A Tapestry of Sacred Music 2016

Oh, we had a divine time this weekend at The Esplanade’s current performing arts festival, A Tapestry of Sacred Music! I saw two ticketed performances, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Voices from the Land of Fire: Mughals and Ashiq from Azerbaijan by Alim and Fargana Qasimov, and my family joined me for three free performances, Kirtan: Devotion of the Sikhs by Gurmat Sangeet Academy, Turkish Sufi Music by Şimdi Ensemble, and Qasidah: Islamic Devotional Poetry by Madeehul Mustafa.

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FRIDAY

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal‘s music sits between the Subcontinent’s Hindustani classical (Khyal, Dhrupad, and Thumri) and rich folk traditions. While their viral YouTube hits, recorded at Pakistan’s Coke Studio, have catapulted them to ce-web-rity status and introduced the timbre of their voices to a new generation, the brothers trace their roots to the Qawwal-Bachcha gharana, or house of music, which was established in the 12th Century in Delhi by one of South Asia’s most renowned poets, Hazrat Amir Khusrau.

On Friday, the ensemble sang in multiple languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Farsi, among others, and their soulful singing was accompanied by a chorus, clapping hypnotically, and a group of percussionists playing the dholak and tabla. Both Ayaz and Muhammad engaged listeners by explaining the layered nuances of Sufi poetry (but only in Urdu, which I can understand much of, thankfully).

Towards the end of the concert, the audience became an essential part of performance as we, collectively, engaged in a dialogue with the musicians to shape and uplift the performance—repeating couplets or melodic patterns and taking the performance in and unexpected directions, for example.

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal was the best concert I’ve seen in Singapore since 2011 when I attended Dhrupad: The Dagar Legacy by Ustad Hussain Sayeeduddin Dagar with Nafeesuddin and Aneesuddin Dagar. My only lament was that the performance seemed truncated due to time constraints imposed by the venue. Outside such a formal performance space, a concert like this would continue for hours and hours until the musicians retired from exhaustion. Along the way, the music would reach ecstatic heights. And while Friday’s performance had moments of transcendence, wherein I forgot where I was, I wanted more!

SATURDAY

sikh-kirtans-singing-to-the-divine-01I’ve witnessed the Sikh tradition of kirtan, or Gurmat Sangeet, having grown up in and out of gurudwaras my entire life. (Sindhi Hindus, like my family, have established unconventional practices and heritage in the context of their diaspora.) Kirtan pairs call-and-response chanting with musical accompaniment; its devotional lyrics and a gentle, rhythmic ebb and flow help devotees center their thoughts to meditate with a clear mind and establish a connection with the Supreme Being. Gurmat Sangeet Academy’s performance included its ensemble’s youngest performers. I was bowled over by a gifted singer, no older than six- or seven-years-old, who commanded the stage with her talent and presence. 

Co-founded by singer and composer Bora Uymaz, one of the most prolific figures of the faith in Turkey, and harpist Şirin Pancaroğlu, Şimdi Ensemble focuses on the Sufi tradition in Anatolia. Their repertoire consists of taqsims (melodic musical improvisations), ghazals (Sufi love songs), and kasides (odes), compositions both from the traditional repertoire as well as music composed by its band members. On Saturday, Uymaz and Pancaroğlu were accompanied by Mehmet Yalgin on kemence, a pear-shaped bowed instrument. Uymaz had a strong and unforgettable voice, and I appreciated listening to a musical genre that I was unfamiliar with.

madeehul_mustafaI’ve never seen the Esplanade’s Concourse so full of music-lovers as it was for Saturday’s performance of Qasidah: Islamic Devotional Poetry by Madeehul Mustafa. Qasidah traces its roots to pre-Islamic Arabia and remains the oldest and most revered forms of poetry in the Islamic world. The poem has a single elaborate meter and every line is a couplet; each poem typically runs more than 50 to 100 verses. Madeehul Mustafa is a Singapore-based nine piece group founded in 2005 when its members met as students in Damascus, Syria. Their sung poetry, with verses taken from original long-form qasidahs, was accompanied with frame drums (daff/rebana) and lutes (gambus). I now know why Madeehul Mustafa has such a following; their performance was excellent.

