Elijah WaldAsian music pieces
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LLAMO FOLK OPERA

By Elijah Wald

The Lhamo Folk Opera of Tibet gives a performance that connects to the oldest traditions in human art. The names of the dances say it all: Dance of the Sacred Stag, Ritual Dance of the Hunters, Dance of the Beneficent Sun, of the Moon, and of the Stars. It is worship, celebration and theater, deeply Buddhist, but it also harks back to the most primal of beliefs, to the gods of the elements and the spirits of forests and plains. Mixing religious, classical and folk elements, it has the hypnotic grace that is a hallmark of much Asian art. It is also blessed with a liveliness and a down-to-earth earth humor.
Next Thursday, the Lhamo company will give the premier American performance of their current tour celebrating the International Year of Tibet. It is their first visit to the US since 1975.

The company is the official troupe of the Tibetan Institute of the Performing Arts (TIPA) which is based in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. The Dalai Lama. Tibet's traditional ruler and religious leader, moved his government there after the 1959 uprising against the Chinese government. He founded TIPA that year to preserve Tibetan traditional arts, which are being suppressed by Chinese officials.

"We are trying to preserve all these performing traditions and keep them as onginal and authentic as possible." says Ngodup Tsering, the company director, speaking by telephone from a tour stop in Italy. "As far as we're concerned, it is more or less the same as it used to be performed in Tibet. There may have been some adaptations to suit the Western taste, we want it to be more interesting, but at the same time we did not want to compromise with the traditions."

While TIPA is preserving all the perform! ing arts. the touring company specializes in Ache Lhamo. the Tibetan equivalent of European opera. Llamo dates from the 14th century, and is said to have been invented by Thantong Gyalpo, a "maha siddha." or enlightened being, who built a system of iron-chain suspension bridges several of which are still in use.

"The story is that this saint wanted to build bridges across the different nvers in Tibet." says Tsering. "He wanted to do that to propogate Buddhism and since he doesn't have funds, he started this company, getting the best of seven girls, it is said that they are seven sisters. He himself built the drums and cymbals.

"These dancers performed and they were so pretty that the community started calling them like the fairies, the goddesses are themselves dancing. So from that onwards this opera tradition has been flourishing."

The company's Boston performance will include excerpts from several Lhamo operas, but is designed as a general introduction to Tibetan music and dance. "This will be a lot of aspects of Tibetan cultures brought together." says Tsering. "There will be traditional folk dances, religious and monastic dances, and songs in the folk and minstrel traditions. It s actually an introduction to this cultural aspect of Tibet."

Though the company is called the Lhamo Folk Opera, Tsering says that the designation folk" is in part a misnomer. "We have here a conglomeration of different dances." he explains. "We have religious and ceremonial dances and also we have very traditional dances. One or two of these traditional dances can be also called folk dances. But then we also have opera items, opera dances. The opera is a very formal, very distinguished art form. it is not folk culture."

Judging from a video made on their last tour, which includes more than half the current program, the opera excerpts are very different from the other dances. They are clearly theatrical, with recognizable plots and characters.

One piece. "Dance of the Yaks." involves two peasants corralling and milking their yaks. The yaks are danced by pairs of men in elaborate costumes, who roll. buck and shy in an expert and funny imitation of animal movements.

The opera singing is done by men. singing with very high voices in a style vaguely reminiscent of Balkan women's singing, often holding notes to create a bagpipe-like drone. The instrumentation is percussive, featuring drum and cymbals. The religious pieces also use drum and cymbals together with the "dung-chen," a long wooden horn that somewhat resembles the Swiss alpenhorn and a reed instrument called the "suna." The music is not melodic, but it is exactly synchronized with the dances, reflecting every nuance of step and gesture.

The folk dances use string instruments, the hammered dulcimer and the "piwang." a two-string fiddle. This music sounds more familiar. more obviously related to Chinese or other Far-Eastern music. In contrast to the religious music, the folk dances are light and melodious, and the dances have the festive feeling of village celebrations. Other instruments include the "dra-nyen," or Tibetan lute, which was used by the city minstrels of Lhasa, and the transverse flute.

