Indo-African music with insurrectional tone enriches Biennale
Art & Culture

Indo-African music with insurrectional tone enriches Biennale


To the accompaniment of the big horn bustle, the lines in Zulu sounded like some primordial chanting. Then, when the vocalist rendered a few lines in English, the cue came as meditative notes on the sarangi and sarod.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale witnessed a unique cultural marriage when artistes from South Africa and India shared the platform to enrich a night with lyrics in several languages and music invoking the spirit and politics of the underprivileged. The protagonists comprised miners, peasants, headload workers and adivasis among others, forming a significant population in both the Commonwealth nations.

The Insurrections Ensemble’s concert at the Biennale Pavilion was a well received 90-minute show based on the group’s fourth production, just three months old. Kochi played its debut stage in India, where the 14-member team led by South African poet-sociologist Ari Sitas and Delhi-based researcher-singer Sumangala Damodaran presented an experimental assortment of literature and orchestra.

With four vocalists backed by eight instrumentalists seated behind them in a semi-circular shape, the recital had an introductory note delivered by Delhi-based poet Sabitha TP. Speaking in English and reproducing its essence in her mother tongue Malayalam, the former lecturer recalled the formation of the Insurrections Ensemble in 2010 soon after Ari and Sumangala met in Delhi.

That paved the way for a binational and multilingual cultural endeavour. Soon, it gathered styles ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde, from tunes that banked on Indian ragas and Zulu scales to electronica which encompasses styles such as drum and bass, trip hop and downtempo. The ensemble’s productions came out in 2012, ’14, ’16 and now in ’18, incidentally overlapping with the years of India’s only biennale.

At Cabral Yard, the troupe came out with 18 items from its latest production titled ‘Threads of Sorrow’. The ditties took the audience through a roller-coaster ride, taking off with a sense of despair but concluding on an optimistic note that sounded high with songs of hope. The poems were in languages such as Malayalam,Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, English and the African languages of Zulu and Xhosa—the other poets being Vivek Narayanan, Tina Schouv and Malika Ndlovu.

“The backdrop of the concert is the rising fundamentalism in the East and West, across the Global South and the North,” said Sabitha, daughter of famed poet K Satchidanandan.“The attempt is to weave together a narrative of creative struggle and haunting lament.”

The Songs of hope which was performed in the second half of the concert explored the histories of migration, nomadic life, slavery, oppression and freedom.

Prof Sumangala, granddaughter of late Marxist Acharya EMS Namboodiripad, performed as a vocalist. Alternating expertly in four Indian languages, she sang in tunes that appealed as classical ragas common to both the Hindustani and Carnatic streams. For that matter, the music also featured the raga Keeravani (Kirwani upcountry) that translates to the Minor Scale in Western Classical.

While the Malayalam lyrics rekindled the ideologies of Kerala’s Left-aligned KPAC theatre, the African angles were leaves from the Beat poetry of the early 19th Century which broke the musical conventions of the age.