Sound and vision blog

20 posts categorized "South Asia"

20 December 2022

'Jiune Rahara' / Desire to live

Rahul Giri was one of our Resonations artists-in-residence during 2022. The Resonations artist residency programme is generously supported by the British Council. 

Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. 

In his last blog as artist-in-residence, Rahul gives us some insight into what he has done during the six months of his online residency:

Over the last six months working with the British Library’s sound archive as a Resonations artist-in-residence, I have engaged with various forms of Nepali music that cut across language, culture and geography. My primary focus within this vast archive has been the recordings of the Gandharva community - a wandering musician caste from Nepal.

Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey  in Tarkughat Village  Lamjung  1992
Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey, in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, 1992

Some of the Gandharva recordings I have closely listened to were written against the backdrop of war.

Jiune Rahara’, performed by Lurey Gandharva on voice and sarangi, and recorded by Carol Tingey in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, in 1992, is one such example. The song was most likely written over 200 years ago. It references the time when the Gorkha Kingdom (a hill state in central Nepal) was at war with its neighbouring states. This war was part of an expansion campaign (also known as unification of Nepal) that took place in the 18th and 19th century. It ultimately led to the formation of present-day Nepal.

The song ‘Jiune Rahara’ explores the complex psyche of men preparing to leave for the battlefield. Sung from the perspective of the soldiers, the text juxtaposes themes of faith and fate. The song lyrics narrate how men going to war rely on various practices that are considered auspicious in Nepali culture.

The refrain ‘Jiune Rahara’ which literally translates as ‘the desire to live’ puts things into perspective. It poignantly describes the mindset of the soldiers who are well aware of the realities of war - how the fear of death and the desire to live simultaneously manifest themselves through these rituals and acts of faith.

Reading the lyrics of the song, makes this clear:

Find the auspicious hour, brother, [for us to leave]
We have as blessings the curd and the banana
The desire to live

Consecrated grains of the shali rice
And curd from the mali cow
Give us the tika mark
The desire to live
Brother - we head off to the fields of war

In how many places, brother, were you hit
By musket balls?
How many places, the cut of the khukuri [machete]?
The desire to live
Will you ever come home again?

[Translated into english by Prawin Adhikari]

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while listening to ‘Jiune Rahara’ was how the song could be applied to the lives of present day Nepali migrant workers.

Every year thousands of Nepali men and women travel abroad for employment. They especially travel to Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and others) and Malaysia. Like the soldiers in the song ‘Jiune Rahara’, they are well aware of the trials and tribulations that await them, including the possibility of death. Most of them make this journey out of necessity - out of a desire to live - to escape poverty, to provide for their family or to simply look for a better life.

‘Jiune Rahara’ is part of a larger body of Gandharva songs that explore themes of war through an individual’s perspective. The song is an intersection of art and reportage where loss and longing, hope and fear make way for grander narratives of valour and bravado.

Inspired by ‘Jiune Rahara’s’ approach to dealing with complex themes in such a poetic and effective way, I started thinking about creating a body of work that was based on the experiences of Nepali migrant workers'.

In the early stages of this residency while researching the Gandharva tradition I was also listening to recordings of sarangi with sampling and sound design in mind. Sarangi is the primary instrument of Gandharvas. It is a four stringed fiddle played vertically with a bow. The music producer in me was drawn to the melancholia, granularity and vulnerability in these sound recordings. I was also interested in the dissonance, grit and scrappiness which crept into them every once in a while but was especially audible when musicians tuned their instruments in between songs and conversations.

I asked Rajan Shrestha, a musician and ethnomusicologist from Kathmandu, to send me very basic recordings of sarangi - long drawn notes with no direct connection to the Gandharva compositions.

My initial goal was to create a body of work that used the sound of the sarangi as a building block - to create a varied sonic palette based on the textures, timbres and tonalities of these archival recordings. To do this, I would use various sound design and sampling techniques.

