Friday 29 May 2015

East of Tallinn: Orient music festival

Hakassian folk music and dance ensemble - Ülger
Hakassian folk music and dance ensemble - Ülger
The Orient music festival in Tallinn, Estonia, began its week long activities with an afternoon ethno-musicology conference, a film premiere and ambassador's reception (25 May 2015). After a welcome address by the festival organiser Peeter Vähi and by the former First Lady of Estonia, Estonian folklorist, and patron of the festival, Ingrid Rüütel, the conference began with a demonstration of quanun (a kind of zither) by Samir Ally Salim and went on to cover ancient empires of Africa, the culture and traditions of the Shona people, the Taarab song tradition in Zanzibar, Hakassian throat singing and Buddhist temple music, finishing with Martin Grauds and Ilze Apsina's film, 'The way home'.

The first session 'Ancient Empires of Africa' by Tiina Jokinen, who was just back from a trip to Papua New Guinea, pointed out that, unlike America, Africa has always been a world centre of migration and trade. Much of the known history comes from written accounts by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Arabs, but there was also trade with China. Even before the arrival by the Portuguese in the 15th century there were European fortune hunters in Africa. The Portuguese were followed by the British in the 16th century, and then the rest of Europe from the 17th century onwards. By the 19th century missionaries appeared, the forerunner to colonisation, wars and decolonisation of modern history.

Tiina Jokinen
Tiina talked in more detail about this history of specific countries: Sheba (Ethiopia), the Aksumite Empire - where the Arc of the Covenant is believed to be, Rwanda, the Great Zimbabwe Empire, Kongo, the Benin Empire which is still ruled by a king, the Ogiso, the Kanem Empire, and Ghana, which benefited from trans-Saharan trade, Mali, the second biggest empire after Mongol and which was conquered by the Songhai. A whistle-stop tour which prepared us for the rest of the afternoon.

The second talk, by Peter Phiri, discussed the Great Zimbabwe Empire and the culture and traditions of the Shona people. He described how in 2000 BC the Shona people from Cameroon/ Nigeria travelled South in two direction using dugout canoes. The first group travelled along the west coast, the second moved east, making their way to the Great Lakes. Peter talked about how the Bantu language helped cultural and music exchanges along the migration and has resulted in the continental cultural identity we see today.

Peter Phiri at Festival Orient in Tallinn - photo credit Hilary Glover
Peter Phiri
Photo credit Hilary Glover
On a more local scale, Peter also talked about the hill enclosures. Originally palaces for kings, their placement on the top of hills allowed the kings, their witch doctors, spirit mediums, and panel of elders to be close the spirits of their dead and use their help to discuss how to best face the future and solve disputes. These communities were once very prosperous because of successful agriculture and gold mining (hence the green and gold stripes in their flag) which they traded with counties like China and India. But they became a victim of their success. By the 15th century they had used up their resources and migrated back north to the Zambezi in search of salt. Some of the displaced Shona became the Xhosa and fought the encroaching Portuguese. Today the Shona people still believe in tradition and in the power of the dead to provide luck and fortune. Their use of music and dance is integral to their cultural identity.

Mitchel Strumpf from the Dhow Country Music Academy talked about the Taarab song tradition in Zanzibar. He discussed the non-western tuning, maqam and the use of quarter notes (the quanun has a mechanism near the tuning pegs which allows the performer access to quarter tones), and how the placement of the islands of Zanzibar meant that they were important as a stopping point for the dhow trade routes, which allowed musical exchanges as well.

The influence of North Africa in the music of Zanzibar was also due to the influence of Sultan Baghash bin Said. He was the first to bring electricity and trains to the region, but he also brought music from Egypt including Taarab and the quanun. While there are more than 125 ethnic groups in Tanzania, each with different languages, and different musical styles and ways of notating it, Taarab has been recorded since 1901 meaning that we can still hear exactly what people were listening to 100 years ago.

Via a translator, Kuchen Ayharkh Sayn, a third generation performer from the Khakassian folk music and dance group, Ülger, talked about traditional Khakassian instruments and culture (from the the foot of the Sayan-Altai Mountains in southern Siberia). He explained that their culture was closer to Turkish than Russian and that they are now a minority group in their own country (only 12% of the population are Khakassian). Their music is diatonic and often uses voices in parallel 4ths and 5ths.

There are 12th century Chinese records describing some 45 or so Khakassian instruments, and other than the use of plastic strings instead of gut the instruments are essentially the same. Ülger had on show several plucked and bowed 2 and 3 string instruments with plastic, metal and even horse-hair strings, vertical flutes with different styles of playing to produce clear or breathy sounds, a straight horn which is sucked rather than blown, Jew's harp, and a variety of percussion instruments, bells, shakers and hooves that would have been used while herding. They also had a kind of zither with bone bridges that could be stopped to vary the tone.

The Khakassian also use throat singing and, ahead of their concert later in the week, we were treated to songs using different combinations of instruments and voice.

The final talk by Laama Sangyas included a demonstration of Buddhist temple instruments and their proper use and meaning. From mantras chanted through a conch shell to provide a wake up call which would instil peace in the listener, to the long straight metal horns that can be up to 5m long that call to local gods and angels, to drums and cymbals which can be heard by ghosts and bring the prayers to them. Some of the instruments had a darker past such as the human skull drums and bone beaters - Laama had a beater made from human bone which he claimed was 300 years old.

Valts Pūce's Ethnographic Orchestra and The Shin
Valts Pūce's Ethnographic Orchestra and The Shin
The film by Martin Grauds and Ilze Apsina, 'The way home', was a collaboration between Latvian Valts Pūce's Ethnographic Orchestra, Georgian ethno-jazz band The Shin, and Moldavian group Trigon. The film documented their meetings and rehearsals over three years of preparation, and the final concert. Beautifully shot with a soundtrack by The Shin, the film was important musically, as the three groups learned how to combine their traditional sounds, but also politically forging links between the European Union and Moldova.

The film was followed by a reception in the Latvian Embassy with more music / performances by the Ambassadors, some local students, and spontaneous singing of traditional songs by people at the party - and food and wine from each of the three countries to compliment the music. As heard in the speeches "Music is the real hero".

This was an auspicious start to the week, filled with amuse bouche and bonhomie, tasters of food and music surrounding the more serious side to ethnomusicology.
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