Wednesday 8 July 2015

East of Tallinn: Orient music festival Part III - concerts

Ensemble Indra from Japan, Orient Music Festival, Tallinn - photo credit Hilary Glover
Ensemble Indra from Japan, Orient Music Festival, Tallinn - photo credit Hilary Glover

After the first day of the Orient music festival, organised by Tiina Jokinen (from Estonia Record Productions: ERP) and composer Peeter Vähi, with its ethnomusicology conference, film premiere, and after show party in the Latvian Embassy, the music could really begin.

The first concert was the spectacular Indra, Taiko drummers from Japan. Ensemble Indra (Ishizuka Yū, Ishizuka Eri, Inoue Nanase, Ōkawa Masashi, and Motoyama Yūhei) are a family-based group founded in 2013 by Ishizuka Yū (the eldest son of a well-known noh musician (hayashikata) Mochizuki Saburō).

In Hinduism, Indra is a heroic god, who slew the stone dragon and freed the seven rivers. He is the King of gods as well as being the god of rain and thunderstorms – quite apt for this group of cheerfully fierce drummers. Indra are as much about show and choreography as they are about music and have incorporated hayashi and buyō styles into their routine as well as noh and kabuki.

Extra atmosphere was added to their performance by the venue. The weather was fortunately dry enough for the audience to sit outside (with cushions and blankets provided) so that the concert could take place in the Japanese gardens of Kadriorg Park.

Indra’s performance was mesmerising. They were balletic, appearing to be casting spells or to be fighting off unseen opponents with some kind of martial art. The loud beginning on drums echoed around the park, and could be felt as well as heard, but some of their pieces were quieter using bells and traditional flutes. Their songs were as much about emotion and nature as showing prowess as a warrior (slant) style or gods. They also performed a beautiful lion dance (shishimai) where the lion was a playful cat. It says in the programme notes that it is good luck to be bitten by a lion – but Indra explained in their workshop later in the week that the people who developed the dance had not actually seen a lion.

Ensemble Indra performing the lion dance (shishimai) - video Hilary Glover

The sold out concert was followed by a reception with freshly prepared food and drink from countries across the orient. After the chilly outdoor performance the heaters and tasty treats were most welcome, and the evening continued late.

Day three of the festival brought music from India and Taiwan. These concerts were held in a tent next door to the President’s Palace in Kadriorg Park. The huge tent was furnished with cushions scattered across the raised floor, and heaters around the edge. The sides of the tent were decorated with pictures from Tiina and Peeter’s ethnomusical travels. There were a few rows of seats towards the back for those who did not want to get down on the floor (or who did not fancy their chances of getting back up) – but the idea was to reproduce a more natural setting than a concert hall.

The first concert of the evening began by featuring Shirin Sengupta on vocals and swarmandal (a kind of zither) and Rupak Bhattacharjee on tabla, accompanied by an electronic drone. Sherin explained some of the compositional techniques, such as the first piece ‘Raga Bihag’ being based on a 16 bit rhythmic cycle with complex rules of improvisation. With her high, sweet voice the song was both romantic and devotional – and enhanced by the evening birdsong from the park. The drums were hypnotic, very musically decorated, and provided an interesting second melody. At 45 minutes long, held in place by the drone, the whole was relaxing and meditational.

Shirin Sengupta and Rupak Bhattacharjee - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover
Shirin Sengupta and Rupak Bhattacharjee - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover

Bhattacharjee also accompanied Rajarshi Sengupta (Shirin’s son) for ‘Raga Bhoopali’ on mandolin and then, after the drone was re-pitched, Pandit Ranajit Sengupta performed ‘Raga Jog’ (a romantic evening raga - very nicely in keeping with mood of the concert) on sarod. The Sengupta’s are famous at home and abroad, and it is easy to see why they are in demand as ambassadors for classical Indian music.

This was followed by the O-Kai singers from Taiwan. With their fusion of traditional aboriginal Taiwanese and jazz – more than a little influenced by the Swingle Singers – they were upbeat and a world away from the relaxed style of the Sengupta family. Not surprisingly they have won awards at home (including the Taiwan International contemporary a cappella Festival, Best jazz album, and Taiwan golden melody awards) and, when they are not performing, they teach a cappella at home and internationally. The slight hiccup of a power failure was taken in their stride and they continued to sing until the power came back on.