The decision to work with newly made recordings of sarangi was partly out of respect for the Gandharva tradition. It also gave me a lot more freedom as a producer as I was starting from scratch and could manipulate these recordings to match my inclinations.

Over the last few months I have been working towards reimagining and re-contextualizing these recordings - extracting and exploring elements of noise, drone and dissonance to soundtrack aspects of Nepali migrant workers journey. Most of my work with these recordings has coincided with the build up and the culmination of the World Cup in Qatar.

The majority of my work in progress is a response to the reportage around the plight of South Asian migrant workers involved in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.

You can listen to some snippets of my work in progress on Soundcloud.

Some of these sketches include sound design ideas that replicate construction sites - claustrophobic walls of sound that represent the harsh working and living conditions, meditative musical passages that reflect muted optimism and hope that some of the workers have shown in interviews.

As of now these are just fragments, a collection of sketches, audio notes that I hope to build on in the coming months.

12 December 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Acts of protest: Women and the Indian independence movement’

This week’s post comes from Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

The figures of Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru are well-known but we should also remember the many women who were active in the struggle to free India from British rule.  The contributions of female political activists, including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Fatima Jinnah and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, greatly influenced how India’s struggle for freedom was achieved. As leaders, these women significantly changed the course of the independence movement.

When Gandhi encouraged women to join the Satyagraha campaigns, which were campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, many responded to his call. Women from all backgrounds, including poorer and rural communities, were mobilised through the Swadeshi movement in particular. This was part of a drive to boycott foreign goods, especially foreign cloth, and encourage the use of domestic products including home spun cloth. The aim was to regenerate India’s textile industry, which had been destroyed by the British during colonial rule.

The spinning of cloth had always been important for village women as a source of income, so thousands were encouraged to take it up along with the wearing of home-made cloth (khadi). Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, twice-president of the Indian National Congress, describes the importance of these defiant acts for mobilising women: in many ways they marked both the beginning of women’s emancipation in India, and an important progression towards independence from British rule.

Listen to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Download Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit transcript

Pandit also highlights in this clip the famous Salt March in 1930. The British government had introduced a salt tax which doubled the price of salt and made it illegal for Indians to make their own salt. The tax levies had made salt unaffordable for the poorest. Sarojini Naidu led a march to the salt works at Dharasana in 1930 and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay organised a mass raid on the salt fields in Wadala. Even though Chattopadhyay was arrested, her seven year old son and other marchers continued to execute her plan. At her trial she tried to sell salt in the courtroom and even asked the magistrate to quit his position and join the Satyagraha movement! Sadly she was given a nine month prison sentence.

In this oral history interview sourced from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay describes how the salt satyagraha was considered a pivotal moment of new mass participation by women in a national movement:

Even though only a few women were chosen officially to take part in the salt satyagraha with which the Indian revolution opened on the morning of April 6 1930, by sunset that first day it had turned into a mass movement and swept the country. On that memorable day thousands of women    strode down to the sea like proud warriors. But instead of weapons they bore pitchers of clay, brass and copper: and instead of uniforms, the simple    cotton saris of village India […] Women young and old, rich and poor, came tumbling out in their thousands, shaking off the traditional shackles that held them so long.  Valiantly they went forward without a trace of fear and embarrassment. They stood at street corners with little packets of salt, crying out: ‘We have broken the Salt Law and we are free! Who will buy the salt of freedom?’

Taken from the book History of Doing by Radha Kumar (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1993).

In the clip below, Kamaladevi talks about one of the occasions when she was arrested and how she was kept in solitary confinement.

Listen to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Download Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay transcript

Thousands of women participated in the movement by breaking free from tradition and taking part in strikes and marches, picketing shops that sold foreign clothes, and wearing khadi, which became a symbol of Indian nationalism. Some of the leading political figures in the women’s movement were members of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), along with other important organisations like the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). These organisations provided an important platform where the campaigning for women’s rights could be carried out more broadly.

