Live!Singapore: June 8-11, 2010
The question of jazz's identity has never been voiced more loudly than today. The almost tiresome question "What is jazz?" divides opinion but never renders a winner in the debate. The panel discussion on World Music, "Reflecting on the Past and Shaping the Future" revealed similar headaches in defining the catchall phrase "world music," and thankfully the panelists declined to do so. This was perhaps largely due to an insightful and educational power-point presentation and speech by former international world music consultant and KCRW, NPR broadcaster Tom Schnabel, who gave the audience a potted history of world music and covered pretty much all the bases, right up to the once unlikely scenario of a present day Broadway play celebrating the life and music of Fela Ransome Kuti. What next? Louis Armstrong On Ice? Charlie Parker in the West End?
A series of Big Picture Sessions got to grips with important issues affecting the performing arts, and the broad range of themes covered music rights and royalties, online marketing, culture, politics and economic life in the arts funding landscape, as well as artist management and the agency world. Similarly, pitch sessions allowed promoters to reach an interested audience in intimate surroundings. With so much going on, not to mention a significant amount of networking, (business cards were changing hands faster than dollar bills at a racecourse) it was impossible to catch all the showcase performances. With the exception of Youn Sun Nah, all the music showcased on the final day was world music. There were several notable performances, though some coincided with Big Picture Sessions and a fair amount of business that was being conducted in the trade fair hall.
Two excellent performances were on show in the main hall just prior to the Jazz and World Music Festivals and Promoters Programming Round Table. First up was Korean percussion group Gong Myoung, which gave an energetic performance laced with imagination and humor. Japanese and Korean percussion groups seem to be almost as common as the ubiquitous Irish dance troupes that have done such great business in the last fifteen years or more, but Gong Myoung is quite unlike any other percussion ensemble. Although the time constraints of the showcase limited what they were able to perform, in other settings the quartet employs instruments from around the world, from the didgeridoo to the cajon, as well as incorporating vocals, acoustic guitar, and on occasion, strings into their setup.
The set comprised several strongly contrasting pieces. Exhilarating, the dialog between four hour-glass-shaped janggu drums. These drums are made from paulownia wood and the skin is made from white horse leather. The drum is played with both hands, the right maintaining a rhythm with a drumstick stick while the left hand moves a flexible stick in a blur from left to right striking both heads. With four different rhythms going at once and oscillating all the time it made for fascinating viewing as well as listening. A wonderfully comedic piece featuring instruments made on stage using found objects produced a flute from a piece of plastic tubing which required holes to be drilled into it, and a plastic water container which sent water spraying as it was banged with vigor. A woman was brought up on stage and she danced gamely to the rhythms before the quartet dismounted the stage and proceeded to walk and play among the audience, reviving memories of the Sun Ra Arkestra in the process.
Another outstanding piece entitled "GongMyoungYooHee" saw each of the four musicians hitting a wooden resonating box with different size cuts of bamboo, again raising and lowering the tempo, creating lush harmonies and reaching a spectacular crescendo. This is music which forges a link between traditional Korean music and modern innovationtruly progressive music. On the evidence of just fifteen minutes it is not difficult to see why Gong Myoung has been in-demand for tours and at festivals around the world since its formation in '97, including the legendary SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
Following straight on the heels of Gong Myoung was Irish fiddle virtuoso Frankie Gavin and De Dannan. In a nation which produces fine fiddlers as readily as Scotland produces fine malt whiskies, Gavin is considered to be one of the very best. Formed as far back as '75, De Dannan has undergone numerous lineup changes over the years, with Gavin the sole original member. What is usually a quartet was reduced to a trio as two members were unable to attend. Nevertheless, the combination of fiddle, Barry Cunningham on bodhran and Mike Gavin on acoustic guitar combined to stir up a few lively jigs and reels which lacked only a bit of Irish dancing to spark musicians and audience alike in common purpose.