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The tears, the ecstasy, the surrender…goodbye Melbourne Festival

Come tomorrow, another Melbourne Festival will be over. And as festival programs go into the recycling bin, all those memories of shows are either stowed away in the minds of those who saw them, or blow away into the ether. Here’s what I’m going to try to hang onto:

1. The strange experience of the Manganyar Seduction – a troupe of moustachioed men from the desert cities of Rajasthan, India, appearing and disappearing from behind the red velvet curtains of their individual boxes, stacked on top of each other four stories high, like the apartment block of a wild dream. Globes surrounding each box, in the way of a backstage mirror, lighting up when it was the inhabitant’s turn to draw aside his curtain and play his instrument or sing. The singers of the troupe sitting cross-legged yet bringing the whole of their bodies to their singing. I remembered a friend who plays Indian classical music telling me that in Indian culture, the voice is foremost in the hierarchy of instruments and all music – the raga repertoire – is taught through singing. When a number of the moustachioed Manganyar musicians sang simultaneously,  their arms imploring the very air to carry their message forth, the effect was…well, it was…let me tell it this way…The performance began simply and quietly with a man playing a lute. Somehow, sometime later, I found myself dabbing at the tears in my eyes, wondering where they had come from and how the music had managed to get past my mind’s defences to take hold of my heart and squeeze it in a way that was divine and kind of excruciating.

Later I discovered this was the normal response to the Manganyar musicians. “I’ve just come from seeing The Manganyar Seduction,” I said to a friend later that night. “Oh, I saw them last night…they made me cry!” she said. There were reports of two other weeping women. They made all the girls cry, apparently. And I thought I was special (sigh). “That’s the power of music,” said a  musician acquaintance when I told him of my experience of the Manganyars. He related going to see the late Pakistani musician, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and weeping the whole way through the performance from the moment the great singer opened his mouth. “I just had to surrender,” he said. With the word ‘surrender’ I had a vision of  floating down a river, with the powerful voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan both the sun on my face and the water beneath, holding me.

2. Konono No.1 is a band of musicians from Congo, who play electrified likembé (like an mbira or thumb piano), congas and drums made out of found bits and pieces. The electric likembé is slightly distorted, giving it a dirtier sound than the acoustic version. The percussion and bass sound (also provided by a likembé) provide a relentless groove, which voices and the likembés slice into. They sound like this:

There was something just a little bit perfect about a band with such an authentic and homemade groove playing under the fake stars of the Forum Theatre, with its fake Greco-Roman statues striking poses from the sidelines. The capacity crowd drew together an unlikely alliance of African/world music aficionados and people into noise or found sound, who were attracted by Konono No.1’s improvised, junkyard approach to music-making.

The rhythms made themselves at home and soon enough bodies were moving, including my own. As I scanned the crowd and said hellos, I realised that there were many people at the gig who I hadn’t seen for a while and that African music and dance was as much a part of the 90s for me as raves and riot grrrls. It belonged to my starry-eyed youth and the two-year London stint, riding the length of the Northern line of the Tube every Monday night for an African dance and drumming class in Stockwell. The dancing contingent was taught by Norman, whose body in motion, it has to be said, was well worth crossing town for.  For the return journey, even the unsettling light of The Tube couldn’t shake my good mood,  sated as I was, with thighs that felt as solid as tree trunks and polyrhythms clashing amiably in my head.

3. Alwan was not part of the Melbourne Festival but was my third experience of the potential of music to induce ecstatic trance within the festival’s duration. Alwan is a trio playing Middle-Eastern music and they play every Thursday night at Claypots, a bar/restaurant in St Kilda, which for the benefit of non-Melburnians, is on the south-side of the Yarra River and therefore, to me, a north-sider, might as well be on another planet. Take the south-side women, for example. The women who come to this gig are of a more bohemian bent than their other south-side sisters, so rather than having shoulder-length, straightened, blonde hair with honey highlights, they have long, wavy blonde hair with honey highlights. They wear long dresses  and kind of look like Stevie Nicks if she’s just come from the manicurist. They make every north-side girl feel like Virginia Woolf – cerebral, bookish, pallid and depressive.*

My friend, M., plays the darbukka, and the other two musicians between them play oud, accordion, darbukka, tambourine and those crazy horns of snake-charmers that are the hallmark of Middle-Eastern music as “exotic” to Western ears. The bar is fairly small and every time I go there, the gig begins sedately enough, with a few people sitting politely chatting. I always think ‘Tonight it’s going to be a fairly quiet one’ so by the end, I’m always surprised when people young and old, both men and women, are up dancing in the little space available to them, inches away from the musicians, among the spilled wine and the ground glass that has inevitably been swept off a table by the whirling long skirt of a Stevie Nicks lookalike somewhere along the line. The other night, there must have been some special fairy dust in the air because the south-side dancers were really going nuts and the musicians had to lean in close to each other to avoid getting knocked out.

As the drumming reached a crescendo while not one but two of the crazy snake-charmer horns blasted through the night air, one particularly enthusiastic south-side woman shimmied down her boyfriend’s body until her head was level with his groin. The north-side Virginia Woolfs quickly turned away, tssking and tittering nervously. But the couple putting on the soft-porn floorshow were not the only dancers who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. There was the young man who comes every week and belly dances. There was an older Turkish man who looked like a philosopher. There was the ubiquitous creepy drunk guy. There was a 50-ish sexy woman (long, blonde wavy hair) in tight jeans and tight facial skin (“Botox?”, the VWs speculated) and her beautiful daughter whose long hair emitted wafts of perfume as she danced. There was the guy on his haunches by the door, who’d spied the oud player’s darbukka and slyly began to join in on the drumming, much to M.’s chagrin. “He’s like the naughty kid who knows he’s meant to be in bed,” was  A.’s laser-accurate comment. After the gig, it was like Cinderella’s coach disappearing at midnight how quickly the ecstatic dancers disappeared, leaving only the musicians to laugh about what had just transpired and the bar staff to sweep up the broken glass. “It’s amazing,” M.’s girlfriend said. “I don’t know how he plays. Every week there’s some woman’s gyrating bum in his face.” Ah yes, the euphoria of music. You do just have to surrender.

*May contain traces of gross generalisation

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