Posts Tagged ‘asia society’

Performance diary: Javanese Wayang Kulit at Asia Society

March 18, 2012
Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese percussion orchestra that I’m part of, presented a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) at Asia Society last Friday night featuring famous dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro and members of his company Mayangkara (from Solo, Java). Originally I was supposed to perform in the show with the gerongen (chorus), but I had to miss a bunch of rehearsals so at a certain point I realized I wasn’t going to be able to learn the music well enough, so I decided to sit it out. Much as I love playing and have enjoyed being in concerts in the last couple of years, I’m really glad that circumstances were such that I got to sit out front and enjoy the show this time.


For me, it was an opportunity to revisit the experience of falling in love with gamelan the first time I saw a wayang (performed by the Royal Court Gamelan of Yogyakarta at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival). Certainly, for a Westerner, you start out paying close attention to every single thing, trying to “make sense” of the gestures, each puppet, each sound, each word on the screen, each song that is sung… Watching wayang as if it’s a play in the theater and trying to tune out everything else pretty quickly becomes exhausting, confusing, and frustrating. Somehow, slowly, imperceptibly, you give that up, and the whole thing takes over, and you realize that you’ve entered another world, a kind of trance state, where no single element is primary, but hundreds of little tiny elements are adding up to a whole experience. Extraordinary! Then everything becomes completely engrossing and enjoyable, including the movements of people in the audience coming and going, people taking pictures, musicians laughing and joking among themselves (and yes, even making “mistakes”!).


Typically for wayang, Dewa Ruci (Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment) is based on an episode from the Mahabharata and follows one of the five Pandawa brothers on his quest for perfection in life. He undergoes two big adventures, one in the forest and one in the sea. In between these parts of the tale, there was a comic interlude, which is the part of the show which the dhalang improvises at every performance, tailoring his remarks to current events and the particular audience he’s playing to. In this case, President Obama made a surprise appearance among the various wayang characters (wise men and ogres and mothers and brothers, etc.), and Ki Purbo invited (or should I say commanded?) Kitsie Emerson, who had been sitting at her laptop skillfully providing translations for the English-speaking audience, to play kendhang (the drum that leads the gamelan). Here’s a small, sort of random excerpt from that passage of the performance:

The singer, Yayuk Sri Rahayu, was fantastic. Andy and I watched most of the show from the auditorium, where you could see all the musicians and the dhalang and his puppets as he manipulated them, while off to the side was a video screen showing what the shadows looked like. As is traditional for wayang, the audience was invited to go up onstage and sit behind the screen and watch the show from there, so we sampled that perspective as well. It was hard to read the translations (projected onto a screen over the stage) from there, but the detail of the puppets (carved into thin buffalo hide) was the reward for sitting here.



Good show, gamelanistas!

Performance diary: Abida Parveen and other Sufi musicians at Asia Society

July 25, 2010

July 22 – Two days after a free concert of Pakistani Sufi music in Union Square, the same lineup appeared at the Asia Society on a program called “Sufis of the Indus.” Co-produced by a group called Pakistani Peace Builders, these concerts were planned specifically to do some cultural repair work after the thwarted terrorist attack on Times Square in April by a Pakistani-American. I only found that out at the concert – I went specifically to hear the great Abida Parveen, as beloved to her Pakistani followers  as Oum Khalsoum is to Egyptians, Mercedes Sosa to Argentinians, or Asha Bhosle to Indians. Parveen is widely acknowledged as a master in the form of Kafis, the sung Sufi poetry in languages such as Sindhi, Seraiki and Punjabi. It’s related to qawwali music, the best-known form of Sufi devotional music from Pakistan (thanks to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), which is traditionally performed by men. I have a couple of her recordings and thought I’d seen her the first time at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, in 1997. But when I go back and look at the article I wrote about that festival for the Delta Airlines’ in-flight magazine Sky, there’s nothing about Abida, so I guess I must have seen her after that in New York, in the company of other members of the World Music Institute who’d been on the trip to Morocco. (It was an amazing, life-altering trip. I also published an article about it in RFD, “Morocco Diary.”) The two main producers of the Sufi Music Festival were Rachel Cooper, director of cultural programming at the Asia Society, and Zeyba Rahman, former chairperson of WMI and for several years the North American director of the Fez festival. I met Zeyba on the trip to Morocco, and I met Rachel through her connection to the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, curated by Peter Sellars, where she was instrumental in presenting the Royal Court Gamelan from Yogyakarta, Java (one of the festival highlights for me).

Aicha Radouane at the opening night concert in Fez

It was a beastly hot night, so I blithely showed up at Asia Society in shorts and Hawaiian shirt only to find the NYC/Pakistani cultural elite dressed to the nines (it was as close as I’ve ever gotten to that nightmare about showing up at school naked). Somehow we ended up sitting in the fourth row center, next to Jay Corcoran and Mike Roberts, for an intermissionless two-and-half-hour extravaganza. It began with many speeches and a lot of thank-yous. The first of five performers was Nadir Abbas, a young protégé of the same teacher who taught Abida Parveen, backed by her main musicians.

The most colorful act of the show was the Soung Fakirs, an all-male company of shrine singers from Sindh connected to the shrine of revered Sufi saint Sachal Sarmast. Their leader was an ancient guy whose long red beard was painted bright red, a color also heavily featured in their dazzling costumes.


The music is a Sufi version of gospel, passionate incantations and ecstatic rhythms praising God and preaching peace, love, and togetherness.


They were followed by rabid virtuoso Haji Sultan Chanay, whose pieces were quieter and more lyrical. He brought on two young women, Zeb and Haniya, a singer and her guitar player, and then Akhtar Chanal Zehri, who cut an exotic figure in his black beard, stark white costume, and a fierce vocal attack that inspires comparisons to rappers.


In between performers, Hameed Haroon made sweetly earnest attempts to provide context for the different artists and how they represent the four different provinces of Pakistan. He also made sure to mention all the accompanying musicians in the show by name, because they weren’t listed in the program. But it was kind of hilarious – he kept saying “of course we all know X-and-such,” spelling out historical and cultural details that were probably completely obvious to the Pakistanis in the audiences, but there was so much information that it was impossible for the rest of us to digest it (well, for me, anyway).


It didn’t matter. We were all there to hear Abida Parveen, and she didn’t disappoint. She sat cross-legged at center stage, big-bodied and big-haired, surrounded by pages and pages of what looked like some combination of handwritten scores, set lists, and lyric crib-sheets. And she sang nonstop for an hour. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe this music, except to liken it to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – ecstatic devotional music that starts slow and prayerful, works through a small amount of lyrical content, and then builds through repetition and tight collaboration with her musicians, especially the tabla and harmonium, her left- and right-hand men, both virtuosic and riveting themselves. (YouTube has a bunch of clips, like this one.) I couldn’t take my eyes off the harmonium player’s mesmerizing, masklike face.


Andy had never heard anything like it and afterwards said his head kept exploding as he tried to make sense of how the music was structured, what she was singing about, how the musicians were interacting. Not clear to me, either — I just drank it in. At times she’d say something soft and sweet and the audience would audibly swoon – and inevitably the audience would get caught up clapping along when the faster rhythms kicked into high gear. Party in the temple, y’all.

the finale

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