Members of the AIWC, which was established in 1927 by Margaret Cousins, can be seen in the image below taken in 1930. From left to right; Mrs Hamid Ali, Mrs Brijal Nehru, Mrs P.K. Seu, Mrs Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrs Sarojini Naidu, Mrs Hinde-Koper, Mrs Paridoonji, Mrs Margaret Cousins and Mrs Hamsa Mehta. Other prominent members of the AIWC included Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandi, and Muthulakshmi Reddi.

Photo of the Standing Committee of the All India Women's Conference  Bombay  1930

Standing Committee of the All India Women's Conference, Bombay, 1930. Photographer unknown. Taken from The Awakening of Indian Women by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others (Everyman’s Press, Madras, 1939).

To learn more about the role of women you can visit the Voices of Partition website and hear some rare recordings from political activists including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asif Ali.

26 September 2022

Recording of the week: Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

This week’s post comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Photo of Mahatma Gandhi in 1931

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma (‘Great-souled’) Gandhi, led India’s campaign to rid itself of British rule.

In October 1931, during his fifth and final visit to London, Gandhi was invited by the Columbia Gramophone Company to make a record.

Columbia LBE 50 disc label

He declined to speak about politics but offered instead to speak on spiritual matters, in particular Hinduism, which he said was ‘the religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me’.

Listen to the voice of Gandhi

Download Gandhi transcript

Gandhi’s talk had appeared previously in print, in slightly longer form, in his weekly journal Young India (Vol. X, No. 41, Thursday, 11 October 1928) under the title ‘God Is’.

22 August 2022

Recording of the week: Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)

This week’s post comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Photo of Sarojini Naidu in profile

Above: Image from the 1928 edition of The Sceptred Flute: Songs of India (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York), first published in 1917. Photographer unknown.

For this week’s archive selection we present a recording by the Indian poet Sarojini Naidu.

As well as a poet, Naidu was a political activist. She was close to Mahatma Gandhi and joined his campaign of civil resistance against the British occupiers of India. In 1925 Naidu became the first female president of the Indian National Congress, the political party that led the independence movement.

‘Awake (“To India”)’ is taken from a 10” 78 rpm disc issued by the Columbia company. It was recorded and made in the UK, circa December 1931. Naidu would have been in London around this time. With Gandhi, she attended the Second Round Table Conference, which ran from 7 September to 1 December 1931. The three Round Table Conferences of 1930-1932 were convened by the British Government and Indian political leaders to discuss possible changes to the constitution in India.

‘Awake’ (or ‘Awake!’, as it was titled in print) was dedicated to the Muslim leader and eventual founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The poem was recited by Naidu at the end of a public speech to the Indian National Congress, in Bombay (now Mumbai), in December 1915.

It is an appeal to all Indians to unite against British rule.

What is clear only in the published poem is that the final series of exhortations, beginning, ‘Mother!...’ are each attributed to different religious groups. This gives an effect something like a Greek chorus.

The closing lines are credited to ‘All Creeds’.

Photo of Columbia disc label

Above: Columbia LBE 51. British Library ref. 1CS0092386.

Our original disc is not in the best condition, so we offer two versions of the recording. The first version is a ‘warts and all’ archival dubbing.

Listen to Sarojini Naidu - original

Download 'Awake!' transcript

The second version has been - quite dramatically - de-noised through the application of a new machine learning model developed by the Aalto University School of Electrical Engineering.

Note: the model was ‘trained’ using recordings of 78 rpm coarse-groove noise profiles and clean recordings of classical music. So we are not really using it as intended here, given that our disc is spoken word, not music.

Listen to Sarojini Naidu - de-noised

The paper by E. Moliner and V. Välimäki - ‘A two-stage U-Net for high-fidelity denoising of historical recordings’, in Proc. IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing (ICASSP), Singapore, May, 2022, may be of interest to those of a technical bent.

With thanks to Karl Jenkins, Audio Engineer, and Adam Tovell, Head of Technical Services.

