Friday, March 25, 2011

Azerbaijan's incomparable and unique Natig Rhythm Group

Last night, Washington's refurbished (with historical correctness made possible and inspired by the cultural re-invention of the nation's capital beginning in the 1980s) Lincoln Theatre, was the venue for an extraordinary double-barreled concert of Azerbaijani music. The theatre, opened first in 1922, and thereafter Washington's equivalent of New York's iconic Apollo Theater as the premier public home for the city's African-American cultural events during the following decades of American racial segregation, was closed in 1968 following the devastating riots which followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Lincoln Theatre was reopened, fully restored, in 1994, and I find it quite moving that the multi-culturalization of Washington made the theatre a worthy venue for a major concert of the contemporary music of Azerbaijan--one of the many newly independent nations to emerge after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I also find it wonderfully exciting that the first half (more on the second part of the evening to come in a later post) of last night's performance by the astonishing "Rhythm Group" of Natig Shirinov (see picture above by Zanyasan Tanantpapat, used with permission, courtesy of the Karabakh Foundation)--which stunned me with its bone-shaking energy and brain-teasing precision--was available (potentially) in video and sound to the entire world only six hours later on YouTube (see my initial posting this year on the wonders of the Internet. . . .) There were several fixed video cameras in the auditorium last night, as well as a single balletic videographer (doing a pas-de-deux with the stubbornly independent SteadiCam as a mechanical dance partner, the two weaving among the performers on stage with feline grace) felt a special frisson this morning when, on a hunch, I began a search on YouTube for some trace of last night's musical miracle, and found that I was able to be the first to view, not one, but two video clips (see them here, and, yet again, here) put up by a YouTube entity known as "Ambrosian Beads" (more to come of my related identity search later).

If you see the video clips, you'll be able to capture some of the galvanizing effect of Shirinov and his troupe of amazing drummer/musicians. And speaking of the wonders of the digital age, you can see them not only in a 480p setting, but in an even higher resolution setting on DivX HiQ.

Shirinov's primary instrument, the nagara, is said to be the national drum of Azerbaijan. (I had previously encountered a cognate Indian drum, the naqqara, and discover that the instrument occurs widely in the Middle East and Central Asia as well. ) As you can see in the videos, it is a percussion instrument of rather simple cylindrical structure. The first notes played by Shirinov, after the house lights had dimmed, were highlighted (literally) by a bright electrical bulb inside the drum, whose heat is used in many Middle Eastern drums to maintain the tension--and hence the pitch--of the instrument's animal-skin head, and whose brilliance in this case inaugurated with a magical luminosity the ensemble's subsequent performance. As for the technical brilliance, the virtuosity of Shirinov and his colleagues, I can only continue the metaphor by saying that it was nothing short of electrifying.

I have heard many (and have had the good fortune to perform with a few) of the best Indian and Pakistani masters of the tabla and pakhawaj--the two drums used in classical Hindustani (northern South Asian) music, and have not often enough listened to masters of the mrdangam--an essential part of any Carnatic (south Indian) classical ensemble--and have no doubt that they may be counted among the world's best percussion artists. And I've savored (and experienced as a player) the mystical ambiance created by the Persian daff (large frame drum, often with a haunting chorus of metallic jingles), the subtle cross-rhythms of the Persian tonbak (hourglass drum), and the electrifying crispness of the Egyptian riqq (tambourine with tiny brass cymblets). But I must say that hearing Shirinov and his colleagues last night blessed me with experiencing one of those nights of musical epiphany that stay forever in the memory.

I'll await access to some video clips to hold forth in greater detail on the beauties of the group's performance. Suffice it to say for the moment that the rich rhythmic textures of the music were embroidered with additional melodic dimensions by the oboe-like zurna (which along with its Armenian cousin, the duduk, has been increasingly used of late to capture a haunting and uniquely Middle-Eastern ambiance in film and television soundtracks), and what I gather to be the Azerbaijani "accordion"--but so much more than the conventional "Lady of Spain" accordion, with a razor-sharp tone, and a breathing, primal sensuous resonance similar to that of the Argentinian bandoneón),

