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Fine arts education

Asian series part of UMass focus on advancing cultural insights

  • Choreography: Crystal Pite<br/>Performer: Eric Beauchesne, Peter Chu, Sandra Marín Garcia, Yannick Matthon, Jiří Pokorný, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Maurice Spivey 
Musik, Komposition: Owen Belton 
Kostüme: Nancy Bryant, Kostümassistenz: Sandra Li Maennel Saavedra
Licht: Rob Sondergaard
Bühne: Jay Gower Taylor<br/>Uraufführung: 20.10.2011 Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Ermöglicht durch den Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain<br/>

    Choreography: Crystal Pite
    Performer: Eric Beauchesne, Peter Chu, Sandra Marín Garcia, Yannick Matthon, Jiří Pokorný, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Maurice Spivey 
Musik, Komposition: Owen Belton 
Kostüme: Nancy Bryant, Kostümassistenz: Sandra Li Maennel Saavedra
Licht: Rob Sondergaard
Bühne: Jay Gower Taylor
    Uraufführung: 20.10.2011 Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Ermöglicht durch den Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain

  • Choreography: Crystal Pite<br/>Performer: Eric Beauchesne, Peter Chu, Sandra Marín Garcia, Yannick Matthon, Jiří Pokorný, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Maurice Spivey 
Musik, Komposition: Owen Belton 
Kostüme: Nancy Bryant, Kostümassistenz: Sandra Li Maennel Saavedra
Licht: Rob Sondergaard
Bühne: Jay Gower Taylor<br/>Uraufführung: 20.10.2011 Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Ermöglicht durch den Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain<br/>

This wasn’t your typical rock concert.

For one thing, the musicians were mostly seated cross-legged on the floor. There were two drummers, a flutist, and a shaggy long-haired, barefoot guitar player – except that his large stringed instrument was called a rubab. Shaped something like a fish, it sound like a cross between a Middle Eastern oud and an Indian sitar when played by Homayoun Sakhi.

And then there was the harmonium, looking like an accordion played from the floor, its bellows gently pumped by Khalil Ragheb.

Last, but hardly least, was singer Ustad Farida Mahwash, who sat at the back of the stage as she sang, wearing a gold sequin dress and black shawl. Known as the “Voice of Kabul,” she sang in Farsi, Pashto and Persian as part of the dazzling “Voices of Afghanistan” concert that opened the 20th Asian Arts and Culture season at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Fine Arts Center.

And those drummers! At opposite ends of the stage at Bowker Auditorium, Zmarai Aref kept a steady, train-like rhythm on tabla, as Abbos Kosimov, master of the Uzbek doyra — a large frame drum with jangles — dazzled the audience as he juggled two and then three of the drums, even spinning one on his finger as he played it, and never missing a beat.

Cheers in Pashto — or was it Farsi? — went out from a large contingent of Afghan students in the crowd, adding to the authenticity of the evening, as Sakhi let loose with a rubab solo to match Kosimov’s magical percussion.

And as Mahwash ended her full-throated rendition of songs set to a Sufi poem by Rumi, there was the joy of knowing that this was only the start of the Asian Arts and Culture’s 20th anniversary season.

The Asian series fits neatly into the Fine Arts Center’s offerings like one of those little Russian nesting dolls (Sorry for the mixed culture metaphor, but that’s how it is at the Amherst campus.)

And just as the fine arts offerings at the Amherst campus don’t all fit neatly into that giant white complex at the south end of the campus pond, the Asian arts and culture programming spills over into a Wednesday night film series, a “weaving our stories” series of talks about textiles and other forms and, of course, concerts that combine theater, music and dance.

“In the countries and cultures I’m dealing with, the performing arts are not a separate discipline from the religion, history or sociology,” says the series’ director, Ranjanaa Devi. “Dance in India is part of a temple workshop tradition, part of peoples’ lives, part of the ritual of holidays and festivals, for example.”

