Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: An Introduction

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan. We start off with an overview of this fascinating topic.

If you were to travel to the islands of Java or Bali, you would very likely encounter the music of the gamelan, an ensemble of traditional instruments for which Indonesia is famous. There are numerous types of gamelan ensembles found across this diverse archipelago. Each has its own instrumentation, associated musical style, tuning, and cultural context. The Javanese gamelan tradition was cultivated in the palaces of Central Java as early as the second century CE. Because of its historical connection to the royal courts and their patronage, the music has developed into a highly refined art form and, like the classical music of Europe, has come to carry great cultural prestige.

The instruments of the Javanese gamelan ensemble at Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego. Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Most of the instruments of the gamelan are struck idiophones, a class of instruments that produce sound when the primary material of the instrument itself vibrates. They are made of hand-forged bronze, suspended on wooden frames. The gamelan ensemble can also include drums, stringed instruments, and wooden xylophones. All pieces of the ensemble are ornately decorated with hand-carved designs and shimmering gold paint.

The instruments of the gamelan can be divided into three families: balungan instruments, punctuating instruments, and elaborating instruments.

The balungan instruments—the saron, the demung, the peking, and the slenthem—carry the melodic lines. For these, players strike the instrument’s bronze bars with a mallet while dampening with their other hand to control the length of each note. Balungan in Indonesian means “skeleton,” which reveals a powerful perspective on how Indonesians perceive melody. A skeleton holds our body’s structure but is not seen from the outside. Similarly, a balungan melody should be strong but subtle. As with our bones, it should not be prominent. 

The ornately carved gong stand at the Kraton Yogyakarta (Royal Palace of Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia). Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Unlike Western art music, which tends to be linear, gamelan music is cyclical, or colotomic. Colotomic time cycles are marked by the second family of instruments, the punctuating instruments. Most important in this family, and in the ensemble as a whole, is the largest gong, the gong ageng. It marks the beginning/ending of each cycle and is thought to hold the spirit of the gamelan, reflecting the strong mysticism that Javanese people still hold today. The gong ageng and the kempul, which are smaller gongs, are hung from wooden frames and struck in the center with a padded mallet.

The kenong, kethuk, and kempyang are sets of inverted pots that are supported by rope in wooden frames. All three instruments are played by one musician, who uses two mallets, one in each hand. The kendang, or drum, punctuates the time cycles and is considered the leader of the ensemble. Much like a conductor in a western orchestra, the kendang player navigates the musicians through tempo changes, starts and stops, and accentuates other collaborative art forms such as tari (dance) and wayang kulit (shadow puppets). All of the punctuating instruments help in marking time in the gong cycle.

The third family, the elaborating instruments, help add shape and movement to a piece, as well as anticipate where the balungan line is headed next. In so doing, these instruments—each following its own special rules of elaboration—play what is known as an “inner melody” to the balungan line. There are many elaborating instruments in the Javanese gamelan ensemble, including a two-string bowed fiddle called a rebab, a zither called a siter, a wooden xylophone called a gambang, a bronze metallophone called a gendèr, and a row of small bronze pots suspended over a wooden frame called a bonang. Vocalists are also included in this group. Each elaborating instrument follows its own special rules of ornamentation.

Central Javanese gamelan music uses two scales: pelog, which consists of seven notes, and slendro, which has five. The two scales are performed on separate sets of instruments, and gamelan ensembles may have one or both sets. There is no strictly prescribed tuning for either scale. The concept of laras, or how the scale should sound, was historically both subjective and protected, a choice based on aesthetic differences from village to village. This means that different gamelans using the “same” scale might have distinct root pitches, and the intervals between any two notes in the scale might vary, minutely or substantially, creating subtle differences in the mood or feeling of the music.

As in other elite musical traditions, the various instruments of the Central Javanese gamelan embody fascinating differences in construction, timbre, and performance methods. Learn more about the individual instruments as we add profiles of each in this ongoing series.