12 July 2022

Postcard from Dumre

Rahul Giri is one of our Resonations artists-in-residence alongside Yee I-Lann, whose recently published blog you can read online. Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. In this blog he gives us some insight into the start of his online residency at the British Library:

Dumre, a small town in central Nepal, was where my father was posted as a civil engineer in the late ‘90s. It was also where I spent many of my vacations. While thinking about how to approach the Resonations artist residency, I wanted to find a personal connection. This came through ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey’s field recordings of the Gaine community at Tarkughat village, Lamjung. A village that was less than 30 kilometers from our camp in Dumre.

Photo of gaine musicians in NepalPhoto of Gaines at Tarkughat Village, Lamjung with their instruments (madal, arbajo, sarangi, from left to right) taken by Dr. Carol Tingey, 1992

Carol Tingey’s recordings took me back to my childhood days in and around the hills of Dumre. During my father’s office hours I would leave the camp and wander around, following narrow winding paths up the neighboring hills surrounded by terraced farming plots, where a few huts were dotted here and there. My fear of the unknown was eclipsed by a sense of adventure and curiosity. My walk would almost always end at a cliff overlooking the boisterous Marshyangdi river; the climb down - steep and slippery, and thick with vegetation – was one I never attempted.

On my way back I’d stop at the solitary chia pasal (tea shop) just outside our camp for a bottle of Coca-Cola (charged against my father’s tab) and sometimes an order of wai wai noodles. The radio would always be on and tuned to Radio Nepal, playing mostly folk music and popular songs from Nepali cinema. At British Library Sounds you can listen to a selection of lok geet (folk songs) recorded by Carol Tingey at Gorkha, approximately 40 kilometers east from Dumre.

Every once in a while there were parties at the camp, and meat (maasu), alcohol (rakshi) and maadal (hollow drum) would come out. The staff and their family and friends would sit around the fire and sing songs. Paan ko Paat (Marshyangdi Salala), a hugely popular folk song in Nepal and for the Nepali diaspora, was a regular feature. Paan ko Paat is part of the dohori tradition in which a group of men and women sing back and forth in an improvised conversational format tied together by a set melody and chorus. Dohori songs are generally sung at melas (fairs), weddings and other festivities. The improvised lyrics are filled with flirtatious and suggestive metaphors in hope of courtship. You can listen to a rendition of Paan ko Paat by Gaine musicians recorded by Carol Tingey at British Library Sounds.

A lot of the songs recorded by Carol Tingey, especially the folk songs from Gorkha and Tarkughat, were the soundtrack of my time at Dumre. However it was her recordings of the Gaine tradition that really drew me into this sound archive collection.

The Gaines are a caste of professional musicians who traditionally traveled from village to village performing songs in return for money or food. Their primary instrument is the sarangi, a four string instrument played with a bow, generally accompanied by a madal (hollow drum). They have been referred to as bards, historians and journalists of the pre-radio era owing to the fact that they would sing songs about current affairs, socio-political issues, cautionary tales and events from neighboring villages. Their repertoire includes folklore, karkha (songs of historical heroic praise), mythologies, devotional and seasonal songs. The Gaines, once considered untouchable, also fall into the lowest bracket in terms of economic and social standing.

Though it was not the main focus of her research, Carol Tingey explored the Gaine tradition. First while researching the work and sound recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake. Then later as part of a collaborative postdoctoral research project with musicologist Richard Widdess and musician and ethnomusicologist Gert-Matthias Wegner. Tingey’s own recordings of Gaines in Tarkughat, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, Nepal, made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, document much of the Gaine repertoire.

One example of a tragic ballad can be listened to in Tingey's recording of the song Sarumai Rani. The song, recorded in two parts (listen online to part one and part two), revolves around Sarumai Rani's desire to go to her maiti (parental home). She pleads to Raja, her husband, but he keeps refusing, instead he offers her ‘suna bote choli’, a gold studded blouse.

maiti rajako deshni ho

My home is your country too

fulera gayo kesha ni

aba janchhu mero maiti ko desha

My hair has turned gray (I have gotten old)

Now I want to go to my maiti

After much convincing, Raja finally concedes. Unfortunately Sarumai Rani is bitten by a snake on the way home and dies.