As the instruments change from style to style, so do the costumes. The Lhamo and religious dancers wear dazzling creations of silk and brocade, with ornate masks and headdresses. Some, like the yak costumes and the stag's mask. are explicit representations of natural objects. Others, like the sorcerers' costumes in the Black Hat Dance or the round, yellow smiling face masks for the Dance of Good Luck, are purely symbolic but no less striking.
The folk dances feature traditional peasant dress, less elaborate but no less beautiful than the formal costumes. "We try to make it as authentic as possible." says Tsering. "If they are dancing a dance of one particular region. then we try to make the dress as close to the ones we used to wear in Tibet in that particular event or occasion."

The combination of music, dance and costume provides a multi-faceted show that communicates across cultural boundaries. "We have performed in four or five countnes so far and the people are all so responsive." says Tsering. "It's very simple and gentle music that we have, and they appreciate the music and say it's very melodious and nice to hear to the ears. Some people really went to the extent that they got so moved at the end and they shed tears."

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Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty (India 1997)

By Elijah Wald

Americans, and Westerners in general, have had a problem accepting or understanding Indian classical music. The style received some popular attention in the 1960s, but largely as an odd sound, the jangle of a sitar playing long, drawn-out improvisations that most non-Indians found formless and obscure. Part of the problem is that the music was usually heard through recordings, robbing the listener of the passionate immediacy of a live Indian concert, the thrill of watching a pair of musicians surprise each other with daring improvisations.

Another was that the strange music was mediated by strange instruments, which further distanced Western listeners, even as it fascinated them. To go to the heart of Indian music, one should hear not only the instrumentalists but the singers, something which has rarely been possible. Fortunately, the next weeks bring two fine vocal concerts: Sunday evening, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty and his 17-year-old daughter, Koushiki, are at Harvard's Sackler Auditorium (508/ 468-2289), and on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 2, Laxmi Shankar is at MIT's Wong Auditorium (258-7971).

Chakrabarty, who is both an acclaimed soloist and a member of the music faculty at the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta, is quick to stress the importance of the vocal tradition. "All Indian music is essentially vocal music,'' he says. "Because all the instrumentalists you are listening to in this time, they have all learned by singing. Their gurus start them by singing not by playing. First, you are singing within yourself, and then you are trying to transmit it through your instrument.

"Also, in Indian music, or in any music, you have three important things. One is the rhythm, one is note, melody -- in Indian music this is raga -- and third the lyric. And all these elements together are available only in vocal music.''

Chakrabarty grants that the constraints of delivering a lyric clearly can sometimes limit the ornate improvisation that is so notable in the instrumental soloists, but says that there are ways around this: "When you are doing the ornamental part, you will try a very general type of lyric, and then when you are doing the slower tempo, the alap, then you should have that feeling and the pulse of the composition you are singing.

"Actually, with the vocal you can emphasize more than with instrumental performance, because you have the help of the lyric also. Whereas the instrumentalist can just play, 'da dee dee da da,' I have a lyric, saying 'Where my friend has gone, I don't know. I am trying to find out him.' I can corelate this with the raga "Multani," and that helps you in singing "Multani," which is full of sorrows and pathos.''

Like virtually all Indian classical musicians, Chakrabarty began his studies very young. "My parents used to sing, but not professionally,'' he says. "But they were very keen that I sing music and I started at the age of three, and I have learned from different gurus of different kyal [North Indian singing] styles.''

In particular, he devoted himself to the style of Bade Gulam Ali Khan, perhaps the most respected singer of the previous generation. Chakrabarty explains that Khan, and most of the other great vocalists of his time, were terrified of flying, and because of this refused all offers to tour the West. As a result, their work was overshadowed outside India by the work of instrumentalists like Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, and Ali Akbar Khan.

"Instrumental music started taking the most prestigious place,'' he says. "And then, I must say that the standard of vocalists was a little bit declined. Indian music is essentially a solo music. Your own thinking, your personal contribution is always added with what you have learned and the way you have been taught. And the basic and fundamental education you need, maybe you don't find in everybody in any time.''

