Sunday, July 17, 2011

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: Getting There

If I were to judge the trip solely on the travel itself I would be writing a fairly dreary piece. It began with last minute packing, scrambling for food before the flight, arguments with my spouse and cramped planes due to a Detroit football club flying home – and this was just the flight itself. During the transit my Dilruba was broken and my bags taken (fortunately by mistake) and finally being forced to wait in the hotel lobby for a room to open up (one finally did shortly after settling down to breakfast).  In my frustration I had posted all of this to my facebook wall as a somewhat angry rant - which was inevitably seen by my tutor at Raj Academy stirring great concern for me. Needless to say that I had a touch of guilt for the trouble I caused her but at the same time because of my broken instrument I was convinced the whole venture was a bust.

It was early morning when I arrived at the Detroit airport and I just can't sleep on planes - so the allure of the soft hotel bed was much more than I could resist. It was still not yet time for my wife to get up back in Eugene and therefore; calling home was out of the question. I fell asleep for a couple of hours and was then woken by my phone ringing – the envoy from London had arrived and was concerned about me. I assured them that everything had worked out with the exception of my instrument being damaged. They then requested I come to the lobby to meet everyone, and thus I ventured out of my room.

Downstairs at the hotel things were bustling with activity, turbans and scarves everywhere. I had only interacted with my tutors via Skype (only twice before) and through phone conversations so I couldn't be exactly sure who was who.  Introductions were made and I had the privilege of meeting Professor Surinder Singh from Raj Academy – he enquired about my health and well being and assured me that my instrument could be fixed (which it was the next day). The worst part of the trip was over and fortunately with no major incidences other than some (in retrospect) small frustrations.   I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening the next day but I was told that a taxi would be taking us from the hotel to the gurdwara and to be in the lobby before 7:45am and I should rest up.                

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: Introduction

I have an interest in Indian music in general, I enjoy all forms of raaga from eastern Afghanistan to Bengal and everything inbetween. I thoroughly love the Quawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sarangi of Ram Naryan and the Sarod playing of Ali Akbar Khan. My first ambition in attempting to learn the theory and practice of of this music was to give a new flavor to my own compositions - now it has blossomed into a ful passion, one that takes my constant attention.

However; Indian music education in the US is still in relative infancy, most of us who have a desire to learn end up seeking out local teachers who are usually not musicians nor teachers by profession. Sometimes this is not even an option and for the rest of us we have only to consult texts, videos and online tutorials.

So, when I stumbled across London's Raj Academy program in Dilruba I jumped on the opportunity - I didn't know the type of music I would be studying (traditional shabad of the Sikh religion) but the chance to learn an instrument that had been so elusive to me was more than I could resist. Its been about a year now since I have enrolled in the Gurmat Sangeet Outrach program and I feel like things have been relatively successful. I have recently just finished their week long workshop in Detroit, Michigan and wanted to share my experiences with you in the hopes that they might be of aide to people who embark on a similar journey.

To read the other instalments, please see: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: The Sardinian Chronicles By Bernard Lortat-Jacob

Lortat-Jacob, Bernard. Sardinian Chronicles. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. Fagan, Teresa Lavender translation. Pp. x + 118, forward, photographs, compact disc, index, illustrations. $65.00 hardcover $22.50 paperback.

The sound of the launeddas, a traditional clarinet along with the playing of the more modern accordion and polyphonic singing have remained hallmarks of Sardinian music. Distinct from the rest of Italy primarily because of its proximity to Africa to the south and neighboring Corsica to the north it has been a staple of sound cultural inquiry, and within that inquiry, music can be examined alongside whatever the primary focus is. This is largely the case with Bernard Lortat-Jacob's Sardinian Chronicles. Unique among scholarly texts, the book is written with an air of travel writing complete with descriptions of beautiful sights, sounds and people. It is perhaps because of this style that the text is often considered to be a seminal project in the study of ethnomusicology.

Unlike most texts on the subject of ethnomusicology, Sardinian Chronicles dispenses with lengthy transcriptions of melodies and rhythms heard during fieldwork, there is very little written on the long history of the music, and very little attention is paid to pedagogical subjects on the teaching of the art form. Rather, Lortat-Jacob seems to be more interested in the individuals making the music and the environment in which it takes place. As Julane Beetham wrote; “Sardinian Chronicles is less a theoretical discussion than a simple, straightforward presentation of people and their customs.” (Beetham, 1997) This sentiment is echoed in Jane Cowan's statement; “Lortat-Jacob resists abstracting the musical and social systems from the everyday life in which they are embedded.” (Cowan p. 158) In many ways, the text reads like a cast of characters making appearances in a series of one-act plays as the chapters move on. This form of writing challenges the reader to consider the issue of culture from the individual or household level, all the way to the larger society.

