Making music tell stories


With artistes from places as far away as South America and Mongolia, the Penang World Music Festival 2015 was a display of musical diversity.

This April’s Penang World Music Festival was touted to have the best line-up of musicians yet, with performances that were at once culturally educational and entertaining. A total of 12 international musicians performed at the festival, including Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo from South Africa, Casuarina from Brazil and Vedan Kolod from Russia. Most have won awards at national and international levels.

Ajinai from Mongolia.

Previously always held at the Penang Botanic Gardens, the venue was changed this year to the Esplanade. According to Danny Law, executive councillor for tourism, “This is the only time of the year (when) Penangites can enjoy various types of music all in one venue.” His statement proved true as the weekend threw up under and overtones of such varying degrees that only a very hard-nosed person could have been unaffected.

Take Ajinai from Mongolia; with songs like “Benburei” and “Red Mountain Flower”, the band showcased the deep, flat braying of regional “khoomei” throat-singing alongside the scratchy sounds of the Morin khuur, a horsehead fiddle signature of Mongolian tradition. One thing is certain: you don’t get these sounds off the heptatonic music scale.

Nading Rhapsody, an avant-garde band from Sarawak, opines that the event was as much about music as it was about people coming together from all over the world. Their own band brings together people of the Melanau, Iban, Bidayuh and Malay cultures, and at the festival they got to meet music bands like Annuluk, itself made up of people from Italy, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. “That’s why people come here,” says Opah from Nading Rhapsody. “We can always learn different and new things.”

Nading Rhapsidy brings together people of the Melanau, Iban, Bidayuh and Malay cultures.

Raggy Singh of the Raggy Project.

Certainly, the festival atmosphere was one of openness and enthusiasm. Musicians awaiting their turns onstage could usually be located on the field, shaking hands with other musicians and alternately taking selfies with members of the audience. In between all that, they also managed to dance to live rhythms, supporting those whose cultures differ so largely from their own.

Prem Joshua, who previously performed with the Temple of Fine Arts in Penang, is a keen supporter of cultural musicexchange. “This is a great world, with great cultures,” he says. “Why not bring them together? We can bring joy to this world.”

Half-jokingly, he refers to his own foray into Indian classical music as a means of “expansion”. Onstage, he reflects that he is “Indian by heart” and that it takes more than a geographical birthplace to determine his identity. His music synthesises ancient cadences from the Indian sub-continent with rhythms of the contemporary West, evoking both the serenity of yogic retreats and the insouciance of neo-Bohemia.

He says that instruments like the traditional sitar are “real instruments that we can breathe and touch”. It is the music created by instruments like the sitar, bamboo flute, tabla and darbouka that, according to him, “stirs our soul”.

Though now a proponent of “natural” music – music that cannot be represented via scientific pitch notation – Raggy Singh of the Raggy Project admits that there was a time when he was ashamed of his Indian music heritage. “It was not modern enough,” he says regretfully, “not in the world”. At the festival, his music revealed the wisdom he has since accrued. Raggy Project performs a spirited blend of East and West, markedly congenial in the way it incorporates the pulses of country, blues, rock and pop. After the performance, Raggy was seen surrounded by enthusiastic fans who wanted to know when his next performance would be.

Divu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo from South Africa.

Michaela Holubova of German group Annuluk.

Stories through music

Cultural history received due acknowledgement at the festival. Ajinai told of traditional party dances in the Mongolian grasslands and of mountain nomads whose songs “are like tears”. Vedan Kolod, a specialist band from Russia, narrated stories from medieval Russsia – one of which tells of a man who boils another for food.

Nading Rhapsody emphasised that their music is an adaptation of their community’s own original music. According to ethnic Sarawakian tradition, it is taboo for local music to be performed for the public. Adaptation is therefore a way to bring a sense of their musical heritage into the world while also pacifying the spirits. In so doing, Nading Rhapsody guarantees the preservation of tradition both in action and in song.

To exhibit their cultural roots, music groups Divu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo from South Africa not only performed on the mhrube, xhosa, nuyungwe-nuyungwe, cowhide drum and kudu horns, but also clothed themselves in handmade costumes and beadwork. It is common for traditional South African musicians to make their own masks, headdresses and beaded neckwear.

A particularly memorable band was German group Annuluk. Lead singer Michaela Holubova sang in a language unknown to nearly everyone in the world. And it is unknown for one reason: it is completely made-up. Annuluk’s music is about “vibration”, says Holubova, and about the “energetic body” of human connection that finds release only in music.

Despite costing RM800,000, the festival failed to attract the large numbers that the organisers had hoped for. One reason could be the rainy weather, which effectively discouraged those who would otherwise pay good money for an entrance ticket. Law admits that the response this year has “not (been) overwhelming”.

But Anne Choon, 53, originally from Ireland but who has lived in Malaysia for the past 20 years, expresses only enthusiasm for this year’s festival. “The Balinese group was so full of spirit. They were so talented,” she says. “You could just imagine buying their CDs and listening to them over and over.” Choon also enjoyed Divu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo; referring to the afternoon workshop before the evening programme, she says, “I got to play the antelope horns!”

Whatever the reviews, it is clear that the musicians benefited from the festival. After the closing performance, they were seen going elsewhere for a postmidnight, cultural toss-up, jamming session.

Perhaps they might just be able to show us the fruits of their newly-found inspirations next year.

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