The music and story of Sarumai Rani encapsulates ‘dukha’ or sorrow, an emotion that is synonymous with Gaine music. Perhaps this emotion is a reflection of their social standing as well as the plight of rural and marginalized communities of Nepal.

Growing up in Kathmandu - especially during my late teens - I was always looking outwards. I listened to shortwave radio instead of FM or AM and found great joy in picking up albums from music stores in Kathmandu that sold dubbed cassette tapes of international releases. One of these tapes happened to be Radiohead’s Amnesiac. The album was going to be the building block of my musical journey - as a listener and musician. I was constantly looking for music with a similar emotion, which led me to artists like Sigur Rós and Portishead. The common thread joining them was melancholia, a sense of longing and vulnerability that was despairing and comforting at the same time. This experience is something I found in the music of Gaines.

So when I started thinking about the residency and listening to countless recordings in the sound archive, I found myself looking inwards instead. It wasn’t just a nostalgia-driven search but an attempt to find reference points for my musical landscape. A way to find parallels and make sense of what I do as a musician within the Nepali context.

08 December 2021

Documenting Bengali music in Britain

Written by Val Harding and Julie Begum from the Swadhinata Trust ahead of their British Library event 'Songs of Freedom: Celebrating Fifty Years of Bangladesh' on 16 December 2021.

In 2016 we set up an oral history project at the Swadhinata Trust aiming to document multi-generational experiences of Bengali music in Britain. The Swadhinata Trust is based in East London and is a secular group that works to promote Bengali history and heritage amongst young people. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings that are now available to listen to in British Library Reading Rooms as the 'Bengali music and musicians in the UK Collection' (BL REF C1796).

Swadhinata Trust OrganisationBengali Women and children at Shahid Minar at Altab Ali Park in Tower Hamlets, London, for a trans-national commemoration event © Swadhinata Trust

There has been a South Asian presence in Britain for over 400 years, and music has inevitably played a part in this presence. In the first half of the 20th century lascars and seamen from the north east of India who worked for British owned ships and the Merchant Navy began to settle in London’s East End, the Midlands and Northern cities. The Bangladeshi community of today grew from these roots.

In 1971 the nation of Bangladesh was born after a war of liberation from the rule of West Pakistan, and this year, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of independence. The suppression of Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan was a key trigger in the liberation struggle. The celebration of Bengali language and culture is thus an essential and prominent aspect of Bengali identity in the UK today.

In his interview from our 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection, Mahmudur Rahman Benu tells the story of the troupe of artists he led singing liberation songs in 1971. Like many of the interviews in this collection, it is in English and Bengali language and includes many musical demonstrations.

The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer and songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song 'Jessore Road' - inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s 1971 poem 'September on Jessore Road'. Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971.  Yasmin and Rumana sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort. They describe their experience in this excerpt from an interview:

excerpt of interview with Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair [BL REF C1796/15]

Download Transcript

From the mid-1950s through to the 1970s Bengali migrants to the UK faced many barriers. The late 1970s saw the emergence of community activism to fight racism, and with it, a gradual emergence of music that hitherto had been kept hidden behind closed doors. In her interview, Julie Begum explains how her experience of music started when she was a teenager in London, living in Tower Hamlets in the late 80s and early 90s. She describes how her and her Bengali friends were part of the community around the 'Asian underground sound', going to raves in warehouses where artists such as brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher began to DJ as 'Joi'.

Since then, there has been a prolific growth of music making. Our interviews document migration and musical development in the UK, annual cultural events such as the Boishaki Mela (Spring Festival), music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal, theatre, and the music of the younger generations in the UK and in Bangladesh itself.

These areas are illustrated across various interviews in the collection. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. Present-day interest and innovation from the younger generation is illustrated in the interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta. The sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil talks about his composition of Bengali inspired electronic music. The history of music in Bengal itself is also reflected in the interview with sarod player Somjit Dasgupta.

