San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) this year has a lineup coming up soon that pays homage to the collaborative performing spirit, with artists from India, China, and non-Indians playing Hindustani music sharing the stage. (Browse through this issue to read more about the dance events at the festival.)
Festival director Andrew Wood underscored why international collaboration was a conscious choice, saying, “Some people in other parts of the country may want to cloak themselves in a veil of intolerance, but we are different. San Francisco will lead by example and continue to embrace the people of the world. We invite all those who want to share in these sentiments and who still believe in America’s multicultural promise to join us for an occasion that is powerful, provocative, and beautiful.”
Melody of China, comprising musicians of Chinese-origin, views a collaboration with Indian-origin Swapan Chaudhuri as an opportunity to strengthen its contemporary arts focus while branching out to include other forms of traditional music. “Indian music has increasable rhythm, beautiful melody, and is very spiritual,” said Artistic Director Yangqin Zhao, who plays the hammered dulcimer.
Chaudhuri has always been struck by the similarities between other Asian melodies to Indian ones. “I first noticed it in 2000, when I was accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar, and then again last year, when I was playing in Japan. During rehearsals, they kept coming back to a scale that I realized was very similar to the Indian raag Bhupali.” He played it for them and there were astonished conversations after that. He experimented with the newly crafted Indo-Japanese sound with the ensemble at the School of Music where he teaches at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia.
The collaboration with Melody of China at SFIAF seemed like a perfect opportunity to extend musically into China and shape new tonal harmonies. While Chaudhuri will be playing an original composition, he cannot quite describe it, since it will come together as an improvised piece onstage. “The music will take care of you once you surrender to it,” he describes, “much like riyaaz (practice). I always tell my students, don’t “use” it, give it love, and you will get a lot back. There is no start and end. It’s never-ending. Once you surrender, you sense a special power.”
The multicultural, harmonizing vibe of the festival this year is not new to Chaudhuri; he remembers fondly the time he worked with Stevie Wonder on the album A Time to Love. The album has some brilliant percussion from all over the world, with the table rhythms being clearly discernible.
The presentation aims at bridging the gap between contemporary arts and traditional music as well. Artists also include Melody of China’s own Gangqin Zhao on Guzheng (zither, vocal), Wanpeng Guo on Sheng (mouth organ), Shenshen Zhang on Pipa (lute) and Xian Lu on Dizi (bamboo flutes). The concert will also feature the world premiere of a new piece, “Opera 4 x 4” in the style of Beijing Opera by Gang Situ with Melody of China and guest cellist Kevin Yu.
SFIAF has another event featuring Indian music with Matthew Montfort (known for his scalloped fretboard guitar) and Habib Khan (on the sitar). They too, are planning to surrender to music onstage. Montfort explains, “I really don’t know exactly what we will be playing yet as that will be determined by the muse. Pandit Habib Khan and I have quite a bit of repertoire that we have performed over the years, but we tend to make up new material onstage. I love working that way because it keeps things fresh!”
The scalloped fretboard guitar was constructed by Montfort and is influenced by both the veena and the sitar. He uses string bending techniques that are similar to those used on the sitar. But the guitar has the ability to play up chords of up to six notes. A guitar-sitar jugalbandi is exciting because it expands the territory of each instrument. For example, the sitarist has the opportunity to explore playing chords if so inspired, and for the guitarist, the challenge will be in matching them. The two artists have recorded five albums together. Ferhan Qureshi will accompany them on the tabla at the festival.
Montfort sees this performance as poignant in the context of Hindustani music tradition and the political climate today. He believes that some of the greatest successes in world fusion music right now are outgrowths of Hindustani music. He thinks the tradition is future-proofed internationally; but also in part by the fact that it accepts performers who were not born into it, such as himself.
However, he says, “Society’s commitment to support the arts has continued to erode, and so the future of virtuoso level music is in jeopardy. This is exacerbated by the current political environment, which is more toxic than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. World fusion music can be part of the solution to humanity’s problems. There is a lot of work to do to get things on a better path.”
8 p.m. Thursday, June 1
Ancient Future Guitar-Sitar jugalbandi
7 p.m. Sunday, June 4
Melody of China www. sfiaf.org
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.