label to supervise the recording of a Ryukyu (Okinawa) music collection that included 76 songs from the prefecture. Nippon Columbia suggested re-recording Asadoya yunta as a contemporary pop song with new lyrics. Kishaba enlisted the help of Katsu Hoshi, a poet from Yaeyama, to craft a new set of lyrics depicting a young couple enjoying the setting of a peaceful rice field. The new version, performed by three singers and accompanied by piano and violin, quickly became a hit song across mainland Japan.

Okinawan folklorist Eijun Kishaba

Interest in Okinawan music and culture grew in the 1960s, leading to the release of new recordings of Asadoya yunta, incorporating both the original and new lyrics while adding more traditional Okinawan instruments. The increased exposure of Okinawa corresponded with the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement between Japan and the United States, which returned Okinawa prefecture to Japanese rule. Today, the song continues to be sung and recorded by musicians of various genres including Japanese pop, traditional folk, and enka music.

Asadoya yunta has even become an international phenomenon, inspiring foreign compositions such as Pleeng Sipsong Phasaa, a song in the Thai classical repertoire that draws musical and lyrical inspiration from the original version of Asadoya yunta. Considering that many contemporary versions of song feature revised lyrics in standard Japanese, it is especially quaint that Thai musicians chose to use the original lyrics.

Below are lyrical excerpts from two versions of Asadoya yunta in both original and standard Japanese. 

Original lyrics: 

安里屋のクヤマによ(サーユイユイ)あん美らさ生りばしよ マタハリヌ チンダラカヌシャマヨ

Asadoya no Kuyama niyo (Sa yuiyui) Anchuarasa maribashiyo Mataharinu chindarakanushamayo

(Kuyama was born in Asadoya house with such beauty…I will see you again, for you are beautiful). 

Standard Japanese: 

君は野中のいばらの花か(サーユイユイ)暮れて帰ればやれほにひきとめる マタハリヌ チンダラカヌシャマヨ

Kimi wa nonakano ibaranohanaka (Sa yuiyui) Kurete kaereba yarehoni hikitomeru Mataharinu chindarakanushamayo

(You are like a rose in the field. Now the evening comes, and you are about to leave for home, but I want to hold you back to stay longer . . . I will see you again, for you are beautiful).

–Written by Shiho Ogura, RILM intern and MA student in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Listen to a chronology of different versions of Asadoya yunta below.

A recording from 1934
A version sung by Shoko Miyagi in 1953
A J-Pop/Japanese electronic music version by Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band (1978).
A 2021 version by Yuta Orisaka, a Japanese pop singer.
Pleeng Sipsong Phasaa, a song in the Thai classical repertoire inspired by Asadoya yunta.

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Hip hop at 50: Part II–Indigenous hip hop as decolonial art

Indigenous hip hop in recent years has created a space for unpacking ideas of authenticity, contemporary Indigenous identity, links between indigeneity and U.S. Blackness, and urban Indigenous experiences. But what is Indigenous hip hop and what does it represent? Indigenous Hip Hop is a culture first adopted and then produced by Native people to challenge settler colonialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, among other issues. One of the primary objectives of Indigenous hip hop has been to assert the sovereign rights of Indigenous people and to assert their humanity as modern subjects. Indigenous hip hop takes on many flavors throughout the Indigenous world. Some artists may sound like what listeners hear on commercial radio, while other may include elements of Native sounds including powwow music. Indigenous hip hop provides an anthem, a voice, a literary and decolonial movement—it is not merely Native people mimicking hip hop culture. For some Indigenous hip hop musicians in Detroit, Michigan, the connections between settler colonial logics in Detroit and Palestine allow for hip hop in these spaces to serve as a decolonial art form.

Contemporary Detroit, nicknamed the “Motor City”, has gone through many changes since the 20th century. In the 1950s, its streets were lined with vehicles produced by nearby Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors factories and driven by nearly 2 million people who called the city home. After the 1967 Detroit riots, parts of the city resembled ghost towns and the city’s population dwindled to around 670,000 as many residents fled to surrounding suburbs. Detroit has experienced a rebirth over the past two decades drawing local investment and new residents to the downtown area. What remains remarkably consistent, however, is the invisibility of the Motor City’s Indigenous population. Indigenous erasure, in this context, combined with rhetoric and policies that continue to marginalize African Americans in Detroit, create a place rooted in multiple colonialisms.

