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The Wall of Sound

New York
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center
11/22/2010 -  & November 23, 2010
White Light Festival Finale: The Manganiyar Seduction
Choruses, drums, ensembles, Sufi song, The Birth of Lord Krishna, verses of affection for wife and husband

40 Manganiyar Musicians, Daevo Khan (Conductor),
Roysten Abel (Lighting, Set design, Concept and Direction)

M.S. Set (© Roysten Abel)

The Manganiyar may sing of gods, blessings and the universe, but political reality raised its demonic head for the finale of the first White Light Festival. Apparently, the American Consulate in India, usually ready to give visas for Indian musicians, weren’t quite so anxious to allow in 40 Muslim musicians.

Never mind that these musicians sing of Krishna, wear Hindu-style clothes and celebrate all Hindu festivals. Never mind that they have performed their music for hundreds of years for India’s reactionary Rajahs, Maharajas and Sultans, and that their pedigree–like the Jewish orchestras of 19th Century Russia–is a badge of honor.

No, they had to be investigated, one by one. By the time our consular apparatchiks got through investigating each and every one, it was too late for last week’s performance. But the delay of a few days didn’t prevent a wildly appreciative crowd into Rose Theater for the first of two performances last night.

Let it first be said that nothing is “folk” or “ethnic” about this group. Their name means “takers of alms”, and their homes are in Rajasthan’s infernally hot Thar Desert. But as hereditary musicians (yes, part of the musician caste system), many of them were housed in palaces (à la Josef Haydn), part of the artistic retinue. Or they would be called up to lead their benefactors into battle.

(Frankly, if I were opposing a Manganiyar band in warfare, I’d run for my life!)

So their pedigreed is cultural aristocracy, their Islamic heritage, like so much in India, partakes of other religions, and for “The Manganiyar Seduction”, they have been dolled up Bollywood style, with a huge grid, (influenced by Amsterdam’s Red Light District) and flashing lights which hearkened back to the burlesque shows of 1900’s Coney Island.

Yes it was a gift box, it was artifice. But it was also a Wall of Sound which Phil Spector would have gasped at. The velvet curtains in each compartment of the four-storey grid (reaching the top of Rose Theater Stage) parted and opened at times to reveal different musicians doing their thing, starting with a lonely solo kamancha player in a single compartment.

Kamancha player (© Roysten Abel)

This, the major non-drum instrument, is a string lute-like instrument which, at the beginning of the show, was rambling around. Like the introduction to Hindu raga music, this was the improvised introduction. Later it would keep its impetus as a basso continuo under the great drum sets, or would play like a bagpipe with drones and more improvisation.

Soon more curtains opened or closed, and we had, alongside a few flutes, more and more drums and drummers. They were frankly remarkable. Even when one got exhausted with the disguised monotony of the beats, the variation in tones was itself mesmeric.

The closest we have would be timpani, tuned to different notes. Or, as in the music of Xenakis, percussion which “speaks” with very advanced techniques. Here, though the combination of hand drums, big drums, tubular drums and round drums made a mighty sounds. And while the rhythms were actually quite normal high-school marching-band meters, the variations, riffs, beats within beats within beats, was quite impressive.

Honestly, I am more impressed with Balinese gamelan, where an entire orchestra of drums, gongs, and flutes make even more complex variations. But these were quite sufficient. Especially since the voices were so strong.

Strong, though, is hardly the word. Since not a single harmony was heard, not a single one of the 40 voices was diluted. Instead we had them all singing the same lines with a robust, full-bodied, clear-as-a-bell, and iron-hard monody.

I was told that they sing with a special closed-throat technique, which gives them not only strong vibrato, but special coloration. But I was reminded of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin where each note has its own changing colors. These singers could take one note and give it tone variation, vibrato and even series’ of small vocal melismas.

I’m uncertain of their language, but it was probably a form of Urdu, which is of course an Indo-European language, so the words had an unconscious familiarity.

In front of this conglomeration of velvet curtains, flashing lights and vehement punchy music, one figure faced them, dancing, cueing, playing one castanet-like cadenza, bowing, all in shadows. This was conductor Daevo Khan. A village prodigy, he introduced theatrical director Roysten Abel, to the Manganiyar: they never looked back.

The “Manganiyar Seduction” has traveled the world, impressed the hell out of the most sophisticated audiences and introduced an entirely new Indian music. Yes, the sets are garish artifice, but nothing is artificial about these 40 musicians. They start small, and build to a roaring crescendo, which last night (and presumably tonight) was echoed by an audience both entranced and ecstatic.

Harry Rolnick



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