SUNDAY

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Alim Qasimov is one of the foremost mugham (one of the many folk musical compositions from Azerbaijan) singers in Azerbaijan. According to The New York Times, “Alim Qasimov is simply one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation.”

And while his vocal skills were certainly on display this evening, his performance, overall, was rather perfunctory, IMO. His ensemble of young accompanists—on the tar (a long-necked plucked lute), kamancha (a stringed bowed instrument), balaban (double-reed wind instrument), and drums—didn’t have a chance to showcase their skills during this 80-minute performance. Still Qasimov received a standing ovation and returned to the stage to perform a short encore.

Lastly, the concert was advertised to feature his daughter, Fargana, but she was unable to perform due to health reasons. I wonder how different this performance would have been had she been healthy enough to sing!

Holi 2016

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In previous years, we celebrated Holi, a Hindu spring festival, at Kampong Kembangan Community Club. This year, we opted to celebrate closer to home, and also to return to “Holi: Colours of Spring,” the Esplanade’s second annual weekend-long Holi celebration, which we enjoyed very much in 2015.

On Saturday evening, we bopped to “Holi Pichkari,” a selection of Holi-themed Bollywood and Indi-pop (i.e. “Made in India”) tunes by Crossroad Traffic, an Indian rock band. They were really good. The band formed in 2009 and combines the influences of Bollywood, rock, and South Asian classical music. I hope I can catch them around town again!

On Sunday, our condominium hosted a small Holi celebration—with homemade food and without dodgy coloured powder—in one of our parking lots, and I conducted a egg-decorating activity inspired by the holidays (Holi and Easter; see above). We painted eggs—hard-boiled or papier-mâché or styrofoam—with craft glue, and splattered with colored powder.

And on Sunday evening, we returned to “Holi: Colours of Spring” for “Swara Rangavali,” a Hindustani vocal semi-classical medley, performed by Kalyani Puranik and her students at the Temple of Fine Arts. We stayed for two (!) sets of traditional Holi songs in various Hindustani genres, including hori, kajri, and phag. The highlight, for me, was a moving rendition of Abida Parveen’s take on Mohay Rang De (composed by Pegham Qalander).

Happy Holi! Blessed Easter! Happy Spring!

GIVEAWAY: Emily Saves the Orchestra by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

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I’m giving away three tickets to Emily Saves the Orchestra by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra! In this family concert, “drama, dance, dazzling masks and costumes are woven together with orchestral music in a story about bravery and hope… audiences across the globe have fallen in love with this production which features excerpts from some of history’s most beloved pieces, including Beethoven’s Ninth SymphonyThe Nutcracker and William Tell Overture.”

Emily Saves the Orchestra is suitable for ages 4 to 14. (Every patron requires a ticket. No admission for infants-in-arms.)

To win a set of three tickets to Emily Saves the Orchestra at Victoria Concert Hall on Saturday, November 21 at 2pm, leave ONE comment below. (Entries without an email address will be disqualified. Multiple entires will be disqualified.)

This giveaway is open to my readers in Singapore only and will close on November 9, 2015 at 12:00AM UTC/GMT +8 hours. Three winners will be chosen by random.org and be announced on November 11, 2015. Good luck!

Many thanks to all who entered!

The lucky winner of this set of tickets is… Kelly (comment #1)!  Congratulations, Kelly! I will be emailing you shortly for your mailing address.

Orkestra Sri Temasek and Firqah Alwehdah

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We spent Tuesday and Wednesday evening at Esplanade because I just discovered that the venue hosts free concerts during the week, and not just on the weekends. (Thirty minutes of pre-bedtime music FTW.)