The forward is written by Michel Leiris who begins by comparing Lortat-Jacob's work in ethnomusicology to Karl Marx's contributions to the dialectics of Hegel. Leiris then describes the process by which the author moved through Sardinia finding musicians at fetes (parties), spending time with them in their homes and at times traveling with them. It is Leiris' contention that the “flesh-and-blood characters” help us to “learn in the most direct of ways from the portraits of these people,” (p. ix) which gives an intimate look at a culture as opposed to other writers of the time who might otherwise paint it with a very broad brush.

In chapter one, Lortat-Jacob describes the beginning of his journey. The ferry that will take him to Sardinia is not a comfortable one, but in some ways this acts as a metaphor for the feelings of cultural displacements experienced by the author later on in the text. It is on the ferry that the reader is introduced to the first of the “flesh and blood” characters who make the book such a rich read. Coco, a man who likes to talk about stars and poetry. The two men engage in a conversation about the role of music in Sardinian culture being primarily an accompaniment for dancing whereas poetry is the more refined art form. There is also discussion on an instrument which is never mentioned again; the serragia, which is a type of bowed lute, Lorat-Jacob describes this as a “cello” made out of a pigs bladder fashioned to a broom-stick played with a bow strung with a few strands of horsehair.

Lortat-Jacob hits the ground running in chapter two with rich descriptions of virtuoso accordionists and issues of performance rights along with a very detailed account of a traditional fete for this town. The reader becomes acquainted with two rival accordionists named Pichiaddas and Dillu who both capture the author's attention. Pichiaddas for his virtuosity while playing at fetes and Dillu for his once great fame, but present attempt to sell his repertoire. This attempt raises issues of artistic rights and ownership of interpretation of traditional melodies and leads to an argument between Dillu and one of the author's friends. There is also some time devoted to the author attempting to learn accordion techniques from Pichiaddas, but to little avail as Pichiaddas is innept at teaching.

It is in the town of Oliena that Lortat-Jacob finds a radio station that plays all traditional Sardinian music. He uses this to familiarize himself with what is current in terms of taste, and write down insights. The main thrust of this chapter revolves around an exchange of the author's accordion with a performer in the town who arranges for the author to borrow an accordion from a friend who has just been a funeral. The instrument turns out to be virtually unplayable, and in his own colorful language Lortat-Jacob contemplates the handling of such a situation as borrowing items within the climate of Sardinian culture.

Chapter four is the first (outside of the ferry) to introduce the reader to an instrument or musical style other than the accordion. In Orgosolo, Lortat-Jacob writes about a shepherd's choir performing the traditional polyphonic song so popular in Sardinia as well as a famous maker of Jew's harps. The Jew's harp maker turns out to be a very young man who credits his father for everything he knows, and then gifts the author with some of his creations. The section of the text devoted to Orgosolo is in all actuality a very somber one. The main characters for this portion of the book live in a house with a woman who's husband is spending time in prison. This casts an uncomfortable state upon Lortat-Jacob as he attempts to carry out his research.

In Muravera the reader becomes acquainted with the launeddas which is described in the chapter as a “Sardinian Clarinet.” In truth the instrument is really more of a bag-less bag-pipe made from canes. There is no hard-description of the instrument in the the book, although there are a few pictures of the instrument being played in the following chapter. Lortat-Jacob spends some time comparing the conversational style of Moroccan people and the Sardinians in relationship to music. The author determines that Sardinians discuss musical subjects openly, which is quite the opposite to the Moroccan taste for conversations around art. The process of tuning launeddas is also a large portion of this chapter, where one of the makers of the instrument; a man named Cannargiu, shows the author his process for hearing correct pitches over a drone which contrasts other multi-tonic traditions of the west.

Chapter six devotes more time to the launeddas players in Sardinia. In this case the reader is introduced to another two (for the most part) friendly rivals by the names of Aurelio and Luigi. A good portion of this chapter is taken up describing Aurelio playing for a religious procession in which statues of the Virgin Mary along with angels and saints are carted through the streets. The procession went from the church into the village and back to the church again and was treated by the player as a kind of manual labor. There is also description of a dinner party in which Aurelio brings the author with him with the intention of reinforcing his social status. A status he needed in order to keep receiving well paying jobs. The chapter ends with a quaint story about the author needing to invite both men to play in Paris at the command of Aurelio which seems to show a certain mutual respect.