The evening's primary sponsors--the Washington-based Karabakh Foundation, and Azercell Telecom (see also here), the leading cellphone company in Azerbaijan, and the second largest taxpayer outside the country's oil industry--are to be congratulated for making available to all interested listeners free access (with no ticket cost) to this extraordinary, luminous music, whose magic in the darkened auditorium was further enhanced by a subtle but gradual change of rich color washes in the lighting on the wall behind the stage--something we had last seen in the illumination of the organ pipes during the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Oliver Messiaen's epic Turangalîla Symphonie exactly two weeks ago as part of the maximum INDIA celebrations (see my posting on the inaugural concert)--but which here functioned as a more integral and captivating enhancement of the tapestries of rhythmic and melodic colors we all shared from the extraordinary performance of the Nadig Shirinav Rhythmic Group.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day grand music rollout!

In appreciation of the musical aspects of this melodious Irish holiday, I'd again like to introduce a few of the prominent Irish performing groups, with the approximate date of their founding, links to their Wikipedia entries, and to albums (with--in most cases--links to brief musical samples to provide a sense of the group's "sound" and musical approach; and of course, with further opportunities available on YouTube not only to hear but to see these groups). When available, a link to the groups' Website is also provided.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. (1950s) As noted in Gary Thomas' observations below, these artists were the first to establish themselves as Irish performers in the American folk music scene presenting vocals with guitar and five-string banjo accompaniment--the emphasis being on the heartiness of their singing.
*****Album: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem In Person at Carnegie Hall - The Complete 1963 Concert [LIVE]. At the bottom of the link, under the rubric "Customers who bought this album also bought" are links to several other of their albums.
The Clancy Brothers' MySpace page

The Chieftains. (1962) Initially a four-man instrumental group, with Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, bodhrán (frame drum), and fiddle. As noted in my review two years ago of their Washington concert., the group has collaborated for decades with a wide range of musicians, including in the reviewed performance a vocalist/drummer.
*****Album: The Best of the Chieftains. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.

The Dubliners. (1962) Again, basically a hearty-singing vocal group with a range of instrumental accompaniment and solos.
*****Album: Best of the Dubliners. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.
The Dubliners' Web page and Patsy Watchorn's Web page

Planxty. (1970s) Also mentioned in Gary Thomas' notes, this "supergroup" included, along with its vocals, guitar, bodhrán, bouzouki, mandolin, mandola, hurdy-gurdy, harmonica, Uilleann pies, tin whistle, and flute.
*****Album: The Planxty Collection.

The Bothy Band. (1974) With the addition of a female vocalist, similar to Planxty in approach and instrumentation (and adding harpsichord and clavinet), and also short-lived.
*****Album: The Best of the Bothy Band.

Clannad. (1970s) Radically different from the previous groups, Clannad, also with a female vocalist, won a Grammy in 1998 for The Best New Age Album.
*****Album: The Best of Clannad: In a Lifetime.
The Clannad Website and News Blog

The Pogues. (1982) Also departing somewhat from tradition, though in a very different direction from that of Clannad, this group incorporated elements of rock and punk.
*****Album: The Very Best of the Pogues.
The Pogues' Website and Shane McGowan's Website

The above is of course just a sampling from among hundreds of groups, and thousands of recordings. For those wanting to pursue their listening further, below are two Websites that specialize in Celtic music, some of which may include musical samples as above: A self-described "Mom and Pop store" which specialized exclusively in Celtic Music CDs. A large on-line CD company with a separate section for Celtic music containing more than 1,000 pages (!)(!) of recordings, almost all with samples of each track.

There are also on-line radio streams dedicated to Celtic music: A Google Search specifying "Celtic Music online radio" brings up 143,000 hits (up from 23,500 hits a year ago, and from 13,700 hits two years ago!)

Good listening, and again, Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

U. Srinivas: Mandolin Mastery, Mystery, and Magic

Earlier tonight the eminent Indian musician U. Srinivas opened the current celebrations of Indian culture, "maximum INDIA" at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, with a brief one-hour concert on the Millennium Stage.

U. Srinivas is a unique figure in Indian classical music, both as a prodigy (his first public performance was at age nine), and as an innovator--having brought onto the concert stage an instrument most unlikely for the expression of the gliding ornaments and subtle microtones characteristic of Indian music: the mandolin. Before commenting on his performance, a bit of background may be helpful.

