Sunday, January 4, 2015

Music … as something that matters

Lets start this slow and build it up shall we? A bit of background, a bit observation to setup for things that matter more...

There are many ways in which the story of a nation can be encapsulated.  Art, dance, words, music, architecture have all been used through varied processes of distillation with varying degrees of impact to give us everything from small experience-capsules to great swaths of place-time massed in tiered temporal silos.

The story of Sri Lanka, its people, its places, its lives, its livelihoods, its loves, its tragedies… These have been most evocatively captured by its folk song or jana gee. Why we make that distinction is beyond me for all “gee” is pretty much “jana” regardless of where that sinduwa (song) or prajaava (community)  hailed from.  Regardless of phrase roots, in Sri Lanka it has remained almost unchanged in form, meter and style for a couple dozen centuries.

Right at the other end of the spectrum of musical expression of life, sits jazz. It is a musical form that is impossible to pin down and indeed, no one tries to do so either – not even its most famous practitioners. As one of its exponents, J.J. Johnson said “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and never will”. I would hazard a vague definition for it as “a careful construct of lines, tangents, arguments, hyperboles, capitulations and recaps thoughtfully and lovingly drawn out of a limited number of musical plots”.

Alright. That should do for setup.

Now here is an intriguing thought. What happens if we mix jazz with jana gee? What happens if we put the unstable and the stable together?

That depends. It depends on who is mixing them, how they mix them and who gets to taste it afterwords.

 If you add floodwater to still water, you get a muddy mix you cannot see through. Add fire to it and you get a choking steam.  Sodium will give you an explosion that takes your head off. Oil will separate from it while salt will painlessly dissolve into brine. Minerals will make it tastier. None of these are either good or bad but can be either life-giving or life-terminating, either espoused or rejected, either loved or hated at a highly personal level. Jazz, by its irritability, its persnickety, its individuality and its essential collectivity can bring any and all of these to jana gee either singly or in combinations.

We are then on dangerously unstable ground, and it would take a seriously insightful set of minds to ensure that we don’t sinkhole as a result. A gathering of hearts capable of something not entirely unlike magic.

Dr. Sumudi Suraweera
The Serendib Sorcerers, a group of creative musicians from Music Matters, an institute of music that introduces western music to Sri Lanka through a process where the essence of human creativity is given precedence, did exactly this with its debut album, Jana Gee Reworked, launched recently at a concert at Gallery 706 where they performed material from the album among other works. The ensemble were all teachers cum creative artists from Music Matters and had Madhavi Shilpadipathi (vocals), Derek Beckvold on the alto sax, Sarani Perera on guitar, Issac Smith on double bass and Dr. Sumudi Suraweera on drums. Eshantha Peiris, who, along with Dr. Suraweera co-founded Music Matters and worked on this album, was unfortunately overseas on the day of the performance so we missed his violin.

Talented they are. Brave are they. These people. You see, jazz is an acquired taste for most and particularly for Sri Lankans while Sri Lanka’s folk music has become something of an artifact.

Consider: It is an age of texts, snaps and gossipy short chat where “janathaava” is determined by the number of hurried “likes” of things one sees for a second on a smartphone. A time where "sinduwa" is not, unless it is in binary form and drowning in diabetes-inducing sugar-sweet major-minor cadences and where jazz means something only because it sounds like a term used to measure the number of sex partners one has made it with. An era where everything useful has to make sense to Neanderthals or lower for that is all we are now capable of assimilating as a race.  A sociology where anything that is more complex than 1+1=2 is to be discarded immediately with the phrase “can’t be bothered” which is an abbreviation of the phrase “I am dumb, I do not wish to appear to be dumb, therefore, I will reject anything and everything that proves that I am dumb, so that I can continue to be dumb and run with the rest of the dumb
Yet, these sorcerers deigned to defy the dime-a-dozen, cookie-cutter status-quo of aesthetic appreciation with something disarmingly simple, yet deviously rich in the insight, understanding, skill, effort, thought and love that have obviously gone into it. They've done something that mattered for a society in flux with their living musical aesthetic.

Eshantha Peiris
Else, how can one make an acoustic drum kit sound like a battery of geta bera and thammattam? How can one possibly imagine the overtone projection of a raw, rural, Sinhalese woman farmer’s voice despite the clear indications of a throat trained for different musics in alternate climes? How else can a New Zealander thrum a drum like the vigorous rubbing of the velum of a yak bere on a double-bass or an American sound a horanewa on a sax?  How would it be possible to seamlessly connect western musicological sensibilities into those of rural Sri Lanka? How else can one take the four-tone wail of a jana gee and interleave it with magics that are multifarious in origin and still manage to preserve the cultural evenness of the one and the improvisational tradition of the other while dotting the tapestries with a myriad of futures, a multiplicity of possibilities?

It takes a group of integrated human beings to swing that let me tell you. It takes a lot of presence in the here-and-now to be able to mesh these things together without fusing them into an unpalatable brine. It takes, um… how should I put this: “significant capabilities to make oil behave like salt and salt behave like oil in their intermix with water”. It is easy to fuse and I hate fusing things because they destroy the elemental base of the separate parts. It is not that easy to connect, to entwine. Quite refreshingly, the sorcerers have managed to do that. It took them a year. That’s how long it took. This was certainly not an exercise aimed at emotional convenience, financial expedience, the rhubarb of the music industry, the quick-fix shallowness of pop culture. Rather, it is a series of studies of great musical empathy with societies and stories in the plural, the multicultural, the multi-traditional.

Serendib Sorcerers at their album launch concert at Gallery 706

Should I walk you through each of the tracks? Give you mini-biographies on the artists perhaps? Maybe say something smart and silly about this riff, that progression, the other solo? no!  no no no and again no! The compositions should trigger things in the minds, hearts and passions of individuals at an individual level. For that, go now and buy the album. I guarantee you that the thousand bucks (equivalent to 1 ½ packs of cigarettes or ½ of a decent meal, or eight beers or a bottle of cheap booze) will be spent towards opening a different window onto the same familiar countryside. A more esoteric view that has the potency to become increasingly commonplace as each one of us cracks that window open and stares out because we want to, not because some nutjob is telling us to.

Derek Beckvold, Sarani Perera and Issac Smith

At the end of the concert experience, enhanced by wine, my lady and a rare song, I picked up the album. When I got home, I flipped open the cover. Me: “What’s this? A shiny line of gum across the inner side? Oh… love? Can you give me a hand here … the CD seems to be stuck inside…?” She:  (less drunk than I am) “I think it’s glued to the cover”. Me: Ah, yes… yesss… good, let me tear it apart to get at it… there… there we have it” She: (smiles) Didn’t they say that the band had put the CD covers together themselves?” Me: yes… a lot of love, a lot of glue (grins).

It takes both to create the brilliant, simple musical joy that was made that night. It takes a bit of work to get to its heart. Like handmade, love tooled albums and their covers.  Like Jazz.

Good people? Make the effort. Serendib Sorcerers? Salute! 

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