The 1950s and '60s, he feels, was an age of instrumentalists, inspired by Ali Akbar Khan's father, Allaudin Khan. However, that generation of virtuoso soloists is leaving few heirs. "Normally our musicians are very much busy with their own performance and they are not much interested in making the next generation,'' he says. "And that is the most important part of Indian music. If you want to be a master [teacher], then you will have to sacrifice your playing or singing. And this is the most difficult job in the Indian music scenario.''

Chakrabarty, though a well-known concert soloists, has devoted most of his time to teaching. He has recently inaugurated a sort of musical elementary school, where some 560 children from 5 to 12 years old are learning the basics of the classical style. He also has a half-dozen close disciples, among whom the most prominent is his daughter Koushiki.

"She is coming to sing with me,'' he says. "And when you will listen to her, you will be able to understand what kind of rigorous practice is necessary, from the very, very early age. I started teaching her at the age of two. Because, if you don't start at a very early age, you will not get the result until you are very old. Rigorous practice of at least 25 to 30 years is needed to become a high standard of performer.''

Koushiki is the first to agree, saying that she does not yet consider herself a mature singer. Nonetheless, at 17, she has already received a number of awards and excellent reviews from India's music press. Though she is shy, and generally responds to interview questions with the fewest possible words, she says she has always wanted to be a professional singer. "From my childhood,'' she says, "I don't have any other subject which I love more than music.''

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PEKING ACROBATS

By Elijah Wald

Hai Ken-Tsai, the producer of the Peking Acrobats, is talking about the change in attitude among young people: "In modern day, everything is done through computers and it's all about thinking. Before, if people would try to get up in the sky, they would put people on their backs and start climbing up. But now, instead of being traditional, instead of having people on their backs trying to get up there, they're thinking, using their brain instead of being physical. ''

Hai has been in the United States since 1973, but his English is still rather shaky, and many of his remarks are translated through his daughter, Patricia. He is speaking from his home in San Diego, from which he goes forth each year or so to visit acrobatic troupes in China and select the performers he and his partner, Don Hughes, will send out on tour. Their latest selection will be on display Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall as part of the BankBoston Celebrity Series (617-266-1200).

Hai says that the Chinese acrobatic tradition reaches back more than 2,000 years. "It's a primitive performing art, it started during probably hunting, gathering, stock-breeding, fighting and doing sacrifices for gods and ancestors. Then they started doing simple imitations for various activities, and then later it was refined and beautified and beautified and they would do it for special occasions. Go to the emperor and perform. Or fairs and carnivals. Pretty much that's how it started.''

Over the centuries, the Chinese developed some of the most sophisticated physical performance styles in the world, and the art has continued to evolve. "Of course, the acrobats are more advanced than before. They take in many things from different cultures, the Europeans, the Americans, they would compare and try to take in some new styles. Like lighting, and fancy the props, and costumes and things like that. But it's still passed down through their tradition.''

Hai says that, in China, many people are doing acts quite similar to those in Western circuses, but he tries to select performers who are doing things that will be novel and surprising to a foreign audience. "I need to look for more tradition acrobat. Not like the high wire, trapeze. This maybe too many in America.''

Every season's touring group is different, but will generally include such Peking Acrobat favorites as the gymnasts who perform intricate feats while balanced on a pyramid of chairs, a trick bicycling act that ends up with a dozen people riding a single bike, and a contortionist who assumes impossible positions while balancing glasses of water on her hands and feet.

Though Hai himself is not a performer, he has been in the Chinese circus world all his life. "My father have circus for many, many years,'' he says. "But I never see him do acrobatics, because I was young, my father very old. I have some acrobatic I can do, but just for play, not special for training.''

Hai instead went into the administrative side of the business, which during his youth was based in Taiwan, and he spent his early life touring all over the world with his father's troupe. In 1982, he and Hughes began the Peking Acrobats, making their first trip to the Chinese mainland to select a touring group out of the thousands of performers in the official city acrobatic companies. "First time was a little bit hard,'' he says. "But now very easy. We just look in maybe two or three states, and we talk to the special government. We tell government we need this and this, and we talk, very simple.''