On Tuesday, we enjoyed a performance by Orkestra Sri Temasek (above), an ensemble led by music director Mr Muhammad Firdaus Mohamad and resident singer Afi Hanafi, which presented compositions in various traditional Malay genres, including asli, joget and zapin (my favorite). Orkestra Sri Temasek’s resident dancers also demonstrated the basic dances that accompany each genre, and invited audience members to participate on stage.

Earlier today, we returned to see Firqah Alwehdah, a band of five Singaporean musicians who often collaborate with Middle Eastern musicians residing in Southeast Asia. They were founded in 1998 as an ensemble playing Samrah (South Yemeni) folk and dance music, but have since expanded their repertoire to include other kinds of traditional and modern Arabic music from the Middle East. Tonight, their set included upbeat compositions from Egypt, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. Vocalist Muhammad Hussein Alhindwan was just spectacular! (FYI, Firqah Alwehdah is playing two sets on Thursday—at 7:15pm and 8:15pm. Go!)

World Cultures Festival 2015: Southeast Asian Edition

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This weekend I stumbled upon World Cultures Festival 2015: Southeast Asian Edition, a series of FREE performances and workshops over two weekends at the library@esplanade. (The events weren’t well publicized, IMO.)

On Friday, The Preschooler and I watched traditional Thai Lakhon dance, a graceful and sensual form. Here, female dancers depicted folk tales and Jataka stories, and my child appreciated the fairy-tale nature of this dance-drama performance art.

Today, I witnessed a Javanese gamelan performance by NUS’ Singa Nglaras gamalen orchestra. The ensemble, formed in January 2004 and managed by Dr Jan Mrázek of the NUS Department of Southeast Asian Studies, presented a selection of traditional instrumental works and dances of the Javanese gamelan, including Golek Lambang Sari, a dance from the Mangkunegaran Palace in Solo whose performance style combines features from both the Solonese and Jogjanese courts, and Menak Koncar, a solo dance in the Alus or “refined male” style that depicts a character from the Javanese Serat Damar Wulan.

But the highlight of the my day was a two-hour interactive Javanese gamelan workshop conducted by the members of Singa Nglaras. I performed on the Saron Demung, seven bronze bars placed on a resonating frame, a beginners’ instrument! Together, we played “Ricik Ricik” (“Sound of Flowing Water”). Here is a clip from this afternoon:

Not only was the workshop loads of fun, but very informative as well, as its performers (students, alumni, faculty, and musicians from outside the NUS and Yale-NUS community) were so knowledgable about the instruments and the art form. Singa Nglaras holds open rehearsals on campus every Wednesday at 7:30pm, and if I had more time in my life to devote to music and performance, I would so be there! Maybe in a few years.

The Rhythm of Sunda (Wirahma Sunda) by Gamelan Asmaradana

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My in-laws are visiting and, earlier this evening, I took them to the opening night of Pesta Raya: Malay Festival of Arts, a weekend-long celebration of arts features dance, music, and theater from the Malay Archipelago. 

We saw Gamelan Asmaradana, Singapore’s only professional gamelan orchestra, and Degung Singalagena, an ensemble led by composer and Sundanese kendang (a two-headed drum) maestro Tatang Sofyan, perform music from from West Java in a free concert at the Esplanade. Degung, or Sundanese, gamelan differs from Javanese or Balinese gamelan as it employs a subset of modified gamelan instruments. (The bulbous gongs and metallophones are slightly altered in orientation and pitch is my understanding.)

I loved the sounds of the suling degung, or four-holed bamboo flute. Gamelan Asmaradana was accompanied by a pesindhèn, or solo female vocalist, from Bandung, who had a hypnotizing and melodic voice. We were also treated to Jaipongan, a popular traditional Sundanese dance. However, the program’s highlight, for me, was “Rampak Kendang,” a composition in which six drummers played in harmony. I was really taken by the performance of Rosmaini Buang, the artistic director of Gamelan SingaMurti, Gamelan Asmaradana’s Balinese gamelan ensemble; she has incredible stage presence!