Whether it’s the songs of Afghanistan, in which the Pashto, Persian, Urdu and Hindi lyrics reflect the many influences on the culture, “so the lyrics are all over the place.”

It’s the same kind of fusion of the complex cultures instrumentally as well, with tabla and sitar-like rubab, and with jangles in Kosimov’s doyra reminiscent of a blurry image of bell-laden camels walking across the desert.

In the case of “Sacred Cow,” the butoh dance theater piece by Michael Sakamoto presented last week, the work explores sacred and profane ritual forms and combines Japanese theater and dance forms with electronic music in a way that conveys stillness in space, explains Devi, who was invited in 1983 to bring her expertise in classical Indian dance and musicology to establish a non-western cultural program to the center’s offerings.

“In the 1980s, we were not digitally connected, so there was less diversity on campus,” said Devi. “Most students in those days were middle-class, white students. For them to understand a global vision was the idea of (then-center director) Fred Tillis. “He felt the whole world was really connected and the Fine Arts Center was lacking in addressing Asia.”

The experience of sitting through a concert with the “Voice of Kabul” and rubab virtuoso Sakhi’s ensemble has an immediacy that can bring an audience to understand the culture more completely than sitting through a lecture or reading a book about it.

On Nov. 1, the National Circus of the People’s Republic of China will perform “Cirque Chinois,” an acrobatic extravaganza with 55 award-winning performers from Beijing. The performance, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center, will be a spectacular exhibition of China’s 5,000-year history with the grand flying trapaeze, great teeterboard, juggling and other acrobatic specialties.

A special morning show for area schoolchildren is completely sold out, according to Devi.

The series also features a free Wednesday night film series, which this year focuses on Arab Cinema Panorama from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Turkey. The films are shown at 7 p.m. in Room 137 of the School of Management to what Devi says is a dedicated audience of 100 or more.

The series also coincides with the annual Five College Exploring Buddhism series, which this weekend is hosted at Amherst College and focuses on Tibetan Buddhism.

And the series also hosts a bus tour to New York City to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new galleries for “Art of the Asian Lands.”

Next spring’s offerings kick off March 7 with the Peony Pavilion Opera, a classical Chinese opera by New York-based Chinese Theater Works in Bowker Auditorium.

The Ming period opera will be presented that day in English for a children’s audience using puppets. At
7:30 p.m., it will be presented in Chinese with live actors and accompanied by a Chinese orchestra.

Coinciding with the opera will be the last in a five-part, free “spirit and soul talk” series on Feb. 27 that examines gossip and rumor in 17th century Chinese literature. Earlier talks include: Feb. 6 on “the invention of national dress in 21st century China,” Feb. 13 on “Tibetan visions of potential lifetimes” and Feb. 20 on “Rituals and Stories in Indian Dance.” Locations of the talks, which Devi said are meant to be engaging for a non-scholarly audience, vary, so it’s best to check the calendar listing online.

OK, so the Voices of Afghanistan opener earlier this month really wasn’t a rock concert.

But there are rock-like elements to a planned “Arab and North America Music Tour” performance at Bowker Auditorium on April 3 at
7:30 p.m.

The concert will present eight young musicians from Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon for a blend of musical styles that are fresh and daring and that are inspired by the “Arab Spring.”

All of the musicians started creating their works around the theme of freedom of speech, said Devi, although as the reality of the Arab Spring has evolved, the musicians plan to convey how young people in those societies are affected by the changes.

The finale for the series will be a performance April 12 by an Indian musician with rock-star status: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt performing on the slide-guitar-like Mohan Veena, an instrument of his own design that combines elements of the sitar. Bhatt, who will be accompanied by tabla player Subhen Chatterjee, is a student of sitarist Ravi Shankar and is a Grammy award-winner who is a living legend in his native country.

That concert, at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall at
8 p.m., will provide a fitting cap to the 20th season of a series designed to bring understanding to Pioneer Valley audiences.

“We present these as a blend of the artistic experience,” said Devi, “and when you see that whole integrated self (in performance), you can actually experience the whole culture.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at
rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

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