Louisville Arabic Orchestra

New York Arabic Orchestra

I like the sound of that.  Amidst all the hustle and bustle surrounding recent events with the Louisville Orchestra and Kentucky Opera (which likely won’t have an orchestra for their next production) and with the Louisville Bach Society‘s finally closing shop this past May, things are looking grim for large scale music/arts organizations.

But this isn’t going to be a post about the doom and gloom locally, but one about something I’ve been thinking about for some time: a large scale non-Western organization.  I don’t know if I would want to end up calling this an “Arabic Orchestra” and solely focusing on art music from that region, but it’s a placeholder for now.  What Id ideally like to see is a truly international ensemble which focuses on art musics from all around the world.  Similar to the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra or the MESTO Orchestra I’ve talked about in past posts (though on an even bigger scale).

An Arabic Orchestra seems natural given most of my association with folks throughout the US who are interested in music from that part of the world but also because of how quickly ensembles like this are growing and emerging throughout the US.  But mostly because I’ve recently tapped into a local population of musicians who might be able to populate such a group.

Sadly, organizations like the League of American Orchestras and the infrastructure of the arts in the US is generally Eurocentric (for good and ill) which makes almost all such endeavors rely on very local and grassroots level.  But seeing how much the Michigan Arab Orchestra and the New York Arabic Orchestra have expanded their reach and/or shifted their operational models on how the typically Eurocentric ensembles work, it is encouraging to see that some of that infrastructure can also be useful.

Of course, a full scale orchestra is a discussion for later.  Right now I and some of my cohorts in Ahel El Nagam want to get a regular Middle Eastern music meetup going where we can start to draw in the local musicians who already play in these traditions or just musicians that would love to learn more about it.  While this picks up I will be sorting through different logistic/economic factors and talking and reseraching A LOT with the folks who are currently running ensembles/orchestras like this in the US (e.g. Bassam Saba, Michael Ibrahim, George Boolos, Scott Marcus, Ali Jihad Racy) or educational resources for this music, and connecting with the more local/regional talent (e.g. Members of Salaam in Bloomington, IN; George Wakim in Lexington, KY) in ways so that we can maximize potential.

Until then, all I can do is watch what is happening here and help how little I can with the resources I do have.

I’m a drum soloist…?

Jon Silpayamanant with Raks Makam, Sabah (director of the Bellydance Superstars) and members of Crescent Moon Dance after our performance in Louisville during the Club Bellydance tour

So I’ve technically done my first drum solo now.  Sure I’ve drummed for dancers for years and have played for who knows how many dancers, but tonight (or technically, last night) I’ve performed my first honest to goodness drum solo.  Sure, I’ve been in settings where I’ve played back up for another drum soloist (and I understand that the idea of a ‘drum solo’ can be confusing when it can include more than one musician and/or dancers, but indulge me for a bit) and have drummed ‘solo’ in workshop settings for dancers playing rhythms as a teaching tool for workshop attendees.

But never as a soloist in a performative setting.

The biggest irony here is that the many years of playing drums included mainly playing Egyptian tabla or other Middle Eastern drums for mostly bellydancers (the occasional gig playing with Greek bands or my Balkan band, Kermes for Greek folk dancers and Balkan folk dancers notwithstanding).  What is ironic is that my first drum solo happened to be on the doira, for Uzbek dance.  And it looks like most of my drum soloing will include many more Central Asian styles–the next piece that Raks Makam will be working on is a Bukharan doira solo.  I’m stoked for this and so looking forward to learning more about all this wonderful Central Asian music!

Most importantly, I just love working so closely with dancers.  Really I love working with any collaborators in general, but especially non-musicians, and most especially with artists in an art form that is so closely tied to music as dance is.

Being a soloist (musician) means a couple of obvious things.  No one else is responsible for learning the music but me, which means that while I have no one getting in the way of picking up a new tune.  The other thing is I also have no one else to rely on if things go awry musically.  I’ll trade the one pressure for the other in a heartbeat!

Ok, I must get some sleep before heading up to Chicago to play some Klingon music!

Playing without music and improvising

Jon Silpayamanant playing with the Eastern Caravan Group at Cafe D'Jango in Bloomington, Indiana (Sep 4, 2011)

So last night I had the opportunity to perform with the Eastern Caravan Group in Bloomington, Indiana.  I was sent a handful of sheet music to work with just a couple days ago, but ironically I ended up using practically none of them.  I was initially just invited to perform whatever I was comfortable with from the music sent but as soon as I heard a tune announced that I knew (albeit, in a completely different key) I reached for my cello and looked at Shahyar Daneshgar (the de facto leader of the esnemble) and he just nodded and smiled.

So what was supposed to be a small guest appearance with the group by me ended up with me playing the whole evening (minus the first couple of tunes) with the group.  And it was an absolute blast.  The two or three tunes the group played that I did know were all in different key areas than I had learned or performed and the arrangements were completely different but that hardly mattered to me, apparently, as I seemed to have no problems transposing the melodies to the new tonal areas without much effort (which actually surprised me, even).  And as Shahyar Müellim had, in our initial correspondence, wanted me to play more in the bass range, I was also transposing down two octaves.

The whole evening was like that with the exception of a popular Azeri dance tune we played for one of my partners in Raks Makam who happened to be able to make the show.  I was alternating between playing bass function (when chordal harmonies were somewhat implied) and playing the melodies (by ear and in real time) down two or three octaves.  The gel holding the two alternating functions together were improvisational transitions or elaboration/ornamentation of the bass or melody line.

