Language and music are elements common to all cultures, and perhaps the two elements which best bind a society together. One of the great challenges of modern life is to build pathways and bridges to link different cultural ideals and philosophies in an effort to resolve conflict, both physical and psychological. If we can create a dialogue in which different cultures can explore their common ground then we will have found a path which might bring us all closer to a peaceful co-existence.
Last weekend the District 6 Homecoming Centre was host to a wonderful collaboration between Indian and South African musicians and writers. In this, the 18th Poetry Africa event developed by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, a number of established artists gathered together to develop a concert programme which continued a cultural conversation between the Indian and South African cultures.
In the centre of the main hall, a stage festooned with different musical instruments was bathed in multi-coloured lights. The chairs were placed amongst large iron support beams while on the left, a projector screen displated visuals of rehearsals and text along with the performance.
The diverse array of instruments included western instruments such as the double bass and drum set, African instruments such as the Uhadi (bow) and an assortment of winds and percussion, to traditional Indian instruments such as the sarangi and the sarod. For most of the compositions, the various instruments need to re-tune, as some are non-transposing. But what was astonishing was the natural balance and blend of the instruments with each other, the array of sounds coming together to create one unified sonic force.
The first piece revealed to the audience the evocative ideas and surreal atmosphere that they would be experiencing for the duration of the journey. Sparingly ringing cymbals interjected the haunting sounds from the 150 year old sarangi which in turn complimented both the Indian vocalist Sumangala Damodaran and South African vocalists Tina Schouw, Mbali Vilakazi and Malika Ndlovu.
Rich, spiritual and chantlike, the music grew organically through each composition, with the mixture of African rhythms and Indian melodic ideas fusing exceptionally well. As the programme notes pointed out, some of the Indian scales are similar to isiZulu pentatonic modes and indeed, the performance underlined the striking similarities between the two musical archetypes.
Each artist gave a brief back-story to his/her work, drawing on the influences and the ideas that they wished to convey. A lullaby -like ‘Let Me Lie to You’ was followed by a contrasting piece called ‘Mourning the Insurrection’. The performers layered diverse sounds from pre-conceived electronic sequences, injecting wailing saxophone tones and tight percussion work, to create a programmatic sensation of loss and pain which significantly resonated with the audience.
‘Women Dreaming’ was an evocation of womanhood which highlighted violence against women. A powerful dialogue with appealing solos and a mixture of various rhythms, many of the poems were set to music by the ensemble and even translated into different languages. One highlight, ‘Aaranyani’ was performed brilliantly with effective stop time and smooth melodic passages.
It was fascinating to witness the different instrument combinations arranged for each work. At one point it would be only string instruments and then at another, only percussion. Vocals would be juxtaposed with the sarod and bass or solo guitar and the spoken word. Ballad like works such as “Malibongwe” were contrasted by jazz and funk influenced “Mayihlomel Aahwaan” One could see the enthusiasm on stage between the performers, a reassuring feeling for the audience for what they were experiencing was genuine creative joy.
The atmosphere took a more dramatic turn with “The Insurrection of Earthworms” where spoken word was strikingly vivid with traditional Hindu vocals complimenting the soundscape with beating drums, Zulu bow and lilting sarangi. Throughout the performance there were well placed contrasts where the audience is treated to both arresting and harsh dissonances and beautiful plaintive songs. The concluding work brought all the performers together moving through different genres and musical styles, reminding the audience once again, the reason for this artistic gathering. After the final celebratory chord, the audience was not shy to leap to their feet in a joyous applause.
If one thing can be said about the experience, is that a certain weight was lifted from the mind. Where one had a brief sense of cleansing and a renewed positive attitude to what good can still be present in humanity, amidst the violence and corruption that is plaguing the Earth. The 18th Poetry Africa has presented a true, effortless fusion of cultures in a creative output which should be seen by all people, everywhere.
Poetry Africa took place at the District 6 Homecoming Centre on 24 & 25 October 2014.