 

Kristina Cunningham: Teaching Ballet Folklorico in San Diego Schools

The Center for World Music is thrilled to welcome Kristina Cunningham to the roster of talented teaching artists in our World Music in the Schools program. She is currently sharing the beauty of ballet folklorico with students at Monarch School, a program funded by the Jason Mraz and Macy’s Foundations.

Kristina is a first-generation American of Mexican descent. She first experienced ballet folklorico while attending a rehearsal at her neighborhood church in Barrio Logan at the age of three. Even then, she was mesmerized by the dancers, and soon began lessons with Ballet Folklorico de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. She continued studying and performing with this same troupe all through grade school. During college, Kristina expanded her repertoire by extensively studying West African dance, hip-hop, ballet, and modern dance.

Kristina Cunningham. Photo by Sue Brenner Photography.

Kristina is currently the Director of DanzArts Children’s Academy, a division of DanzArts, a non-profit dance school based in Liberty Station. She has also served as principal dancer for over 10 years with DanzArts Sabor Mexico Dance Co, where she has performed at Southern California venues including Copley Symphony Hall, Balboa Theater, and Cerritos Performing Arts Center. In addition, she performs annually with Grammy-nominated Mariachi Sol de Mexico. She continues to refine her craft by training with folklorico masters, including Joel Gutierrez, and attending master artist workshops such as Danzantes Unidos.

Kristina truly loves teaching dance to the youth in our community. Her own children are currently studying ballet folklorico and Spanish flamenco and she is proud to often have them share the stage with her.

Kristina brings decades of dance experience and expertise to San Diego school students through World Music in the Schools. The joy she brings to children’s faces as they learn ballet folklorico is unforgettable. Please help us welcome her to the Center for World Music.

The Dan Trahn and Vietnamese History

Vietnamese history, culture, and values live within the form and function of the dan tranh, a wooden zither with sixteen strings. Its musical traditions reflect the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Vietnam, reflecting Vietnam’s relationship with China and its cultural values.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Structure and Symbolism

The dan tranh has a curved top plate and a flat bottom plate with a sound hole. Together, they represent the ancient Vietnamese concept of the curved heavens and flat earth in harmony. Some scholars believe this symbolic shape migrated from China during one of its occupations of Vietnam, citing Confucian influence and similarities to the Chinese instrument called the zheng. Others believe this interpretation is a part of a broader tendency for Confucian scholars in Vietnam to attribute Vietnamese innovations to their northern neighbors.

Playing

Each string passes over a fixed bridge as well as a moveable bridge that players can position to tune the string. While playing, instrumentalists use their left hand to control the tension of the strings, often to create smooth pitch bends, and they pluck the strings with their right hand. Some players use their fingernails, but others choose to wear picks, typically made of ivory, hawksbill, turtle shell, plastic, brass, or steel.

Origins and Traditions

Archaeological evidence points to the first ancestor of the dan tranh being an instrument found in Van Phuc pagoda, dating to 1057. In the late middle ages, the dan tranh made its way into court music ensembles and was featured at royal banquets, theaters, dance performances, and other forms of entertainment. In the mid-sixteenth century, when Vietnam split into two political factions—the northern Trinh Lords and the southern Nguyen Lords—conventions of court music split with them into two traditions: hat cua quyen in the north and teh nhac Hue in the south.

Dan tranh also played a notable role in folk music, appearing in the phuong bat am (ensemble with eight sounds) for religious rituals, funerals, and other ceremonies. Music as a profession was widely frowned upon in Vietnam until the twentieth century, so there were very few professional dan tranh players. Most performers were tradesmen or nobles who did not need to work for money. Music was typically considered an expression of personal emotion. For this reason, performances tended towards intimate gatherings and small crowds instead of large concerts.

Confucianism and Nationalism

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the dan tranh became a symbol of a broader nationalistic reaction to French imperialism. The Nguyen Dynasty adopted an anti-western cultural agenda that included the expansion in Vietnam of Confucian influence, which had previously been frowned upon. For the dan tranh, this manifested in many forms. Confucian stories, including Chinese symbolism and fables, found a place in the instruments’ aesthetics. Additionally, the Chinese Confucians held instrumentalists in high esteem, considering music as a means for ethical and scholarly growth. The Vietnamese adopted this attitude. The Confucian view of music as a part of nature also became prominent, for example, the idea that the five main tones of music symbolize the five elements: water, metal, wood, fire, and earth. Although the dan tranh had historically been favored by female musicians, the number of well-known female dan tranh players significantly declined due to Confucian sexism. This standard began to change in the late 20th century when Vietnam abandoned many Confucian ideas during its modernization efforts.

Source: Le, Tuan Hung. 1998. Đàn Tranh Music of Vietnam: Traditions and Innovations. Melbourne: Australia Asia Foundation.

This instrument profile was contributed by CWM Volunteer Evan Ludington and reviewed by Dr. Timothy Rice. Source document provided by Dr. Alexander M. Cannon.

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

The Maguindanaoan Kulintang of the Southern Philippines

A Maguindanaoan kulintang ensemble is a gong-chime collection of instruments important to the musical culture of the Maguindanao people in the Southern Philippines. Kulintang music is used for celebratory occasions such as festivals, weddings, engagement parties, and baptisms, as well as in musical competitions. Certain musical families in the province of Maguindanao specialize in this art form, passing down the tradition from generation to generation, and everyone interested in learning is welcome. Children typically learn through osmosis by observing their elders play at festive occasions. Each kulintang song is family-specific and region-specific, and well-versed musicians can distinguish between regional and family styles of playing. 

Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble | Photograph by Ernie Pena

The entire ensemble consists of five percussion instruments played by five musicians at a time.

percussion instruments on wooden rack

Kulintang | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The main melodic instrument, called the kulintang, consists of eight knobbed bronze gongs that are graduated in pitch. It sits on a wooden stand called an antangan. Each gong is supported by thin cords attached to the antangan, to allow the sound to resonate.
musician and drum

Dabakan | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The second instrument of the ensemble is the dabakan, a gourd-shaped drum that provides the rhythm to the ensemble. It is typically made from the stump of a palm tree, and the drum head is traditionally fashioned from monitor lizard skin (or sometimes snakeskin). Due to the endangered status of monitor lizards in the Philippines, goatskin is now widely used.

Babandil | Philip Dominguez Mercurio (PhilipDM) Wikimedia Commons

The third instrument is the babandil (also commonly spelled as babandir), the ensemble's timekeeper. It is a medium-sized knobbed gong. The rim of the babandil is tapped with a striker to create the sound.
Hanging gongs

Gandingan | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The fourth instrument of the ensemble is the gandingan, composed of four hanging gongs also known as the “talking gongs.” Musicians often used the gandingan to send messages, typically romantic, to other players in the ensemble or across distances.
Two musicians with hanging kettle bells

Agung | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The last instrument of the ensemble is the agung (or agong). These are two very large gongs that provide the bass register to the ensemble.

It is a misconception that kulintang music is Islamic. Islam became the primary religion of the island of Mindanao and the province of Maguindanao in the 14th century, primarily as a result of trade between Muslim Indians, Malaysia, and Mindanao. However, before this time the Maguindanao used kulintang music for animist rituals to appease malignant spirits. 

There are other Filipino ethnolinguistic groups in the Southern Philippines that have their own distinct kulintang traditions. These include the Maranao, Blaan, Tboli, Manobo, Bogobo, Sama, and Tausug. The Indonesian and Malaysian gamelan are related to the kulintang ensemble.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Unique to the Maguindanao is the use of kulintang music for courtship and in contests between individual musicians or village ensembles. On the gandingan, suitors send their love interests sweet messages through apad, tones that mimic human speech in the poetic language of Maguindanao. Messages may also be sent on the kulintang and agong. This method allows courting without public displays of affection, which is frowned upon in Muslim society.

Gong instrument competition is a modern concept popular with younger musicians. Held during weddings and festivals, such contests occur between individual musicians and/or ensembles, representing different villages. The kulintang, gandingan, and agong are all used in these competitions as musicians attempt to show their virtuosity and skills on each instrument. The winners are determined by who receives the loudest applause from the audience.

Enjoy this video of Magui Moro Master Artists.

Learn more about The Traditional Music and Dance of the Maguindanaoan People in this discussion and video presentation.


— Contributed by Kimberly Kalanduyan, granddaughter of Maguindanao master artist Danongan Kalanduyan.

For more on Kimberly, her mentor Bernard Ellorin, and Kulintang music visit A Journey Home: Kulintang Music from San Diego to Mindanao, an Alliance for California Traditional Arts funded project.

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

The Voice in South Indian Classical Music

The voice in South Indian classical music (also known as Carnatic music) is versatile and expressive. Decades of training are required to meet the demands of the tradition, including the ability to sing at least three octaves (the typical opera singer has about a two-octave range). Professional singers typically learn hundreds of compositions in six languages (Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi) and in a variety of musical forms, including bhajan, slokam, varnam, keerthanam, kriti, padam, javali, ragamalika, ragam-thanum-pallavi, and thillana. Each of these forms has its own musical structure with some requiring improvisation. Whereas Western music employs two main melodic modes (major and minor) on 12 pitch centers, Carnatic vocalists typically learn dozens of ragas (a group of five, six, or seven pitches that go together as a set), which they perform on a single pitch center.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

 

Similar to the way Western classical music singers learn scales using the solfege syllables Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do, South Indian classical vocalists use a system of syllables called sargam: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. The three-octave range is notated with dots below (lower octave) and dots above (higher octave) as follows:

Carnatic system of syllables

Tanjore Tambura

There is no system of fixed pitches in South Indian music, so each singer chooses his or her own central pitch (Sa), one that will allow their voice to cover three octaves. They typically use this pitch for their entire careers. During a performance, that chosen pitch is sustained as a drone on a tambura (plucked string instrument) or, in the modern era, on a sruti box (a bellows-blown reed instrument, now often electronic). All learning is done traditionally by ear and by memory as repertoire and style are transmitted from guru to disciple. Instruction may involve daily lessons and practice for an intensive period of ten to twenty years before reaching a professional level. Even then, study typically continues over a vocalist’s entire lifetime.

Concert performances in South India can take three to five hours with a vocalist presenting several types of compositions all from memory with little or no rehearsal with the accompanying musicians, who typically include a percussionist and a melodic accompanist who follows and echoes the vocalist’s lead. About three-quarters of the way through a concert, a main piece, lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour, will be performed to showcase the improvisational abilities of the vocalist and accompanying musicians. The vocalist’s improvisation can involve singing many musical pitches on a single syllable, singing in three octaves or more with the sargam syllables, or choosing on the spot a portion of the song’s lyrics and melody and varying those. Carnatic vocalists have a distinctive virtuosity that both marks their musical identity as South Indian and contributes to the great diversity of traditional musical cultures in the world.

See the renowned 20th century artist M.S. Subbulaksmi performing Jagadodharana (“Supporter of the Universe”), a composition by Purandaradasa (16th c.) and Pakkala Nilabadi (“Standing by the Side [of Lord Rama]”), a composition by Tyagaraja (18th–19th c.).


K. S. Resmi is a performer and teacher of Carnatic music. For her full resume, please visit www.ksresmi.com. N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D., percussionist and ethnomusiciogist, is chair of the Music Department at San Diego Mesa College.

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

Image of Violin

The Huastecan Violin Style of Northwestern Mexico

Violin performance techniques and style found in son huasteco, a traditional musical style originating in Northeastern Mexico (also known as huapango), are unlike any that exists. The Huastecan violin differs only in style and technique from the ever-popular classical violin. However, paired with a huapanguera, eight-string bass guitar-like instrument, and jarana huasteca, a small five-string rhythm guitar, the violin found in the son huasteco tradition is arguably one of the most interesting and unique styles of violin performance.

The son huasteco is a form of traditional Mexican music that takes its name from the Huaxtec/Huastec indigenous group that inhabits the northeastern area of present-day Mexico. The word “son” in son huasteco, is used to describe the amalgamation of Spanish, indigenous Mexican, African, and other music styles and influences that evolved after the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, and during the colonial period of Mexico from 1521-1810.

instruments

Left to Right: jarana, violin, huapanguera (8-string)

What makes the son huasteco violin different from other Mexican son styles? It is an interesting question that involves a complicated answer. To put it simply, however, style, including note emphasis, and timing are what set apart this violin performance style from any other. Most sones (songs) from the huastecan region are in 6/8 meter (best described as repetitive counting from 1-6, similar to West African styles of music which highly influence eastern Mexican music genres). What makes the huastecan violin style of performance different from most others is the ability of the violinist to play with the timing during the improvisation of musical interludes. In other words, a violinist will drag the timing and drag the notes, and also rush the timing and the notes as they weave in and out of the rhythm set by the huapanguera and jarana huasteca in a sort of musical game that might throw some listeners off.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

The question is often asked, who is the greatest huastecan violinist of all time? Although I have my favorites, it is truly an unfair question due to the fact that what makes a son huasteco trio great is not the solo violin, or the abilities of the jarana and huapanguera; rather it is the entirety of the trio and how well they blend together and anticipate each other’s improvisatory flairs. Some of the all-time great trios include Camperos de Valles, Cantores de Pánuco, Trio Camalote, Hermanos Calderón, and Trio Armonía Huasteca, to name a few. Each of these trios comes from a different part of the northeastern region of Mexico. They all have unique styles based on their surroundings and the previous musicians whom they learned from.

The huastecan violin floats above the fixed pulsating rhythm provided by the jarana and huapanguera in a distinctive unpredictable flight pattern that will surely capture the attention of any listener.

Below are two examples of son huasteco performed by trio Eliodoro Copado of Camperos de Valles, and Juan Coronel of Cantores de la Huasteca.

Camperos de Valles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzPTVdOBfQc

Cantores de la Huasteca: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnhUbtzgEHc

 

Learn more about the author, Jorge Andres Herrera, and his family band, Hermanos Herrera.

Contact Info:
www.hermanosherrera.com
www.youtube.com/hermanosherrera
Twitter / Instagram: @hermanosherrera

Sonbros Records
sonbros@sbcglobal.net
(805) 794-1800

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

Ancient Tradition of the Winter Solstice: Festival of Santa Lucia

By Natasha Kozaily

The winter solstice marks the start of the astronomical winter and the day of the year with the fewest hours of sunlight. Following the winter solstice, days get longer and nights shorter as spring approaches. Naturally, fire and light are salient symbols of hope during this time. For thousands of years, our ancestors marked this day with festivities, songs, dances, sacrifices, and meaning-making rituals. It was a time of celebration, of reflection, and most importantly, hope. People looked forward to Spring, the return of light, and the birth of a new sun and earth!

In light of this, no pun intended, I’d like to share with you a story of a Sicilian saint, an ancient headlight, a song, a recipe, and some fabulous photographs.

Girl Serving Santa Lucia Feast

Who is Santa Lucia?

Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is a Catholic saint who was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283 AD and became a martyr at the age of 20. Though she lived a considerably short life, she is still celebrated in different parts of the world almost two thousand years later.

Santa Lucia costumes

Few facts are known about Lucia’s life and death, though several stories and legends have evolved over the centuries. Just about all of the stories start the same way: Lucia was born into a wealthy Sicilian family. At a time of Christian persecution, Lucia vowed at a young age to live her life in the service of Christ. Lucia’s mother attempted an arranged marriage for her daughter to a pagan man. When Lucia refused, the angry suitor reported her to Roman authorities, and Lucia subsequently was sentenced to life in a brothel and forced into prostitution. Staunchly loyal to her faith, Lucia benefitted from divine intervention: when it came time for her to be placed in the brothel by Roman guards, she became immovable; it was as if she had turned to stone and the guards could not move her. The soldiers then built piles of wood around her to burn her alive. Lucia was untouched by the flames and survived the inferno. They also attempted to take out her eyes but found them miraculously restored. Finally, Lucia met her death when stabbed through the neck with a sword.

Santa Lucia with sword The Feast

St. Lucia’s feast day commemorates the day of her martyrdom, December 13th, which also was the shortest day of the year – Winter Solstice under the old Gregorian calendar. Because her name means “light,” many of the Yuletide’s ancient light and fire customs became associated with her day. Today’s Lucia celebrations involve the oldest daughter of the family dressing in a long white robe with a red sash around the waist, along with a crown of fresh greens and lit candles worn upon her head. The young lady rises before the rest of her family and serves them traditional Lussekatter (Lucia buns) and coffee. In many villages and towns across Sweden, Lucia processions, concerts, and celebrations signify the start of the Christmas season.

Image of girl wearing red sach of Santa Lucia

In Sicily, there is a legend of how there was great hunger in Syracuse, Sicily. The town’s people had gathered in the cathedral on Santa Lucia’s feast day, December 13th, to pray. Soon after, two ships loaded with wheat arrived, with her at the helm of one, dressed in white, with a halo of candles on her head. This story explains the cuccia, a kind of sweet porridge made with wheat berries, chocolate, sugar, and milk.

Santa Lucia FeastThe Music

Music plays a large role in the festivities surrounding the Feast of Saint Lucy. This Neapolitan folk song is song across Italy and Scandinavia on December 13th. You can find a recording by Caruso here.

Musicians for Santa Lucia

 

 

Santa Lucia, thy light is glowing
Through darkest winter night, Comfort bestowing.
Dreams float on dreams tonight
Comes then the morning light,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia

 

 

 

If you’re looking for more music to celebrate the “return of light”, please enjoy this playlist filled with songs about light! The perfect soundtrack for a family dance party on this Winter Solstice!


About the Author
Natasha Kozaily is a Center for World Music Teaching Artist and a Member of the Board of Directors. She co-founded Kalabash School of Music and the Arts in La Jolla, California. To learn more about Natasha and her project, please visit her website at http://natashakozaily.com/.

Remembering Balasaraswati

“A Radiant Aesthetic Force”

In celebration of Women’s History Month (March 2020), we recall with respect, awe, and affection the life and artistry of Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918-1984). Not every organization has its patron saint, but Balasaraswati certainly was and remains such for the Center for World Music. The impact of the art of this great lady, once described by Dr. Narayana Menon as “perhaps the greatest Indian dancer of the past thousand years,” provided the original inspiration for Luise and Samuel Scripps to found and fund the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) in 1963. The ASEA later became the Center for World Music.

Balasaraswati, studio portrait, Madras, 1934

Born in a family of musicians and dancers connected to the royal court of Thanjavur, Bala embodied a matriarchal lineage of artists that the family traced back to the 18th century, at least seven generations. Her grandmother, mother, and brothers were all renowned musicians. She was to play an important pivotal role in the revival of bharata natyam (classical temple dance) and its transformation into a stage art in modern India. Equally important, she became the leading ambassador of South Indian classical dance to the world, being invited during the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s for repeated tours and residencies in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.

A great artist, greatest of all living bharata natyam dancers . . . one of the last surviving representatives of the authentic tradition in which dance is a deep-felt spiritual experience. (Indian Express, February 11, 1971)

A radiant aesthetic force . . . (Times of India, March 1972)

Balasaraswati, photo by Jan Steward

With her daughter Lakshmi and her ensemble of musicians, Balasaraswati enthralled professional dancers and musicians, students, and recital audiences during summer workshops organized by the American Society for Eastern Arts. These took place at Mills College in Oakland, California in the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1972, as well as in Bali, Indonesia in 1971. In 1974, Bala and her ensemble—along with K. V. Narayanaswamy and other senior South Indian musicians—figured prominently in the inaugural program of the Center for World Music, a summer session at the Center’s original location in Berkeley, California.

We remember an inspiring artistic giant, a woman that looms large in the history of world dance . . . and the history of the Center for World Music.

For Further Exploration

Knight, Douglas M. 2010. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Wesleyan Univ. Press.