Detroit rapper Sacramento Knoxx

In 2014, an Anishinaabeg (Walpole Island) and Chicanx rapper from Detroit named Sacramento Knoxx collaborated with Palestinian rapper Sharif Zakot on a music video entitled From stolen land to stolen land. Sharif is a youth organizer and coordinator in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Arab Youth Organizing (AYO!) program. Similar to Indigenous youth, many Palestinian youth also have turned to hip hop culture to express their anguish and marginalization. The images in Sacramento Knoxx and Sharif’s video travel from New York City to Detroit to Palestine. Sharif scribbles “Free Palestine” with a black marker on a metal object while the video cuts to a scene of Knoxx standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and to the words “Free Rasmea Odeh”, a long-time Palestinian activist who was arrested and indicted on federal charges in October 2013. As the words appear on the screen, a blurred view of the Statue of Liberty appears in the background, a symbol of a loss of freedom for many of North America’s Indigenous people. The song’s lyrics connect white supremacy with the occupation and displacement of Indigenous land while the two rappers lyrically interweave the ongoing processes of settler colonialism in both settings. Although they acknowledge that the colonization of the Americas and Palestine happened at different times and in different contexts, the similarities of occupation join the two disparate lands.

Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day by reading Kyle T. Mays’ article “Decolonial hip hop: Indigenous hip hop and the disruption of settler colonialism” in Cultural studies (33.3, 2019).

Below is the video for Sacramento Knoxx and Sharif Zakot’s From stolen land to stolen land. Check out more from Sacramento Knoxx at https://sknoxx.bandcamp.com/music

Related Bibliolore articles:

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“The Overture” and Thai classical music

When people ask me about an introduction to Thai classical music, I (and many others) suggest watching a film entitled The Overture. It is indeed a good beginning into the world of Thai classical music. 

The Overture (โหมโรง Hom Rong), released in 2004, is a fictional film based on the life of the legendary Thai classical musician, Sorn Silpabanlen (1881-1954), also known as Luang Pradit Pairoh. The film parallels two different eras in which Sorn lived: the late 19th century, when he was young and Thai classical music was under patronage, and the 1940s, when Sorn became an old master and Thai classical music was regarded as uncivilized in the face of modernization programs led by Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram. Below is a brief synopsis and analysis of key scenes and themes in the film.

As a young man born into a musical family, Sorn is a talented ranat ek (Thai xylophone) player, who has gained great recognition for his skills. His confidence, however, is shaken after losing a spontaneous public match to the ranat ek master Khun In. This defeat leads Sorn to devote himself to more rigorous practice. Ultimately, a chance for a revenge comes when Sorn joins the Royal ensemble leading to a one-on-one ranat ek match with Khun Inn with elites, locals, and even foreigners in the audience. After an intense performance, Sorn finally defeats Khun In. The scene then changes to the 1940s, where an older Sorn reflects on the day of the match while looking at photographs of his masters, including Khun In, hanging on the wall of his home. One night, a military officer visits his home to request that Thai classical music be abandoned for the purpose of promoting modernization in Thailand. The officer emphasizes to Sorn the need to civilize the nation. To this request Sorn replies, “If rooted deep and strong, a tree can stand still to any forces. If we do not take care of the roots, how can we survive?”

The performance of ranat ek throughout the film depicts several glamorous aspects of Thai classical music: virtuoso techniques (especially when playing in octaves at a faster tempo), various improvisations, and exciting Ranat ek matches. The breathtaking intensity of the ranat ek match is thrilling and a high point of the film. The Overture also introduces other instruments such as saw ou, a Thai fiddle that plays a very sweet and romantic song as the young Sorn meets his future wife. 

Although Sorn and other Thai classical musicians oppose the governmental recognition of Thai classical music as uncivilized, it does not hinder their exploration of Western music. In a scene from the 1940s, the elderly Sorn plays the ranat ek alongside a piano brought by his son, who had studied Western music in Japan. This encounter is depicted as peaceful and filled with possibilities for the further development of Thai classical music. They appear open to any musical possibilities, as long as they have the autonomy to do so.

The film also reminds us about how Thai classical music and its position have been deeply embedded in the society and changes that have occurred to the tradition–once a symbol of the elites and royalty, it later became the unrefined object to be civilized and abandoned. This simultaneously raises questions about whether any authority can truly control music. When the military officer leaves Sorn’s house, Sorn plays ranat ek with the windows open, as if challenging the officer and the desire for modernization—this leaves Sorn open to arrest under government regulations. The officer looks around to find that local residents have gathered in front of Sorn’s house to enjoy the spontaneous performance. The enjoyment is clear on their faces. Instead of arresting Sorn, the officer and his cadets leave the house in their military automobiles while the sound of Thai classical music resonates and fills the air.

–Written by Shiho Ogura, RILM intern and MA student in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Her research interests include Thai classical music, intercultural music-making in contemporary Asia, Japanese ethnomusicology, nationalism, and music education.

Below is the classic scene of the match between Sorn and Khun In. The video below it is the ranak ek and piano duet scene.

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The burning of musical instruments in Afghanistan

Sometime during the last weekend of July 2023, previously confiscated musical instruments were collected and publicly burned in the Afghan province of Herāt. The head of the local office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Aziz al-Rahman al Muhajir, justified the burning by saying that music leads to moral corruption. Apparently string instruments, a harmonium, a tabla, and electronic amplifiers were burned. Performing music in public has been banned in Afghanistan since 2021.

Music has long been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, some Muslims nevertheless believe that music, especially instrumental music, causes people to go astray by indulging in sensual pleasures. The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement founded in the early 1990s, rose to power in 1996 and subsequently banned the public performance of music and imposed numerous other restrictions on musical life. The group ruled around three-quarters of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being overthrown after an invasion led by the United States. The group regained power over the entire country following the August 2021 departure of coalition forces.

Speaking in July 2023, Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, likened the Taliban’s actions to “cultural genocide and musical vandalism”. Now living in Portugal, Sarmast says, “The people of Afghanistan have been denied artistic freedom . . . The burning of musical instruments in Herat is just a small example of the cultural genocide that is taking place in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban.”

Read on MGG Online.

Below is a performance of the Afghani rabāb accompanied by tabla at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Read a previous related posts on Bibliolore:

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Debapriya Adhikary: A torchbearer of the Benarasi Tappa

“Oh, Beloved! I am honey trapped in your love. Make me hear you!”

As the musicologist Ranjana Saxena writes, lyrics like these illustrate the essence of the tappa, a florid, passionately romantic vocal art form of India. Inspired by the undulating motions of camel-riding Arab tradespeople, the word “tappa” originates from the Punjab province of India and Pakistan. Its root word tappana refers to the bouncing and jerkiness of a camelback ride and the mercurial, melismatic singing that these rides have inspired.

Unlike khayal—the serene art music from the Hindustani tradition of India—the tappa is volatile, unfolding rapidly throughout a single tala (rhythm) cycle. The sung text is usually very brief, consisting of not more than two to four lines. However, tappa singers use this brevity to their advantage. They deftly weave in the frenetic melismas through the scant lyrics, finessing the diction to facilitate speed while maintaining comprehensibility. Unlike other forms of Hindustani art music, where the melodic framework for the piece, encapsulated in the raga, is first outlined, this foreshadowing is summarily eschewed in the tappa. Instead, the emotional content emerges over the course of the presentation, which, due to the extreme physical demands it places upon the singer, does not last for more than ten minutes.

At the heart of tappa virtuosity is the zamzama taan, a circuitous vocal gyration employing short patterns of four to five notes that move through the notes of the raga, often cut with notes that are sung in faster subdivisions to create a sense of drama and unpredictability, or to make abrupt changes in the patterns used even more apparent, according to Debapriya Adhikary, one of the torchbearers of the Benarasi tradition of tappa. “Unlike khayal”, he adds, “tappa singing does not allow for nyaas (resting) on any one note. It is a tireless, intricate pursuit of passionate beauty.” Chhuut taans also find a home in the tappa; these taans start with a wide, upwards jerk and descend rapidly, taking a pliable view of tempo, accelerating and then slowing down for effect, underscoring tension and release. However, sapaat taans—linear runs through the notes of the raga—are avoided to ensure that tappas are never confused with faster khayals, which can be equally dizzying.

The demanding nature of the tappa tends to overshadow its nuanced inner workings in scholarship on the genre, both by Indians and cultural outsiders. Colonial collectors such as William Hamilton Bird and Sarah Plowden described tappa as “wild”. At the same time, orientalists such as William Jones and Augustus Willard considered it a “rude style”. Although it can be hard to look past the virtuosic element of tappa singing, a subtle richness emerges once you do. For starters, there is the curious case of the languages used in the tappa texts. The tappas that have endured in pre-partition India (the longest have Punjabi texts), were sung in various languages, including Sindhi, Multani, Bannochi, Derawali, and Saraiki. The poetry of the tappa speaks beseechingly of love, depicting a traditionally demure view of separation and longing. Most importantly, tappa embody the feminine voice irrespective of the gender of the performer; whosoever sings the tappa has to use female pronouns and embody birhaa and shringar, the emotions most closely associated with the feminine in the Hindustani tradition.

Due to its somewhat limited emotional landscape, tappas tend to be composed in a few ragas, such as Khamaj, Kafi, Bhairavi, Jhinjhoti, Tilang, Sindhura, Des, Jangla, Pahari, Maand, and Sohini. Tala (time cycles) used include Punjabi (adha theka), Pashto, and Sitarkhani, used for their uneven accents that further reinforce the off-kilter feel at the core of the tappa.

The rhythmic gait of the tappa is as complex as its origins, which are contested to say the least. The most common view is that this art form was created by Ghulam Nabi Shori (1742-1792), a genius hereditary musician at the court of Awadh in Lucknow, India, patronized by Nawab Asafuddaulah. Tappas attributed to him bear his nom de plume, Shori Miyan, in the last line of the text. As the story goes, he inherited not only knowledge of dhrupadand khayal, the two most prominent genres of art music in the Hindustani tradition, from his father but also a ceaseless innovative spirit. Nawab’s father, Ghulam Rasul, had adapted some of the qawwali taans to enhance his dhrupad singing. At the height of his prowess and frustration, Shori traveled across India until he finally found inspiration after a chance encounter with the aforementioned camel riders and used their simple folk songs as a base for his melismatic vocal virtuosity. 

However, authors like Katherine Schofield have brought this theory under greater scrutiny, suggesting that tappas were sung in Delhi nearly a hundred years before Shori Miyan brought them to Lucknow. Considering that Delhi was also the seat of the Qawwali, it is easy to surmise that this conjecture may carry some weight. Besides Schofield, musicologists Fakirullah and Mirza Khan also have identified famous love songs called “tappay” at the time of the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan in the 17th century. Gokul Nath traced tappay sung by courtesans on the streets of Agra even earlier, sometime during the 16th century. Ranjana Saxena notes that some scholars credit the Besara Geet of dhrupad as the source of the tappa. However, due to the oral tradition of music in India, it is hard to say with certainty how any of these compared with the modern-day tappa popularized by Shori Miyan.

Shori Miyan’s is not the only stream of tappa that can be sampled in India. While a contemporary of Shori Miyan, Ramnidhi Gupta, created a variant of the tappa in Bengal that evolved into something completely different due to the sociocultural climate of its new home in Eastern India, from the mainstream, Northern tappa as practiced in Gwalior and Benares. Famed musicologist V.D. Paluskar also composed tappas, but these were settings of mystical poetry and explicitly Hindu devotional, unlike mainstream tappas with their lovelorn turn of phrase. Shori Miyan’s presence in Lucknow, and the spread of his students eastward, virtually ensured that the tappa never gained prominence in Punjab, the land of its origin, as it did in Central and Eastern India. Gamun Miyan (Shori’s disciple) passed the tappa to Benares, and several excellent tappa singers arose there, most notably Girija Devi, who ultimately passed it down to Debapriya.

“I was fascinated by how intricate her singing was, yet how easy she made it seem,” Debapriya says of his illustrious Gurumaa. “She saw that I had an aptitude for the tappa and a love for learning difficult things, so she started to instruct me in it.” Hearing Debapriya sing the tappa, it is easy to see what may have impressed Girija Devi. His cultured, lyrical, and expressive voice not only exhibits the athleticism required for tappa but is also full of pathos and emotion, which is rare nowadays. Debapriya has cultivated a complete mastery of the four baans of tappa singing–laari daar, guthaao daar, khudi daar, and phande daar–overcoming the many challenges these present both anatomically and conceptually to an outstanding degree. He explains that his gurumaa taught him to avoid excessively heavy oscillations to conserve his voice and to find an appropriate balance between vocal gymnastics and the prosody hidden in the text. “I spent a lot of time trying to connect the notes of any given raga in a series of slow glides, which I could eventually speed up to produce the many scintillating effects that the tappa demands,” Debapriya says, “but in doing so I realized that the onus of hard work has to be upon the student. The teacher can only take you to the fountainhead; it is up to you to put in the hours required to claim knowledge as your own.” Debapriya performs his wide repertoire, including tappa, with his cousin and musical partner, Samanwaya Sarkar, who happens to be one of the few contemporary instrumentalists able to render the tappa on his Sitar faithfully.