The thrust of chapter seven is really taken up with the author's anticipation of aiding gentleman in a serenade. Lortat-Jacob fancifully daydreams about the young woman who is to be sung to, leaning out her bedroom window looking beautiful and reminiscent of the most romantic of European films. His hopes are dashed when he learns that the individual who is to be serenaded is a mature man who has never been married. It seems the serenade was to be an encouragement for him to find a suitable bride and settle down. The man is gracious in meeting with the musicians and offers them cheese and wine keeping everyone at his home until daybreak.

Chapter eight begins with a reminiscence of the author being in France, witness to a phone call between two Sardinians from Irgoli. The pages then segue into a narrative on the town itself and Lortat-Jacob's fondness for it. He states that he would always stay there longer than was necessary due to its pleasant people and pretty girls. The primary musician in this chapter in a mature singer by the name of Tonino who participates in bar-songs around a guitar as well as a traditional Sardinian vocal quartet style known as a tenore. The bulk of this chapter, however; deals with local squabbles over a bridge that has been restricted by the town government due to its instability. The chapter ends with the decision of the village to build another bridge alongside and a little lower than the original.

Chapter nine deals very little with music of any kind. It begins with a conversation with the women of Santu Lussurgiu decorating the church for the procession of Christ through the town. The author then goes into an in-depth description of two very colorful characters; a local scholar named Pietro Lombardini and the son of a Sardinian expatriot named Dimitrius Onni. Onni is looking for lost kin and information on his father who lived in exile after emigrating to Italy, and later, the family eventually settled in France. As the quest for potential family turns out numerous candidates the story segues to the church music that is performed during the wooden Christ's procession. This music is described in the text as loud and aggressive, sung by four men and working better outside while the wind blows. The chapter ends with Onni's van having left before daybreak so as to escape his new friends in Santu Lussurgiu.

Castelsardo is another account showing a procession, this time the text deals quite a bit more with music and slightly less with the characters involved. This chapter has an atmospherically detailed account of the rehearsal process, in which the choirs used for the procession participate. The rehearsals are done around food and wine and from all hints in the book revolve around the act of careful listening. This is shown more in depth later on in the chapter, which describes members of the choir listening for an harmonic overtone addition to their four-person sound called the quintina (translating to; “little fifth”). The text then goes on to describe the gentlemen socially meeting in a bar after the procession is completed. There is a lengthy description of conversation about whose ice cream is better (the bar owner's or his competitor across the street) along with observations about the qualifying nature of Sardinian dialectics (the use of statements such as “however,” “on one hand” and so on).

Chapter eleven is primarily a recount of the author's time with a retired opera singer, turned choral instructor named Carlo Cicilloni. It begins with a somewhat opinionated description of Italian bel canto singing as “it claims to be beautiful; the singer believes it natural to accede to the sublime, and he must have a certain talent for combining sentimental narcissism with the unbridled outpurings of the heart.” (p. 99) The text goes on to retell a rehearsal of traditional Sardinian music, and how it was stripped of its beauty by the implementation of operatic technique on the part of Cicilloni. Lortat-Jacob makes no qualms about his distaste for this practice and even exclaims relief when his tape-recorder breaks making any record of the evening unavailable. Carlo is described as a passionate character, but one who is not totally sympathetic as his cosmopolitan approach to teaching singing is seen to be a detriment to what the author views as authentic music of Sardinia. The chapter ends with reflections on his automobile accompanying him through eight years of visiting Sardinia and not being able to make another trip.

The final installment in the text is the most meager in the volume, two pages which suggest that as the author was anxious to return home, he was also anxious to end his book. Sassari makes no mention of music or really any characters (save for the employees of the ferry who were satisfied with the end of the busy season of travelers). Rather, it seems as though this closing chapter reasserts the role of the foreigner in a culture that is loved by the traveler, yet the traveler is a foriegner nonetheless and one who eventually must return home.

The accompanying compact disk is a helpful and very positive aspect of the text for those who are unfamiliar with Sardinian music. There is also an appendix in the book itself that contains translations of the songs as well as performers' names and a short description of what the listener is hearing. The disk consists of twelve tracks, mostly a capella vocal and vocal with instrumental accompaniment, but there are also tracks devoted to the launeddas as well as some accordion music. The vocal tracks are perhaps the most valuable as it would be difficult to glean a clear understand of the sound based on Lortat-Jacob's descriptions in the book. Stylistically, within the ensemble vocal pieces there is a heavy emphasis on fry (low growling) sounds made by the low end of the quartet which was something not mentioned in the rest of the text. Indeed, these are very harmonically rich and though it is difficult to make out, the listener could easily imagine the bright overtones that were so sought after in the discussions taking place in chapter ten. These songs cover the religious pieces used in processions as well as the a tenore choral works. Hearing the launeddas is likewise useful, the droning base provides a tonal reference for the dancing tones in the upper two voices which makes for very enjoyable harmonics. Finally, the accordion pieces on the disk do well to illustrate the kinds of ornamentation the author writes about in the first few chapters.