“Bala” (1976), a documentary by Satyajit Ray, the famed Bengali filmmaker.

Documentary by Aniruddha Knight, Balasaraswati’s grandson.

Songs and Stories: Refugee Artists in San Diego

The San Diego Troubadour, October 2018

J. T. Moring wrote a nice piece on our June 2018 Songs and Stories: Refugee Artists in San Diego concert series for The San Diego Troubadour.  Here are some excerpts:

The roots of American folk music stretch deep and wide, and indisputably tap into a myriad of worldwide cultures: bluegrass’ roots in Irish dance tunes, gospel’s in African call-and-response, Tejaño’s in German polkas, and on and on. The Center for World Music (CWM) promotes performing arts from around the world, expanding intercultural awareness and offering insights into our home-grown musical traditions.

 

The newest initiative at CWM is their Songs and Stories: Refugee Artists in San Diego concert series, whose inaugural season kicked off last June. Each of the three themed shows included multiple performers followed by a discussion. The first show highlighted African performers; the second featured Middle Eastern stringed instruments; the third focused on songs, stories, and drumming from Middle Eastern women. These shows gave the performers an opportunity to recreate and reconnect with the culture of the homelands they left behind. They offered local audiences a unique chance to experience unfamiliar music, created organically on the spot by regular folks. The interpersonal bonds forged through those shows have helped weave the immigrant community into the fabric of San Diego life.

 

These shows gave the performers an opportunity to recreate and reconnect with the culture of the homelands they left behind. They offered local audiences a unique chance to experience unfamiliar music, created organically on the spot by regular folks. The interpersonal bonds forged through those shows have helped weave the immigrant community into the fabric of San Diego life

To read more, take a look at the full article here.

For further information, see our Songs and Stories event listing, as well as this KPBS video report. Finally, there’s also a photo album for each performance.

San Diego Troubadour Link

36 String Kantele

The Finnish Kantele: A Soulful and Humble Instrument

Sing the song of Kantele!

The kantele belongs to a large family of string instruments called zithers. Zithers have a resonating body with a variable number of strings, which can be plucked, strummed, struck, or bowed. In the case of the kantele, the strings are plucked or strummed and the smallest kanteles can be held in the player’s lap. The kantele is the national instrument of Finland. Finnish folk poetry recounts that the first kantele was made from the jaw bones of fish and the hair of young maidens. When the first kantele was played, the sound was so beautiful that all living things started to cry. Their tears rolled into the ocean, and when they touched the sea they turned into beautiful blue pearls.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

There are kanteles of many sizes: 5-string, 10-string, 11-string, all the way up to the 36-string concert kantele, as seen above.

My favorite instrument is the 5-string kantele. It is a very soulful and humble instrument. It teaches you to quiet your mind and allow the kantele to sing its stories–stories of hard winters and beautiful summer nights, stories of a resilient northern nation who fought hard for its independence.

 

You play the 5-string kantele by plucking the strings to create melodies. You can also strum chords by muting the strings that don’t belong to the chord. The strings of this small kantele are tuned to the first five pitches of the major or minor scale.

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland.

The 5-string kantele is often taught in Finnish schools as the first instrument for young children. It encourages creativity, as it is easy to learn improvisation with this instrument. Children find the kantele fun because they experience the joy of playing together as a group. You do not have to be a Finn to appreciate and learn kantele.

Merja with her daughter and two other children

Merja, with her daughter, and two children.

I am a first-generation Finnish immigrant now living in the US, and for me, the kantele and Finnish music are the bridge that connects the two distant worlds.

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

When I close my eyes and let my fingers move across the strings of the kantele, I remember—I remember the Finnish spirit that is in me. The spirit that says keep going and never give up. All the while, singing the song of life through all the difficulties. Sing the song of the kantele!

Learn more about Merja at merjasoria.com. View a “vintage video” of Merja performing on a 10-string kantele soon after her arrival in the United States.

Merja Soria is a performer and teacher of Finnish folk music and a Center for World Music teaching artist.