–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.

Watch a video of Debapriya performing with Samanwaya Sarkar below.

Here Debapriya sings one of his favorite Shori Miyan tappas, and explains the salient features of the Benarasi tappa.

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From Nagoya to Makran: The tale of the Baluchi benju

The Baluchis
Spread out across Pakistan, Iran, and Muscat, the Baluchi people are as complex and diverse as the landscapes that they inhabit. Baluchistan, the largest Pakistani province, is home to the Baluch as well as a rich geography, culture, and history. Its hardy mountains, though imposing at a distance, harbor beautiful secret alcoves. Its picturesque coastlines sketch a region that has proven both alluring and inaccessible to those who set their sights on it from Cyrus the Great to the modern-day ethnomusicologists. For better or worse, Baluchistan remains an unexplored cultural and geographical wonderland to the outside world.

The Baluchi people and their music bear testament to historical cross-pollination. The Iranian-descended Baluchis have freely mixed with Arabs and Siddis/Sheedis of African origin to create a unique culture. In their music, percussive, driving African rhythms intermingle with a unique melodic idiom, akin to ragas and maqams but standing apart from both. Their repertory ranges from songs of love (dastanag), loss (zahiroh), as well as music to accompany zar and gawati healing rituals and assimilated fishermen songs (amba). The meditative, Sufi-inspired religiosity espoused by the Baluchis also colors their music–manifesting in persistent, repetitive melodic motifs that gradually shift over time.

The benju
It is no surprise that the benju, a unique keyboard-fitted zither, evolved in Karachi given the diversity of influences in the region. It was brought to Baluchi shores at the cusp of the 19th century by Japanese sailors, as the local telling of the story goes. This now-ubiquitous instrument arrived as the taishogoto, or nagoya harp, a children’s toy. From these humble beginnings, it has evolved to become a staple instrument in Baluchi folk music.

Over the last century, Baluchi people living in Iran and Pakistan have enlarged the humble taishogoto, adding up to six strings and row of keys, a larger, more resonant body, as well as electric pickups. This upgrade resulted from both necessity and ingenuity as the region has been subject to historical poverty and has had limited economic means and access to parts and reliable materials.

The benju produces a culturally espoused, rich overtone and shadow-notes-laden sound while its soft keys facilitate great melismatic virtuosity. Both hands divide the labors of musicmaking equally with the left playing keys while the other strums strings with a plectrum adding drones as required. However, its one limitation is that it cannot play the lyrical inflections and glissandos that typify the music of the region–a problem shared by the harmonium, the other imported instrument now part and parcel of North Indian and Pakistani music. Despite this drawback, the benju can be heard in many different social contexts. It is equally at home playing folk tunes or being broadcasted over regional TV or radio programs. It is played at rural weddings as well as in urban contexts where its loudness is greatly desired.

The man
The benju has become quite popular recently thanks to the Pakistani virtuoso Ustad Noor Bakhsh. His ten-country European tour this past summer left audiences ecstatic and exhausted from dancing for hours to his irrepressible rhythms. Although Noor Bakhsh was already a local legend in his native Baluchistan for decades, his recent international recognition came about through the efforts of the Heidelberg-educated anthropologist, Daniyal Ahmed, whose fieldwork and managerial expertise have catapulted Noor into the global spotlight. Daniyal found him through videos of his virtuosic yet deeply spiritual playing, which have been widely circulated on social media for the past few years. “It took me four years to head out to find him, no thanks to COVID-19”, says Daniyal. “I was glad that I found him.”

Daniyal attributes the vitality of Noor Bakhsh’s music to his personality. He says that Noor loves to eat daal and naan–staples of Pakistani and North Indian cuisine–and is compelled to improvise by a primal energy that emanates from deep within him. According to Daniyal, “[Noor] is an amazing storyteller, steeped in the folk tales, myths, and legends of his people, collected over decades as he played for gavati and damali trance ceremonies, as well as through his many journeys across the wide expanse of Makran, Pasni, and Quetta. Plus, his whimsicality and sense of humor are as formidable as his musicality.”

