Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Brief Digression on Language

“Schön tag noch fur sie” the lady at the bake shop said as I paid for my croissant. I have put quite a lot of time into learning more German since finding out that I had received the grant. Deutsche im Auto studerien - learning in my car while making endless traverses across the Los Angeles basin. I don’t know enough yet to be able to converse, but I can get by, and more and more bits jump out at me.
So - “A beautiful day yet/still for you,” the lady said. Oh! “Have a nice day.” German is very structured, very precise. If you see a word written you will know exactly how to pronounce it in standard German, and you pronounce every letter (if you count diphthongs as a single letter). Not like French were the pronunciation is also quite specific but you ignore about half the letters written (but according to rules). And English? Enough drought thought through though. The “f” in “if” versus “of”, but then add another “f” for “off”. And my current favorite to say out loud: Going - Doing - Boing!
German is also very specific in sentence structure, which is quite difficult to learn, especially because English cuts all those corners so nicely. “Have a nice day.” Can’t say that in German (or in French I think, must ask). You can have a piece of cake, but how can you have a day? It’s a reflexive, “have (for) yourself a nice day,” but most reflexives are not directly expressed in spoken English, except maybe in the South? “You’all have yourselves a nice day, now.”
So the imprecision in English structure makes it very easy to construct ways to say things, but difficult to make sense of why things sound the way they do. In German you’ll always know how something sounds, but the rules to construct phrases are difficult to grasp.
To, from, of: there are about 5 times as many ways to make these connections in German, depending on the what and how the “to, from or of “applies, all of which don’t apply in English, were dropped. The = die, der, das, den, dem - these all circle around each other in a mad dance depending on gender (3!), object, subject. I know, Russian has even more of this, for example. In French, Spanish, Italian there is at least some broad convention about how to tell masculine from feminine nouns, but not so in German apparently. Everyone tells me, you just have to know. Someday, vielleicht.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Indian Music in Berlin

No doubt many of you reading this will want to know about the Indian music scene in Berlin. I have now had an opportunity to check this out firsthand. I was fortunate to be invited to perform at the Indian Embassy, which is now the most frequent venue for Indian music programs in Berlin. I was even more fortunate to be referred by tabla maestro Pandit Sankha Chatterjee to one of his protégés in Berlin, Soumitra Paul. He is an excellent player and accompanist and a very nice person with a lovely family. About the program itself I’ll say only that it wasn’t too bad for a Wednesday night after having not practiced enough post-travel. Mostly I was inspired to get my practice back in order.
While the intentions of the cultural program division of the embassy are probably laudable, the effect of offering numerous free concerts has had perhaps unintended consequences. The payment is very low, but many musicians who want the opportunity and aren’t expecting to get paid much anyway (such as me) are willing to play there anyway. As a result, no one else can book a program and draw enough of an audience to provide properly for a top grade artist. If you want to hear any of the many fine artists who tour in Europe, you have to travel from Berlin to somewhere else in Germany to hear them.
I had heard mention that there was to be another Indian music concert at the Museum on Saturday night, sponsored by the Embassy, featuring L. Subramanium, who is of course a very well-known artist. But there was no notice or poster at the Embassy, and no announcement at Embassy music events, including mine. There were no notices at the Museum, even though the event was supposed to be in conjunction with the Rabindranath Tagore exhibit there. I arrived in time for the 8:00 pm start time I had been told, but the program time had been changed and it had started at7:00. Enough said.
Performing for the Indian Embassy did bring me into direct contact with the German banking system, and its distinct character. Bank accounts are not easy to open - I had to tell them I planned to stay for a year. Credit cards are very little used. They are not accepted in most restaurants or stores unless they intend to cater to foreign or tourist trade (and are therefore more expensive). No one uses written checks at all - if you have or get one no one at the bank will know what to do with it. What’s used where I would expect a Visa card to be usable is a debit card with an electronic chip in it. What’s quite different is that you use electronic access to your account in place of where I might expect to use a check. I give someone my account number and a bank number and they go to their bank or online and transfer money directly. The check is never in the mail. People mostly use cash, and because the one and two euro denominations are coins, you can very quickly end up with $10-$15 in your pocket. Not like at home where I never carry any change longer than it takes to dump it into the ashtray of my car.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Charlottenburg

The "urban" view from my bedroom

One week living in town - I will throw together a mix of observations. I have never before lived for an extended period in a truly urban environment, where you can walk to all the various shops and facilities in the neighborhood. Being able to walk out my door first thing in the morning and have 3 or 4 places to buy a fresh croissant to bring back for my coffee within 3 minutes walk is outstanding! I had better be careful of how many croissants I may eat while I’m here. A good market is one minute away, the organic bakery, vegetables and cheese are 5 minutes. It’s 10 minutes to the Italian store, a small warehouse-style market where literally EVRYTHING is imported from Italy, all the canned and packaged goods, but also vegetables, cheese, salumi, etc. If I want to make eggplant parmesan with an actual Italian eggplant I can do that.

Of course, in order to have that Italian eggplant, or anything else, I have to be able to ask for it, in German. The 50 or so lessons of “German in your car” that I did while driving around in Los Angeles in June, July and August have certainly helped, but it’s still quite a linguistic adventure on a daily basis. I can make statements and requests, if I plan a little in advance, and I guess being a musician my pronunciation is good enough, usually to provoke a response that immediately goes beyond my ability to comprehend on the fly. I think of it as “shopping German.” I shamelessly eavesdrop on everyone in the bus or subway and sometimes can catch a little.
Klausenerplatz - more photos later
My “kiez,” my neighborhood, is apparently one of the nicer districts. When I mention my street, Klausenerplatz, or that I’m in Charlottenburg, I tend to get a bit of the raised eyebrow reaction that I associate from Los Angeles with being told that someone lives in Bel Air or Beverly Hills. Berlin covers a very large area, more an assemblage of towns strung together by an (excellent) transit system than a city, people here say. There are lakes and forests. I haven’t explored much of the old Eastern zone, but a trip to Karl-Marx Allee to look at the monumental socialist architecture has been recommended. In the former Western zone what I see mostly, where original buildings are gone and areas have been rebuilt, is typical 1960s architecture, but better than most you see in the US. It has held up over time better, at any rate.
Klausenerplatz park
And there is certainly some strangeness. While taking the U-Bahn (the subway) to the museum the other day, my eye was caught by the name of one of the stops along the line: Onkel Toms Hütte. Yes, there appears to be a district in southwest Berlin called Uncle Toms Cabin. And that’s not all. A google search revealed that there is a 5-star hotel in the university town of Göttingen called Onkel Toms Hütte. I read an article in the New Yorker recently that discussed the influence the book had had in its time and after in America, and that it was even more of a phenomenon in Britain and Europe. It must have made quite an impact in 19th-century Germany!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Berlin 1

It has been just over a week since I arrived in Berlin, so I’ll catch up with a summary and some observations.
August 26, 2011: The flight was quite tolerable considering that I got up at 4:00 (after going to bed at midnight). Watched Thor, more entertaining than I thought it would be, and most of Hanna, which I will now have to see the end of.
The flight was an hour late, so I assumed there was a good chance I would miss my train connection, but the airport runs so smoothly, no waiting or harassment going through passport control, baggage arrives quickly and smoothly, that I still had time to get my BahnCard50 at the train station, get the local train to the Frankfurt Hbf and get on the superfast ICE express to Berlin. What a contrast to arriving in the US, where even citizens are treated with suspicion and delay. Frankfurt Hbf (train station) is great, wonderful old building, a woman walking by eating a giant pretzel for breakfast. I had a “Bismarck Herring” and onion sandwich on a very good little roll and a cappuccino. Ah, to be in Europe!
It’s high summer, warm, humid, from the train window I see people taking their kids to ride bikes in the country, walking dogs along rural lanes. This is one major thing that I have observed on previous trips.  The transition from city to rural country and then wide-open agricultural land is very quick. The cities and towns are surrounded by functional green space. Skies are clear. It’s very attractive. It’s also very hot!
August 28, 2011: Now the weather has returned to ‘normal,’ in the low 70s, a mix of sun, clouds and rain. I’m staying for this week with Lars Koch, the director of the Music Ethnology section of the Berlin State Museum, at his home, an old farmhouse in the small, very charming community of Werder, on an island in a lake southwest of Berlin near Potsdam. This area was not fashionable during the time it was part of East Germany, so it has changed very little. Now it has been discovered and is starting to go more upscale. The island has attracted small shops and businesses like architects, landscape and garden designers, and discreet antique shops.
September 1, 2011: This initial week passes both slowly and quickly. I have taken care of many essentials, such as the formalities of the grant, so that I have quite a stash of Euros for the moment, getting a monthly transit pass, an access pass to the Museum, etc. The transit system is excellent, as I have seen on past visits, and my pass will take me quite far into the surrounding areas. I continue to be impressed by the result of this society’s decision to reject the cancer of urban sprawl. My Museum ID will get me entrance to dozens of museums all over Berlin; I could probably use half the time I have available just working my way through the museums.
I am also encountering the passive entropy of a bureaucratized society that is very set in many ways. I was able to open a bank account, but not deposit any money because the bank wasn’t set up to receive it. The Museum’s database was painstakingly designed to allow for the description or cataloguing of any kind of object that might be found in any of its collections. As a result, the way that any particular object or type of object is listed is obtuse and difficult to work with. So much information about the musical instruments I hope to examine is hinted at, but the links that look like they should be there are not, or are maybe hidden and someone will find them for me later, or… Is information or actual instruments lost literally, as in destroyed during the decades, or just misplaced? I keep replaying the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in my head, as the crated ark is wheeled into the giant warehouse.

I will move on Sunday into town, into the wonderful flat on loan to me from Amelia Cuni and Walter Durand while they have an artist’s residency in Vienna for two months. I’m looking forward to the chance to get to know the neighborhood. A preliminary observation about Berlin is that there is a very high proportion of elderly people and people with dogs, and elderly people with dogs - on the street, on the train, on the subway, in restaurants and businesses.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mumbai - First Week

Outdoor Concert at dawn, St. Xavier's College, January 26th

Flew from Kolkata with Steve Gorn. We then took the taxi to Dadar, left our bags at (tabla player) Prafulla Athalye’s place and walked up the road to the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre to see Ulhas Kashalkar perform. Steve and I both think he is the finest male vocalist performing today. And he had his “A-team” of accompanists: Suresh Talwalkar on tabla (he has more sheer fun performing than any other player I can think of) and Sudhir Nayak on harmonium (incredibly virtuosic playing, but done in a way that never distracts from the vocal). Since my program was at the same venue the next morning, part of the same Pandit Bhatkande Memorial Festival, I wanted to meet the principal secretary/organizer of the Centre, Pandit Sharad Sathe, as well as see the hall.

After the program Steve and I collected our things and headed south to the Colaba area to the YWCA (yes) where (we thought) we had a room reserved. Instead we got that indescribable sensation of walking up to the desk rather late in the evening, announcing ourselves and having the staff look at us blankly, “who are you?” It turned out that the reservation officer had been answering our emails but not writing the reservation in their book. The Y is still one of those places, very typical in India from days past, where everything (and I mean everything) is recorded in ledgers and journals in long hand. (I still remember banks in Calcutta that I went to in 1979 that had giant ledgers stacked floor to ceiling at the back of the room.) So in an interesting confluence of old and modern technologies Steve and I both pulled out our MacBooks and showed them the emails we had received. They found me a single room so small that I had to leave my sarode case standing upright, and poor Steve had to sleep in one of the offices for the night, but they got us sorted out and I had a great single room there for the next two weeks.