Continue reading “Playing without music and improvising”

on playing music from Central Asia…

Jessica and Taletha of Raks Makam dancing a Persian Dance at WorldFest in Louisville with the Crescent Moon Dancers (September 5, 2009). photo by Jon Silpayamanant

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a meeting with my partner, Jessica, for Raks Makam.  This comes on the tail end of me performing a fully fleshed out version of Kor Arab (otherwise known as Kor Ərəbin Mahnısı).  I had performed an excerpt of this within the context of a longer collage piece with one of my other dance/music duets, Secondhand, but had only worked out a version for solo cello and voice for Friday’s Terrabeat Cultural Showcase.

I’ve done a number of tunes from Central Asia with il Troubadore and Ahel El Nagam, but in those cases the tunes were either as an extension of Middle Eastern tunes for bellydancers, or Persian Pop (e.g. Googoosh).  Since Raks Makam is a project that focuses specifically on music and dance from Central Asia and the Silk Road, the material will be focusing more specifically on traditional and art music from those regions. 

Kor Arab fits in very nicely for a number of reasons.  First, it is a song written by Fikret Amirov, an Azerbaijani composer who was trained in the Soviet tradition as well as in the indigenous tradition of Mugham.  Second, the tune is, for all intents and purposes, a Mugham song.  The most recent recording of it (and the first I had the chance to hear several years ago) was by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project.  It was sung by Alim Qasimov who is a master within the Mugham tradition in Azerbaijan.  The liner notes for the CD, “Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon,” says:

For the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their years of conservatory training into serious question.  As they delved into the mugham, they each wondered, “If this is how music should be played what have I been doing all these years?”

Really, that’s a question I ask of myself when I hear music from anywhere!

The obvious difficulty with working up solo versions of this music is distilling the music into two voices (voice/melody or voice/drum) rather than having at least three (voice/melody/drum).  One of the reasons for meeting with Jessica was to talk about our options.

Continue reading “on playing music from Central Asia…”

Keep Louisville Weird with Thai-singing Klingon Cellists!

Jon Silpayamanant as j'onn, the Klingon Cellist, during a show at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis), March 2011

So a couple days ago I was actually asked to play an upcoming event, the Terrabeat Showcase, that is going to “feature local ‘worldbeat’/cultural musicians from the city’s immigrant communities who are not yet fully integrated into Louisville’s mainstream music scene so that worldbeats influence in Louisville can be enhanced.”  Some of the other ethnic musicians to be featured will be Indian, Somali and Bhutanese immigrants.  I supposed I’ll be representing the Thai and, um, Klingon ethnic groups?

As I’ve been doing more solo cello as well as music/dance related duets lately, it’s only natural (I suppose) that I *ahem* boldly go where no cellist has gone before.  Not that this would necessarily be much of a stretch for me.  I already sing in Thai (and Klingon plus a few dozen other languages) while playing cello (and other instruments, such as dumbek).  I already have a huge untapped reservoir of material to use and styles to combine (though I’m not sure how I would incorporate beating amplified sheet metal through effects pedals into this show–though I could totally see Klingons doing this kind of thing).

Point is, it’s always nice to not have to rely on the schedules and limitations of others, especially when experimenting with new things.  I still have yet to fully develop Klingon Music theory given the existing canonic (and not so canonic) material, though that is still [yet] another work in progress.  And while I don’t often sing in Thai (just not that much opportunity for that yet, or rather not enough time to develop that) the first tunes I ever learned how to sing were Thai songs, and I still occasionally sing them when the need hits.

Jon Silpayamanant singing a Thai Classical Chant for Kristi Renee who is doing a fusion dance with Thai Fan Leb (fingernail dance) and Bellydance. Kira's Oasis (Dayton), January 2007.

But the idea of showcasing ethnic music (whether dressed as a Klingon or not) just appeals to me, and as my mother often tells me when she wants me to look for Thai movies and/or music or her, sometimes I just get tired of hearing the English language.  And more ethnics [sic] need to play out if only so that local communities don’t get a false sense of what’s actually out there in their [local] worlds.

And with a little luck, folks that perform can be what’s called in psychology, disinhibitory contagion.  This is a robust psychological phenomenon where folks who would generally follow the pack, because of whatever psychological rationalization they have made, do something that they really wanted to do after having experienced someone else going against the grain.

We sometimes see the negative side of this thing as when a high profiled (in the media) suicide coincides with a sharp spike in suicides by folks who somehow identified closely with the media personality.  But I think the positive side of this is to have more and more folks, who don’t normally play Western music (whether Classical or Pop) decide that it’s really OK for them to get out their sitars, koras, tablas, ouds, kavals, or whatever instrument from the homeland and get their funk on.

And from my own experience (which is considerable as I’m active playing in or working with 1) Balkan Band, 2) Klezmer Band, 3) World Music Ensemble, 4) Greek Musicians, 5) Central Asian dance/music project, 6) tabla/cello Indian/Middles Eastern Fusion project, etc.) Caucasian Americans are getting just as interested in this new music.

Jon Silpayamanant and Maja Radovanlija playing Balkan music in Kermes at the Runcible Spoon Gypsy Market (Bloomington), October 2010

Let’s face it, you can go anywhere to see a Symphony (though that might be getting rarer these days) Orchestra, or a cover band playing top 40 hits, or an original band singing in English and playing in an Anglo-American rock style, right?  And that’s the stuff that permeates the normal radio and other traditional media outlets.  How many Beatles cover bands do we need anyway?

Anyway, I’ll be developing a show for this and I suspect it will be something completely different than all the other things I do–or rather, it might be something that completely melds everything else I do!