It could be said the the strengths and weakness of the Sardinian Chronicles are one and the same. As stated before, this is not an in-depth look at the music itself, there are no transcriptions available of the music being described and the descriptions themselves are fairly lackluster in their ability to render an accurate portrayal of what the author was hearing. Sabina Magliocco, in her review of the book writes; “this is not, like so much of the distinguished ethnomusicologist's other work, an analysis critique, or deconstruction of the current musical situation in Sardinia.” (Magliocco p. 1998) The book rather chooses to examine the individuals whom the author encounters in his journeys. We learn of their families, their history, their hardships and their ambition. It is as the introduction to the text describes, these are “flesh-and-blood” people and not necessarily what the reader might expect as a series of case studies. The fact that twelve communities are covered is also noteworthy, mostly because Lortat-Jacob is able to illustrate the differences between them to the extent that they hold the attention of the reader.

There are a number of topics peripheral to music which are raised in Sardinian Chronicles. One subject is the pedagogical issue in chapter two in which the author was trying to learn from Picchiadas, an individual who had been a virtuoso for some time. Because of this, the musician had little idea how to explain his practice to someone attempting to learn. Another issue is the book's insights into the tuning practice, in both the launeddas and the voices that make up the vocal quartets. In both instances the emphasis is on the a sound tuned from the base upward, whether it be the drone note of the Sardinian clarinet or the bass singer of the quartet. The aim appears to be one of harmonics and how the notes fall naturally within the artists conception of being “in tune.” This contrasts with other texts' presentation of tuning such as The Soul of Mbira by Paul Berliner. In Berliner's text, the instruments are tuned by comparing one Mbira to another which is already in tune. (Berliner, pp. 60-61) In this sense each note is treated as a separate entity whereas in Sardinian Chronicles the scale seems to be treated as a whole unit.

From an ethical standpoint there are some considerations to be made. The characters who are all important to the base of this text don't seem to be completely aware of their role as it is unfolding. The fact that in chapter two, the author leads the accordionists Dillu to believe that he is a wealthy man who is considering purchasing his repertoire in order to get an interview is problematic at best. The same type of considerations could be made with Lortat-Jacob including so much of his subjects' personal lives in the text when his stated purpose was to study music. This raises many issues on maintaining proper distance with subjects, as Timothy Cooley and Gregory Barz wrote in Casting Shadows: Fieldwork is Dead! Long Live Fieldwork! “ all field relationships conflicts in loyalty easily occur that mold our experiences with informants.” (Cooley, Barz p. 19) On the other hand, it can't be said one way or the other how much information the individuals knew was going to be included in the final product. For this reason, the reader might be encouraged to give the author the benefit of the doubt, especially as so many of the people described appear to be long-term acquaintances.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the text is its ability to raise questions about the subjects of both ethnomusicology and anthropology. If both are concerned with the study of culture, then the question must be asked “what is culture?” This is not as simple of an answer as might be assumed, evidenced with the frequency of the use of the word. The fact that Lortat-Jacob uses individuals in such an in-depth fashion makes a fairly cogent argument that “culture” might well be defined from the individual, continue to the village, community and all the way up to the nation and beyond. If the reader examines the text from this standpoint then it could be said that Sardinian Chronicles is a valuable and representative account of Sardinian culture. The text is replete with accounts of sights, sounds, taste, costume and custom. Therefore; the musical accounts or lack thereof turns out not to be the thrust, it is the thread that runs through the book tying it together. Music is a way to socialize, and more it is an obvious passion for the author and finally the reader recognizes how it becomes a reason to write and not an end. The writing style is very florid and easy to read, and it is interesting while being educational. The compact disks are well recorded and make for enjoyable listening which in the final analysis makes this book and the recordings indispensable in any study of Mediterranean culture.

-Michael Wheeler


Barz, Gregory F., and Timothy J. Cooley. Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology. Second ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Beetham, Julane. Reviewed Work: Sardinian Chronicles by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, 1997 published online. Indiana University Article URL:

Berliner, Paul. The soul of mbira: music and traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Print.

Cowan, Jane K. Reviewed work(s): Sardinian Chronicles by Bernard Lortat-Jacob American Ethnologist Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), p. 158 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Article URL:

Magliocco, Sabina. Reviewed work(s): Sardinian Chronicles by Bernard Lortat-Jacob; Teresa Lavender Fagan The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 111, No. 439 (Winter, 1998), pp. 75-76 Published by: American Folklore Society Article URL: