Kerala and Bengaluru bands team up for grand show on a brief history of musical time

The show, to be held in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, will chart the course of music from the Vedic chants of 3,000 years ago to the music of 21st century Kerala.
Kerala and Bengaluru bands team up for grand show on a brief history of musical time
Kerala and Bengaluru bands team up for grand show on a brief history of musical time
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The fourth, the fifth, the sixth – Devissaro’s excited words sound like a lot of numbers to the layman listening to him talk of music of the past. When the layman continues to look blank, Carola Winniel, an architect and musician from Chennai, tells her that Devissaro is talking about organum, an old kind of music when a large group would sing in two pitches at the same time. Yes, Devissaro agrees, saying that was the beginning of harmony, which is the western music’s claim to fame.

It is Dev’s idea to put together a show that tells a brief history of musical time. From the Vedic chants of 3,000 years ago to the music of 21st century Kerala. He got together the Asima Ensemble – which is pretty popular in Thiruvananthapuram – and invited Bengaluru-based musician Neecia Majolly, who is bringing The Madrigaalists, an ensemble of four women singers, including Carola. Helping them with bits of orchestra is the Trivandrum Academy of Western Music, and it’s at their office in Vazhuthacaud we sit now, at the end of another long day of practice.

Sunday is the show, at Bharat Bhavan at 7.30 pm. They are not going to practise on Sunday, the day of rest, Anoop Mohandas, one of Dev’s musicians, says. Anil Ram, Gokul Bhaskaran and Khalid form the rest of Asima. We catch up on Saturday evening and everyone leaves it to Dev to explain the concept of the show, an idea he had been nursing for long. Why? Because he has been learning music since 50 years ago, he says.

Members of Asima Ensemble

Dev is originally from Perth, Australia, but Thiruvananthapuram has been his home for more than a couple of decades now. So, in the last half of his show of musical history, he has included, among his own compositions, Irayimman Thampy’s much-loved lullaby Omana Thinkal Kinavo. Asima could do that, they have been performing Indian music – Hindustani and Carnatic, folk and ritual. But this is a first for them, performing Western music that encompasses the first half of the show.

“We begin with Vedic chanting. The Vedas were written between 1100 and 1750 BC. And were passed on by oral tradition from generation to generation until at some point it was written down,” Dev says. Good thing is when Dev speaks, he doesn’t skimp on the details or tell you just the gist of a schedule, he goes into history, shares interesting and often funny stories. So after the Vedic chanting, he goes on to talk about the next historical piece of music that’s turned up from 200 BC, from ancient Greek civilisation.

“The ancient Greek had colonised all around the Mediterranean. This piece of music turned up in Turkey more than 140 years ago. Somehow they dug up this stone which had carvings on it. An English engineer who was in charge thought it looked nice and took it home to his wife. She chopped off the bottom of it so she could put in her flowerpot. Someone saw it and realised it is a short poem – a dedication. Maybe to a wife or a female muse. The rhythm is all long note-short note. It’s a complete notation. We don’t know exactly how they played it but we could recreate the song. It is the earliest notated score that’s been discovered,” Dev says.

It is after that the group jumps to the end of the first millennium, to the 9th century, and sings Gregorian chant and organum – that which Dev tried to explain with his fourths and sixths. The room is full of hardcore musicians, so of course they could enjoy these technical jokes much easily. Neecia is an expert of the Renaissance period, especially the music of the Elizabethan Renaissance. So when Dev begins to talk about “the biggest adventure that Bach ever did”, Neecia completes his line: “walking 70 km to listen to a renowned organist (Jan Reinken).”

They met each other last year at the Counter Culture, a musical venue in Bengaluru. Dev spoke of his idea to put together the brief history of music, Neecia joined him, bringing with her Carola, Martina Roberts (works in a bank in Chennai), and Jerusha Lawrence from Bengaluru (who works at a teaching institute).

Martina, Carola, Neecia and Jerusha

After the organum, the group would move three centuries ahead and sing a medieval Trouvere song. And then skip three centuries again to come to the times of Bach and Shakespeare. “Bach was a safe composer, a church musician,” Dev, the history lover, says. Those were difficult times, a time when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, a time, Dev says, was a lot like Brexit. “The Catholic Church was one unifying factor through Europe and Henry VIII was breaking away from it.”

It was a time when if you were in the wrong religion, you could get yourself killed. A time not unlike today. But it was also one of the greatest periods for England’s cultural fabric. “We are presenting only the English Renaissance. When the breaking away happened, everything had to be in English. The Bible was translated. Church services, originally in Latin, were delivered in English. But there was one guy that got away with Latin songs, for he was that much adored,” Dev says. Neecia names the composer – William Byrd.

It was mostly love songs in those times. Dev talks about a song called Sweet Kate, an Elizabethan love song. Sweet Kate, he says, is about a man who tells his woman he will die of heartbreak and the woman says she has never known a man to die of heartbreak and it’s not going to happen now. “There’s your first feminist song,” he says.

There would be works from the Baroque period, like that of George Frideric Handel’s. And here Dev has another funny story about Handel’s leave from Germany to London for a year, a leave that got extended to two and three years until his boss in Germany showed up as the new king of England! The show will end with Shakespeare, Dev says, with a speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dreams’ prankster fairy, Puck.

Quite a lot of the performance would be A cappella, but not all of it. That’s where the Academy joins them with their orchestra – Gleb Nechaev, violin/viola player from Russia, and Kazakh musician Kilmov Alexandr Dmitrievich on flute, Kenzhegul Akshekina on cello, Dana Bekpossynova on piano, and choral conductor and voice trainer Olga Vykhodtseva.

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