Since the Chinese Revolution, acrobatics has become a formalized profession, with official schools and companies throughout the country. "Before, was like a family,'' Hai says. "Now have acrobatic schools in every state. It's very few families that go into acrobat -- maybe only in the countryside. Now it's like a summer school, and they go there not just to do acrobatics, they also go to school to learn and get their education as well.''

Hai feels that this new system is in many ways an improvement. "To be acrobat is very difficult. Some people training about five years, not too good, go back home. Maybe these people not for acrobat, but very good for something else. He can go back to school. Because it's all government, not family. Family, they can't say 'You not good, you go home.' Because what doing? He already fifteen years old, maybe he not can go to school. It would just be a problem for society. Now in China, it's all Communist. If you not good at one particular activity, like acrobat, then they send you somewhere else and maybe you make some rockets or something.''

As for Hai's own children, they have shown no interest in becoming circus performers. "All three, nobody like,'' he says, laughing. "Young people little bit changed, think different. Think it's too hard for acrobat. Not easy.''

Still, he has no fear that the art will die out. "There are so many people in China. Maybe some won't be interested, because it's hard work, but there are always some people that like it, that want to be acrobat.''

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CUI JIAN, in concert at Kresge Auditorium, MIT
By Elijah Wald

CAMBRIDGE--For those who do not know him, Cui Jian (pronounced roughly “Tsway Jen”) is the defining rock star of the People’s Republic of China. Sunday night, Kresge Auditorium was full of those who do know him: All but a handful of the people packing the 1,200 seat hall were Chinese, and very volubly so. Indeed, Cui had to fight for his right to give brief translations of his lyrics, pleading with the shouting audience to “Please, let me help everybody to understand.”

Originally a trumpet player in the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, Cui burst out as a singer in 1986, when he appeared at a hundred-singer concert for world peace and entranced the crowd with his moving “Nothing to My Name.” In 1989, he released his first album, “Rock and Roll on the New Long March,” and he has dominated the scene ever since.

Cui has been seen as a voice of Chinese youth, a controversial figure who has somehow maintained a career in the People’s Republic despite being seen as a spokesman for the disenfranchised. The cover of the concert program showed him wearing a red blindfold, recalling the clear symbolism of “A Piece of Red Cloth,” one of his most popular songs. Even for those of us who cannot understand his lyrics, the daring and innovation of his approach is obvious.

Cui is a strong frontman, delivering most of his lyrics in a gruff shout that only occasionally eases into a snatch of melody. Since his first album, Cui has worked with two strong accompanists, and it is they who provide the main musical component: Liu Yuan, another ex-symphony musician, plays alto and baritone sax and several Chinese flutes, while Eddie Luc Lalasoa, from Madagascar but based in Beijing, plays a startling variety of guitar styles, from hardcore to blues to the African acoustic sound of his homeland.

This core trio drove the most famous songs, the anthemic, classic-rock numbers that have led Cui to be dubbed the Chinese Bruce Springsteen and that had the audience on its feet and singing. The surprise of the concert, though, at least for those who have not kept up with Cui since his last visit four years ago, was new drummer Bei Bei. The youngest band member, he not only provided a hot, pounding foundation, but also stepped forward on two songs and proved himself an impressively adept rapper. Cui would deliver the main verse, his passionate shout introducing Bei Bei’s easy, loping flow, and the result was both startling and surprisingly natural.

By the end of the concert, the whole crowd was yelling, dancing and singing, and the encore was a foregone conclusion. After another high-powered rave-up, Cui finished with the evening’s most sweetly melodic song, “Flower House Girl,” including a lovely alto sax solo during which he took the bouquets given him by fans and distributed them among his band members. The crowd was still not ready to leave, and the band returned for a quick snatch of a cappella singing, then exited, followed by a crowd of autograph-seekers lining up at the backstage door.