The mainstream traditional plucked chordophones (stringed instruments in the lute family) in India have a fretboard that allows easy production of extended ornamental glides between notes; both the sitar and the surbahar have curved frets, with the main playing string positioned midway over the frets, so that it can be pulled to the side, thereby raising the pitch up to five tones on the sitar, and seven tones on the surbahar; in similar fashion, the lower playing strings can also be pulled to the side; the North Indian rudra vina, and the South Indian veena (also called the Saraswati vina) have flat frets, with a similar string configuration allowing for extensive pulling. The sarod, on the other hand, has a fretless neck of shiny nickle-plated steel (or stainless steel), so that glides can be achieved by moving the finger (or fingernail) up or down the neck for as much as two octaves.

The traditional mandolin, on the other hand, has four identically tuned pairs of strings strung along the full width of the fretboard, so that any pair of strings (like the single string of the guitar) can together be pulled slightly to the side to produce a glide of two, or at most three semitones. (This technique is known in guitar parlance as a "blue note".)

It was therefore remarkable last night to see Srinivas (and his brother, U. Rajesh) creating the same sort of liquid gliding effects on the tiny mandolin. According to various biographies, Srinivas picked up his father's mandolin--an instrument not commonly found in India, and before this time never used in the classical repertoire--and immediately demonstrated an aptitude that led the father to begin teaching him in the classical Carnatic style prevalent in South India (as opposed to the Hindustani tradition in the North), and subsequently sent him to another teacher for more advanced training.

Srinivas' ensemble on the Millennium Stage included, in addition to his brother, percussion accompaniment on the mrdangam (South Indian barrel drum, roughly equivalent to the pakhawaj of the North), and the kanjira (a form of the generic frame drum found widely throughout the world.) The printed program identified two "Accompanists": B. Subramanian and S. Swaminathan, without identifying their instruments--while the live introduction welcomed S. Swaminathan and "B. Sunder Kumar" (as far as I could make out), without specifying who played what.

The north lobby of the Kennedy Center, where the performance occurred, was packed well before the concert began, with all chairs filled, more people than seemed possible sitting on the steps on the side, and a thicket of even more people standing rows-deep in the back. I'll describe the music itself in more detail in a subsequent posting, when the streaming video of the concert will be up. But for now, a few comments:

The performance was a tour de force in virtuosity and astonishing technique, both melodic and rhythmic, with the collective and irrepressible energy among the musicians flowing out into the listeners and igniting their enthusiastic response. Those who knew the tradition savored the performer's embellishments of what might be called some of the "standards" of South Indian classical music--two songs by the well-known Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja (of which more to come), and a concluding presentation of Mahatma Gandhi's favorite song, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, the song itself perhaps familiar to some of the older members of the audience as one of the most memorable songs by The Weavers, the seminal folk quartet led in the mid-twentieth century by the protean Pete Seeger, America's greatest folksinger.

But even to those for whom this music was new, the collaboration--and sometimes friendly competition--between the brothers themselves ("duelling mandolins"?), between the brothers and the percussionists, and between the two percussionists on the thundering mrdangam and diminutive but still mighty kanjira, provided an irresistably exciting introduction to the bewilderingly complex--but also viscerally seductive--dimensions of this music, which is but one of India's myriad cultural expressions.

As I struggle to explain the effect of hearing this music, I search for adequate words, for similes that might capture the energy of those moments: melodies sliding, gliding, swooping, soaring, stinging, shimmering, glimmering, flashing, slashing, oscillating, surging. . . notes bubbling and bobbing in silver-stringed flights of an oriental bumblebee. Drums thundering and hammering and clapping and slapping and tapping: beats colliding, then holding back; the disorienting offbeat currents of syncopation rendering doubtful for a moment the solidity of the rhythmic bedrock on which we think we're standing. And the excitement of the dialogues between the instruments in the exchanges, the challenges, the questions and answers, and the tension of eyes riveted on each other as one musician tries to anticipate the mischievous brilliance of another's improvisation.

And what in a conventional concert milieu might have compromised the crystalline integrity and delicate timbres of the music--the very high amplification of such subtle instruments--served only to fill the glittering, high-ceilinged space in which we sat with a pure sonic energy that must have been palpable even in the southernmost regions of the Kennedy Center's central corridor.