My first program in Mumbai was the next morning (January 23rd), back at the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, with Prafulla Athalye (one of Alla Rakha Khansahib’s senior students) on tabla. Bilaskhani Todi and Misra Kafi. Later that afternoon I made it to the NCPA in time to catch the last session of the yearly seminar on music organized by Pandit Arvind Parikh; not so much for the content of the conference truth be told but to pay my respects to Arvind-ji, who has done more than anyone in the last 20 years to keep the Hindustani classical music scene alive in Mumbai. An amazing man, really, now in his 80s, head of maybe the largest transportation and international communications company in India, a very wealthy man, and dedicated to Indian music as a musician, a senior disciple of Ustad Vilayat Khan, and as a patron. Then off to drink beer and eat Mangalore-style seafood with the Dutch contingent (Joep Bor, Wim van der Meer and Frances de Ruiter), Richard Widdess from SOAS, Steve and Jon Barlow. Many thanks again to Professor de Ruiter and the International Musicological Society for picking up the tab at the end of the evening!

Most of the next week was spent practicing and checking out a succession of local restaurants in the Colaba area, from INR 1,000+ fancy places like Indigo to the South Indian veg place a few steps away where a great masala dosa cost about INR 60 (a rupee is currently worth about 2¢). Very happy to make a few trips to Bademiya, the wonderful outdoor kebab place that sets up on a back street behind the Taj hotel every night and runs until about 1:00 am. I used to see or be taken to this barbecue on my first trips to Mumbai, and then not be able to find it again, or I would find it walking around late one night and then lose track again. Now I finally know, so I can always get one of their famous seekh kababs when I want. I took Ty Burhoe, on his first trip to India, figuring that this was an iconic Mumbai destination.

January 26th morning, Republic Day, featured a dawn program in the courtyard of St. Xavier’s College by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, santoor, accompanied on tabla by Yogesh Samsi and Bhawani Shankar on packawaj. It was quite magical and definitely worth getting up at 5:30 for. I finally got to meet up with Ty, and well as meet Takehiro, Shivji’s student from Japan, and Max, another student from Brooklyn. After the program Yogesh invited Ty and I to his wonderful family home in Gamdevi, one of the older sections of Mumbai, for breakfast. Toast with homemade butter still stands out as one of the outstanding food experiences I had on this trip. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sea of Vegetables - with pictures

 Some changes I perceived during this last period in Kolkata - actually they are things that don’t seem to be there any more, so I only became aware later on. Mostly sounds - the sounds that used to be very common on the street outside Transit House and other places that I have stayed over the years. The Indian street used to be a kaleidoscope of the sounds, the calls and other signals made by the people who supplied various services or sold things from house to house. Many people have commented that these ways are changing rapidly in the cities, that these traditional practices are fading, but, as with many things, Kolkata has, or had, preserved these ways much more than other metropolitan areas. I still see street-side barbers set up under a tree, and all the street-side food stalls making tea, samosas and chow mein.

But this time I became aware of some sounds missing that I was accustomed to hearing - the sound of the chowkidar, the traditional night watchman for instance. If I was up very early or couldn’t sleep I would here the chowkidar banging his staff on the gates of the houses as he passed by. He wasn’t there to actually catch thieves (miscreants in local parlance), but to let them know someone was around so they would run off. there was a call, a vocalization, of a fruit seller, pineapple I think, that I would always hear, but not this time. I especially will miss the signal of the mattress beater, who would come around from house to house and beat some air into the cotton stuffing commonly used in mattresses, which would get packed down over time. He would twang the taut string of the mattress beating tool he used - sorry I don’t have a picture from some previous trip - in a wonderful triple-time rhythm: 1 - - 1 - - 1 - - 1 2 3 1- - 1 - - 1 - - 1 2 3 1- - 1 2 3 1- - 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 - -, etc., with many variations.

One aspect of an older style of India urban life that does seem to be alive and well into the 21st century is that farmers and sellers still set up their fresh vegetables to sell on the sidewalk, even in the more upscale areas of the city. The area where I have stayed for many years, Lake Market, is a traditional market area, so the sellers who don’t want or maybe can’t deal with having an actual market stall just flood the sidewalks around the market building. One of the important philosophical concepts connected with music in India is the Nada Samudra, the Ocean of Sound or Vibration that surrounds everything. I have always thought of the Lake Market area as the Sabzi Samudra: the Sea of Vegetables.