Bengali music is a broad term that encompasses musical practices in both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Before partition in 1947 this was one region, Bengal, sharing the same language, culture and music. The music of this region includes classical, folk and modern traditions, and notable composers of songs such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kobi Nazrul Islam. Our interviews include those who learn and perform these genres, and even present-day songwriters and composers, and the younger generation who are producing a fusion of music that reflects their Bengali and British backgrounds.

Our aim is to document music in the community and the culture that surrounds music. Our interviews are with community members and community music schools. The more professional and well-known musicians that we have interviewed are musicians working with the community, running classes and teaching, and involved in everyday community music making, such as Himangshu Goswami, Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai, tabla player Yousuf Ali Khan, singer Alaur Rahman, and teachers at the Udichi School of Performing Arts. Some of our interviewees are also people from other South Asian and non-Bengali backgrounds who participate and enjoy Bengali music.

Amongst those interviewed who migrated to this country, either as children or adults, there is often an expression of the hardship of psychological adjustment to living in the UK. For some who were practicing musicians or students of music back in Bangladesh and or India there was a period of time on arrival here when they could not find their voice and found themselves unable to express themselves through singing or music in the way they did back home. The process of overcoming this has been gradual, and only achieved through the encouragement of friends and family. These processes are succinctly expressed in interviews with Alaur Rahman, Moushumi Bhowmik and Nadia Wahhab.

We hope you will enjoy the interviews in the 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection both at the British Library and also at the Swadhinata Trust. Please get in touch as we are always happy to hear from you regarding any aspect of our project.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 March 2021

Recording of the week: A different kind of national anthem

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Flag of Maldives 1926-1953
The flag of the Sultanate of Maldives, as used between 1926 and 1953

When we think of national anthems, we usually have in mind grandiose compositions performed by orchestras or brass bands; epic pieces based on European art music styles such as operas, marches and fanfares accompanying sincere and stirring songs of patriotism. Today’s 'Recording of the Week' is a national anthem with a bit of a difference.

‘Salaamathi’ is the earliest known national anthem of Maldives – the small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was originally an instrumental piece, performed by the Sultan’s band during official and state occasions at the royal palace, accompanied by a seven-gun salute. No-one knows when it was written.

Salaamathi national anthem (BL REF C996/2 BD 2)

This recording of ‘Salaamathi’ is played in its traditional style – no big European orchestra here. Unlike modern anthems, the tune of this version is not set in stone; instead, the player of the flageolet (a type of shawm, a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe) elaborates extensively on the core melody, with many extravagant ornamentations and improvised elements that make each performance unique. This melody is accompanied by a trumpet and two types of double-headed barrel drums, the funa beru and the maana beru. In Maldivian court music, the drum rhythms are often as important as the melody, and can confer meaning all on their own.

The ‘Salaamathi’ was rewritten in 1948, with lyrics and a tune based on ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and eventually replaced altogether with the current anthem, ‘Qaumee Salaam’, which was adopted in 1972. This particular recording is therefore very rare – it is possibly one of only two recordings of the original ‘Salaamathi’ ever made.

The musicians that you can hear are the surviving members of the royal band of the Sultanate of Maldives, recorded in 1979 by Hassan Ahmed Maniku. The Hassan Ahmed Maniku Collection (C996) is made up of 28 recordings by these musicians and includes pieces to accompany martial arts, military parades and official events, as well as to announce curfews and various Islamic calendar events. The Sultanate and its royal court were dissolved in 1968 when the country became a republic, and it is thought that these are the only recordings made of this music – including two versions of the original ‘Salaamathi’.

The music of Maldives is rarely heard on the world stage. With a population of about 500,000 people, its culture is often overlooked in favour of its larger South Asian neighbours. The Hassan Ahmed Maniku Collection is an invaluable resource to shed light on traditional Maldivian culture, including aspects of it that may no longer survive – as well as providing a fascinating look at a national anthem like no other.

Thanks to the Maniku family for their enthusiasm about these recordings and for allowing us to share them in this post.

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