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72 Hour feast of music, song and dance at Jaffna festival

Apr 4, 2011 10:43:19 PM- transcurrents.com

by Marisa de Silva

Three days and three nights of flamboyant colour, exhilarating music and pulsating dance, showcased by an array of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, national and international folk artistes and performers made the Jaffna Music Festival (JMF) last weekend everything it was billed to be.

No two groups were similar in sound or performance, but all were entertaining to varied degrees


(L) to (R) A member of Sibikwa playing the djun-djuns and Barta Gandharva from the Nepal Music Centre, playing the Sarangi. Prof. Durga Prasad on Bansuri in the background ~ pix by: Supun Weerasinghe

The selection of a cross section of foreign groups in particular was noteworthy, and though I’m no expert on traditional folklore and cannot affirm if the groups that performed (local and international) were in fact authentic folk musicians, with the exception of one or two performances that seemed, at best, badly choreographed and under rehearsed, it was an enjoyable weekend, all in all. I particularly loved the seating arrangements - a few chairs under temporary sheds, for the VIPs and the elderly, whilst the rest of us got to sprawl out on straw mats strewn on the sandy grounds!

The Kaffer Manja group, comprising Sri Lankan Kaffirs (Afro-Sinhalese), said to have originally come from Mozambique, Africa, were quite clearly one of the highlights of the Festival. They stood out not just for their catchy tunes and unique language, but more so, for their sheer spirit, energy and highly contagious merry making on stage.

When the 12 member troupe walked on stage, rather serious-faced and sporting all the colours of the rainbow, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Once they were through part of their first song though, it didn’t come as too big a surprise that they were instrumental in introducing Baila to Sri Lanka. The performance was further fuelled by South African group – Sibikwa, armed with dun-duns (tom-toms), jembes and maracas, joining in. The result was nothing short of a chaotic riot of dance and song!

Sibikwa – the African Indigenous orchestra, was next on my favourites list, with their raw, tribal vocal arrangements and instrumentation. Faces painted and clad in tribal costumes, Sibikwa captivated the audience with their tribal chants and rhythms resonating from authentic African instruments like the marimba, uhadhi, umhupe, rain-stick, and kalimba. This being their first visit to Asia, Sibikwa were quite excited about performing at the Festival. “The music and culture here is very different to what we’re used to at home. We also love the different costumes everyone’s wearing,” they said enthusiastically.

The youthful, all female dance troupe from Vavuniya performed the Ulavar Nadanam, a folk dance that depicts the life of the typical paddy farmer in the Wanni. Vibrant and animated, their seemingly spontaneous reactions and gestures were well received by the audience.

Prof. Maunaguru and Troupe from Batticaloa too, were quite impressive in their enactment of the modern epic story Ravanesan, based on the Vadamody Koothu style of folk theatre specific to Batticaloa. This style of narrative theatre proved to be quite poignant and dramatic, and was depicted expertly by the Professor, who has contributed immensely to Tamil Theatre in Sri Lanka, and his troupe.

The Sabreen Association from Palestine, a three-member group never got off their seats, but had the audience clapping and singing along with them to one particularly catchy tune. Their music, promptly shifted the audience to a relaxed mode, leaving us with little option but to simply “chill out” and soak up the calm ambience created around us.

Composer, lyricist, singer, actor and musician Rohana Beddage and his group, performed three popular folk classics Sasanda Sasanda, Kande Lande and Raja o Mangaliya and had many singing along to these much loved old favourites.

The Podi Singjoo clan from Mirissa, who have been preserving and passing on the Kolam art form and low country folk dance, added a bit of fire (quite literally) to the evening’s performances. Their distinct dance moves and elaborate masks and costumes kept the audience both enthralled and entertained.

Having performed all three nights of the Festival due to popular demand, the Manganiar Group from Rajasthan, India, who come from a family of seven generations rich in folk culture, are famous for their Indian folk music. The unusual bowed instrument kamayacha, the dholak, harmonium and khartal together create their unique sound. Their rhythmic instrumentation combined with the extraordinary vocal range of the lead vocalist, who shifted from bass to falsetto with such ease, it was no wonder they drove the crowd wild!

Barta, Dangol & Durga who represent the Nepal Music Centre, are all masters of music in their own right. Prof. N. Dangol, a professor of drums at the University of Nepal is known for his 22-piece folk drum set, which comprises madals (drums) tuned to various pitches. Having performed his invention for Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Albert Hall, it's hard to imagine that behind this man who wears a constant smile, lies such a great musician. The Professor, along with Prof. Durga Prasad on bansuri and Barta Gandharva on Sarangi created some of the most lyrical music of the evening, often accompanied by Barta's beautifully pure voice. For all of the above, this group stood out as quite different to the rest.

Last but, not least of the international groups was, Tindra, from Norway, all three graduates from the Norwegian Academy of Music. These three young women strive to re-arrange Norwegian folk songs, whilst maintaining the basics of the traditional songs. By only using the accordion, violin, Norwegian fiddle and vocals, they kept the audience attentive and entertained.

“Traditional arts have always been very much a part of Jaffna people’s lives. Also traditionally, folk arts across the country are performed in the nights, as people work during the day, and can only attend such outings at night. However, due to the war, the people here had no nights, as they could not go out after dark. And so, folk arts lost the time and space previously allocated to them. Now in Jaffna, we have nights once more, but unfortunately over the years people have found alternative means of recreation and entertainment.

Therefore, having this type of festival in Jaffna could help reignite, what some would claim to be a dying tradition. It could also act as a catalyst of sorts, in restoring normalcy to the lives of the people of the North,” said Lecturer, Department of Fine Arts, University of Jaffna, T. Tharmalingam.

“Exposure to, and interaction with international and local Southern artists and their music too, was quite welcome. Especially since many arts students from both school and university are required to follow a component on folk art as part of their syllabus, this sort of festival is ideal, as they never had the opportunity to meet with and learn from artists directly. So, this was a good experience for them,” he elaborated.

“One of the main reasons I came back to Sri Lanka was because I wanted to do some work in the music scene, in the North. The idea first came to me when I did some work in the North in 2003 during the ceasefire.

Although we had quite a bit of criticism when we initially discussed having it here, saying that this wasn’t the right time to embark on a project like this in the North, and that there were still so much more important things left to address, a rough estimate of approximately 10,000 people, mostly from the North, attended the Festival over the three days,” said the coordinator of the Jaffna Music Festival of the Sewa Lanka Foundation Jan Ramesh de Saram.

“Initially, we wanted to hold all night acapella sessions in the huts, so that people could just relax and listen to music etc., but, due to transport issues in the night, we decided that it wouldn’t be feasible. As the first Music Festival was held in Galle in 2009, we hope to alternate the Festival venues between Galle and Jaffna every year,” he added.

The JMF 2011, funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by Sewalanka Foundation, Rikskonsertene Concerts Norway and Aru Sri Art Theatre, was held on from March 25-27, at the Jaffna Municipal Grounds. ~ courtesy: The Sunday Times ~