Noor Bakhsh’s musicianship bears an indelible imprint of his sojourning; he stands out from his peers and defies tradition in a number of important ways. Firstly, unlike the six-stringed benju favored by other Baluchi folk musicians, he plays a five-stringed one, which he has electrified with a single-coil pickup affixed with a rubber band. He amplifies this with a locally engineered hybrid amp, powered by Phillips-Holland tubes that have been out of production since the 1970’s, and a Toyota car speaker. He has powered this rough-and-tumble setup for the last two decades with a car battery and a small solar panel, underscoring the ingenuity of the Baluchi people.

There is also the case of his musicianship. Noor is profoundly inspired by nature, especially birdsong, as evident on his 2022 album Jingul, which was released to global acclaim. From tuning his benju in line with the climate to eschewing tempered scales, Noor creates an atmosphere of deep spirituality and connectedness from the outset. His eclectic personality informs his extroverted style, adorning deeply lyrical phrases with florid passagework that delights the imagination and resists easy categorization. As Daniyal notes, “[Noor’s] fresh and experimental approach to presenting folk tunes borrows from many sources, including Baluchi zahireg, syncretic melodic frameworks influenced by Arabic and Hindustani traditions. However, Noor also adds Western-inspired triads and scalar runs to the expected trills and flourishes of his region’s repertory, wandering from one tune to another and back, building up to an ecstatic crescendo.”

Noor’s journey
Hearing the jubilation in Noor’s music makes the particulars of his life ever more surprising. Born in Gaddani to an iterant family of goatherders of the zangeshahi clan, music was an integral part of Noor’s life. He was initiated into music by master musicians Khuda Bakhsh and Rehmat in his early teens, and he has lived a full and difficult life since that time. Noor spent decades accompanying famous Baluch singer Sabzal Sami, honing his craft, gaining local renown as a master instrumentalist, and losing loved ones and navigating other personal tragedies before eventually settling in a village near Pasni, where he has lived for the last two decades. The arid rocky landscape of his native Baluchistan seeped deeply into his creative ethos. It is no wonder that hearing Noor Bakhsh play in Amsterdam, the Dutch wife of the desert-blues musician Ali Farka Touré cried out, “Ali, you’re alive!”

For all his musical aptitude, Ustad Noor Bakhsh remains childlike at heart in the best of ways. “While other musicians from his social class would have been wowed by the architecture and economic splendor of Europe”, says Daniyal, “all Noor could focus on were the sounds of his precious birds. That’s the man that he is, at once fully alive and immersed in the world, while being completely removed from it.”

–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.

Listen to Noor Bakhsh’s music here: https://honiunhoni.bandcamp.com/album/jingul

Watch a video of Noor performing below.

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Lunch break in Ho Chi Minh City

“After being in Vietnam for over two weeks visiting all possible leads on musical instruments, I was struck with a mild case of musical instrument information overload. One day, I wandered into the central part of Hồ Chí Minh to buy something for my lunch. There, I spotted the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum.

I deliberated, will I or won’t I go in? I supposed they were probably going to close for the midday intermission soon but I decided to give it a quick look. Entering the gates I spotted the ticket office, enquired as to their operating hours, and asked if there were any musical instruments on display. Yes, they were open and yes, they had musical instruments on display. Hip hip!

Wandering around the museum, I found that most of the few musical instruments were already entered in my notes. Therefore, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon the mõ đình, a log slit drum. My last steps were to be the gift shop where I looked eagerly through the books, hoping that one may have information on musical instruments. I was disappointed to find most related to the Vietnam War. I did, however, procure two inexpensive musical instruments–a song loan and a sênh suứ.

Upon leaving, I was surprised to notice one last hidden room down a small hallway. I found two instruments I’d never seen, read of, or been told about before – the chordophones đàn măng đôlin (similar to the mandolin) and the đàn octavina (comparable to the steel string guitar). Both had been adapted from their western equivalent, with a ribbed fingerboard, like the lục huyền cầm (Vietnamese Guitar). I never did get lunch that day, opting instead to visit the Traditional Musical Instruments and Costume Showroom, two blocks away. Sadly this showroom has since closed down.”

The above excerpt is taken from Terry Moran’s Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon. (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME), and read up on all the Vietnamese instruments he mentions here.

Above are two musicians performing in a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Below is a video of a musician playing the đàn măng đôlin, an Vietnamese instruments similar to the mandolin.

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Filed under Asia, Ethnomusicology, Instruments, Resources, World music