Category Archives: World music

Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.

In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.

Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015).  Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.

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Cultural politics of the Warlpiri purlapa

Performances of Aboriginal musical traditions have become widespread in various national and international contexts and are significant to the ways in which Aboriginal people from distinct regions project their specific identities to a broader world. In recent decades, Warlpiri people, from the remote settlement of Yuendumu in the Tanami desert of Australia, have increasingly attracted interest in the performances of their ceremonial songs and dances in intercultural spaces, often for audiences with little understanding of their religious significance.

Against a historical backdrop of settlement history and the shifts that have occurred to public ceremonial forms during this period, performances of purlapa at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra have foregrounded issues of Aboriginal politics, systematized racism, contemporary social movements, and the basic difficulties of running a tent embassy on meager donations, especially during the Canberra winter when firewood supplies were low.  Purlapa is a genre of Warlpiri public ceremony involving a high-stepped dance style performed in circular movement with participants shifting their dancing sticks from side to side in rhythm with sung verses. Once held frequently for community entertainment, the performance of purlapa has declined drastically in recent years. Shifts in these performance opportunities show how Warlpiri people engage with a broader world in specific aspects of their identities while maintaining important links to a specific cultural heritage.

Read more in “Performing purlapa: Projecting Warlpiri identity in a globalized world” by Georgia Curran and Otto Jungarrayi Sims (The Asia Pacific journal of anthropology. XXII/2–3 [2021]).

Below is a 1978 performance of a purlapa ceremony recorded on 8 mm film.

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Filed under Australia and Pacific islands, Dance, Politics, Religious music, World music

“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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eSwatini musicians address gender-based violence against women

Swazi Indigenous and popular music has been featured on the eSwatini Broadcasting Service since the radio station was founded in 1966. Many of the songs today addresses the political, economic, and social conditions (including gender relations) of eSwatini, a country located in southern Africa, formerly known as Swaziland. Swazi women historically have faced high rates of gender-based violence including femicides, rape, and physical and emotional abuse. The eSwatini government’s passing of the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act of 2018 has done little to curb gender-based violence against women in the country. In response, various stakeholders, including musicians, have taken the initiative to comment on the empowerment (or disempowerment) of Swazi women. Musicians have composed songs that openly discuss and debate issues of female oppression, and many of the songs lyrically draw from the rich repertoire of Indigenous Swazi songs. In this sense, the empowerment of women remains a popular subject among many of the country’s contemporary younger artists, many of whom have incorporated elements of Indigenous music to articulate women’s perspectives.

Read more in “Content and reception of eSwatini’s Indigenous and popular music on women empowerment” by Telamisile P. Mkhatshwa and Maxwell Vusumuzi Mthembu, an essay included in the volume Indigenous African popular music. II: Social crusades and the future (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022). Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-3233.

Below is a video for “Tinyembeti” by the singer Zamo. The song follows the contemporary trend of eSwatini artists addressing gender-based violence against women.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music, Women's studies, World music

“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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Central America’s vast dance and musical heritage

The music of Central America tends to borrow heavily from the music of Mexico to the north, Colombia to the south, and the Caribbean Islands to the east, and, in the case of Nicaragua, from the politically motivated nueva canción (new song) movement. Additionally, some traces of the ancient Mayan culture can still be found in Nicaragua and Belize, and more strongly in Guatemala. People of Mayan background form around half of the population of Guatemala. Their cultural heritage has been preserved to an extraordinary extent because of their great reverence for their cultural heritage, mythology, and rituals. Their instruments include various slit-drums, gongs, rattles, and cane flutes that sometimes have the rattles of rattlesnakes enclosed in a hollow space above the embouchure. This is then closed off with a thin membrane, and the resulting menacing buzz is heard in the music of the Baile de venada (dance of the deer).

Along with Indian traditions in Guatemala is the equally thriving music of the Ladino population, which is Hispanic in origin and is found mostly in the country’s urban centers. The instrument that is central to Ladino music, namely the marimba de tecomates, which has a keyboard of wooden bars with gourds suspended underneath, is thought to be of African origin. Although Ladino groups have now adopted more contemporary marimbas, there is still a great variety among them. The largest, the marimba grande, has a range similar to a piano and is usually played by four players.

The son guatemalteco is the national dance of Guatemala, and dancers bring out the son rhythm with zapateadas or foot stamping. These indigenous rhythms and themes have also been incorporated into classical music. The brothers Jesús and Ricardo Castillo were Guatemalan classical composers of the early 20th century. Jesús wrote a treatise on the Mayan music of the country, and both brothers wrote pieces using Indian themes (Suites indigenas) and even operas such as Quiché Vinak. In Nicaragua, composers such as Luis Delgadillo (1887–1962) included Inca themes and other indigenous Nicaraguan music in their work.

The country furthest south in Central America, Panama, was previously part of Colombia until 1903, and is considered by some to be the source of Colombia’s cumbia genre. Its musical traditions are a mix of Spanish, Indian, and African, but as one of the most cosmopolitan countries of the region, folk music is now mainly the preserve of schools and folklore societies.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by reading through the Latin America section of the Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).

Below is a performance of son guatemalteco and a piece entitled Fiesta de pajaros composed by Jesús Castillo.

Previous related Bibliolore posts to check out:

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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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Astrud Gilberto, bossa nova cool

Astrud Gilberto, born Astrud Evangelina Weinert in Salvador, in Bahia, Brazil to a Brazilian mother and German father, was the voice of bossa nova. As a genre, bossa nova combined Brazilian samba rhythms and U.S. cool jazz elements while featuring an understated vocal style that complemented an acoustic guitar technique that featured plucked chords with jazz-influenced harmonies and chord progressions. Her rendition of The girl from Ipanema was sung quietly and melancholically without vibrato, in complete contrast to the extroverted rock ‘n’ roll numbers of the time. The song was composed in 1962 by Antônio Carlos Jobim and two years later appeared on the album Getz/Gilberto by singer and guitarist João Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz. On the album–which marked the peak of the bossa nova craze, sold millions of copies, and won a Grammy for Album of the Year–Astrud sang two of the songs: The girl from Ipanema and Corcovado (Quiet nights of quiet stars).

As a young woman, she moved with her family to Rio de Janeiro in 1948 where she worked in the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture. Astrud married João Gilberto in 1959 after meeting at a friend’s house with whom she had sung as an amateur in bossa nova shows. In 1963, she traveled to New York City and performed an English version of the song Garota de Ipanema on João’s LP with Stan Getz. The English release of The girl from Ipanema marked her international breakthrough, making both the song and bossa nova known throughout the world. Although The girl from Ipanema is one of the most covered songs, it was Astrud’s English version with a Brazilian accent that was first associated with the song.

Astrud continued her career with Getz Au Go Go (1964, with Stan Getz), The Astrud Gilberto Album (1965, nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Female Vocal Performance), and Look to the Rainbow (1966, with Gil Evans). Her hits included Água de beber (1965), The shadow of your smile (1965), and Desafinado (1966, with George Michael). Her final album, Jungle, was released in 2002. She received a Latin Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Although Astrud never enjoyed massive success as a soloist, she was a prolific artist and collaborated with other major musicians throughout her long career as a vocalist.

Astrud Gilberto passed away on 5 June 2023 at the age of 83.

Read her obituary in MGG Online and locate information on her life and career in the Enciclopédia da música brasileira: Erudita, folclórica, popular (Encyclopedia of Brazilian music: Erudite, folkloric, popular, 2010) in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).

Watch the video of Astrud Gilberto performing Corcovado below!

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Popular music, South America, World music

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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