O-Kai singers in rehearsal - Festival Orient, Tallinn - photo credit Hilary Glover
O-Kai singers in rehearsal- photo credit Hilary Glover

Day four and a venue change to the Nordia concert hall for the China National Beijing opera Company’s performance of ‘Female Generals of the Yang family’. And what a show!

Opera in the UK tends towards realism and the task of making older opera’s relevant to modern audiences. In contrast the Chinese opera was very stylised with spectacular yet unwieldy costumes. I was astounded at how they kept their feet while singing and acting in costumes with huge headdresses and flags sticking out the back. This included fight scenes which were adorned with acrobatics reminiscent of the Chinese circus.

The music was a mixture of recorded and live. A small band of musicians played for the performers and to provide the special effects, but the overtures/ interludes were orchestral overlaid by the live musicians. The singing was also stylised. Many if the performers were wearing masks which meant that you could not see their lips move and the rest, who wore very heavy traditional makeup, sang with very little movement of the mouth. Nevertheless the sound quality was clear.

The acting also included stylised hand gestures which seemed to denote the emotion that they could not show on their faces.

There were a few problems with over-amplification at the start but these were soon sorted out. To unaccustomed western ears the sound of Chinese Opera is new and exciting. The nasal sounds to words, mixed with non-equal temperament of the Chinese scales, and the clashing sounds of their percussion was a little harsh – but you soon get used to that and enjoy the performance and the ripping good yarn.

Taner Akyol Trio - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover
Taner Akyol Trio - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover

 Day five, and we were back in the tent for the Taner Akyol Trio from Turkey. Taner Akyol is a bağlama player and composer from Bursa, Turkey. He is an award winning soloist, but with the trio he was able to explore traditional Alavi and Kurdish music in an ethno-jazz setting. Tonight he was joined by Mahir Kartal ( duduk – a double reed oboe and kaval - flute) and Sebastian Flaig (percussion). Overall the music was relaxed and subdued, with the melodic elements telling stories. Similarly to the Indian music the percussion was never still and always changing, providing a counter melody of its own.

Ensemble Ülger - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover
Ensemble Ülger - Festival Orient, Tallinn - Photo credit Hilary Glover
Day six brought contrasts – Ensemble Ülger from Khakassia in Siberia, and the Shona ritual dancers from Zimbabwe. Ülger looked toasty and warm in their traditional dress, while the Shona dancers had a lot less on, but both performed works about their traditions which had been repressed in the not too distant past.

Ensemble Ülger recorded live by Hilary Glover

Once again the hall (in this case tent) was packed as Ülger started their concert of warm, sometimes gentle and romantic, sometimes fierce, folk tunes. The contrast between the girls’ natural voices and the guttural throat singing of the men brought an added dimension to their sound. By changing the instrumentation and percussion each song had its own feel. They had not been able to sing many of the songs performed tonight while under Russian rule – even now ethnic Kharkassians represent less than 12% of the population of Kharkassia.

Shona Ritual Dancers - Festival Orient - Tallinn
Shona Ritual Dancers - Festival Orient - Tallinn
Although the festival continued for another day with a performance of Thai Royal Dance, the last concert I saw was the Shona Ritual Dancers – a perfect show to round off the week. Accompanied by thumb piano playing little minimalist phrases, polyrhythmic drumming, shakers, clapping, and ululation, the dancers performed traditional dances. Their sensual and acrobatic dance, with its colourful costumes and headdresses, had been disapproved of by the Christian missionaries, but like the Kharkassians this only served to deepen their pride and sense of cultural identity.

However, we were lucky to see them at all. At the start of a tour that would also take in Sweden a cultural misunderstanding about their visas caused the troop to be delayed in Turkey – missing their connecting flight, and barely making their first performance the next day.
The Orient music festival in Tallinn has been a delight. The range of musical cultures was outstanding, the quality of each performance was very high, and the organisational team, despite the festival being run efficiently and without fuss, felt like it was just a big family who had invited some people to stay. Tallinn is a city with a big heart which it opened up to the world.

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