I haven’t got time right now to figure out how to organize these pictures into an album, so I’m just putting them all at the end of the text.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Programs in Kolkata

To close out my much too brief stay in Kolkata I played programs three days in a row, from Wednesday, January 19th through Friday, the 21st. The Wednesday and Friday programs were in small galleries in South Kolkata. Wednesday was at Studio 21, a gallery that featured some pretty avant-garde kind of stuff, some with collage effects, some with cartoon-like features. This studio had never held a music program before, and we sat in a very small room that held maybe 25 people. Very live sound from the stone walls. I shared this program with Portland-based sitarist Josh Feinberg. The Friday program was at the Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts, which is an offshoot of a project that promotes village-based textile arts. They have a commercial showroom up the street and this gallery space for exhibitions. Weavers has had many music programs and were quite well set up in a very long, narrow room. But things were very fixed in how they were done. When it seemed that everyone would want to sit in the chairs that were furthest back in the room, rather than on the very uncomfortable stools further up we suggested that the stools be moved, and the staff reacted with rigid horror at the thought.

The Studio 21 gig was not one of my better ones – I was having trouble with my nails and it was quite humid in the small room, so of course that was the show that Tejendra Mazumdar, one of the top sarode players in India today, come to see. Oh well… At Weavers Studio I was fortunate to have Bubai (Debopriyo Sarkar), a particularly accomplished and sensitive accompanist, available to accompany me on tabla.

Both of these spaces, particularly Weavers, brought to mind the problem with making a transition to a new model of sustainability for (Indian) classical music in Kolkata. These venues do not have any mechanism to be able to pay artists, and are apparently not interested in creating one. Perhaps because so many music events in Kolkata are unticketed and admit with an invitation card, especially programs giving by the various music circles, the idea that a smart, upscale gallery like Weavers might be able to charge a modest admission fee that could go to the artists is anathema. This is not the case in Mumbai and other places. Unless and until some different paradigm can be devised to give some return to the younger or less renowned artists the structure that has supported the superb classical music scene in Kolkata will continue to crumble.

The gallery programs are the type that I might find myself doing, with minor local variation, almost anywhere in the world these days, from Berlin to Bali. Thursday evening’s program was one those uniquely Indian performance experiences. It took place in Howrah, the city just across the big Hoogly River from Kolkata. Being in Howrah is like suddenly going back 75 years in time, or maybe 75 miles in distance from the relatively modern city reality of Kolkata. Many main roads are narrow lanes with twists and turns; life is all out in the street. It’s something like a giant village. The program was in a meeting hall – a large concrete room, bare floor, with a wooden stage raised about 2 feet at one end. The performance area is just a white sheet put down on the wood. By the end of our one and a half-hour program my left ankle was killing me from being on the wood with no padding. I guess I’m spoiled. LOUD sound system. Many mosquitoes. But a very very warm and appreciative audience – people who know the music and are there to listen. 

The program was set up by a classical vocalist, Biswarup Paul, who lives in Howrah and is the secretary of the Hindustani Classical Music Circle there. We shared the program, which was a new and unique experience. We chose three ragas based the Kafi scale (Western Dorian mode) S R g m P D n S: Kafi, Jog and Bagheshri. In the Kafi section I played an alap, then he sang an alap, then I played a short gat/composition with tabla and he sang a vocal composition. In the Jog we did alap and jor together in dhrupad style and then both did compositions. That was as far as we had “rehearsed,” so the Bageshri we pretty much winged it based on a medium tempo vocal composition. I should explain a little that sharing the program, playing together meant that I was mostly expected to follow along with what he did and to shadow what he sang, but this was MOL what I anticipated working with an older, pretty traditional vocalist. Still, it was definitely an experiment and produced interesting moments for both of us and for the audience. I was quite overwhelmed at the end of the program when I was given a very large commemorative plaque and certificate, with the gesture of course, but also with the concept of what I was going to DO with these items which together would have taken up about 2/3 of my suitcase. I have left them on display at the Bondel Road house for now, and maybe the next time I come I’ll get them packed up ands sent home.