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MUSICSCAN

Language is no barrier

M.V. RAMAKRISHNAN

Earnest rasikas of Carnatic music tend to be moved by the songs of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar or Purandaradasa even if they don’t know Telugu, Sanskrit or Kannada.



Nostalgic Fragrance: M.S.Subbulakshmi

Considering the spirit and impact of powerful music in a worldwide perspective, I had expressed the following views in this column recently (March 21): “The poignant scenes leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ had inspired some truly great works of European music in the 18th century, such as the soul-stirring oratorios composed by George Frideric Handel in English (‘Messiah’), and Johann Sebastian Bach in German (‘St. John Passion’ and ‘St. Mathew Passion’).

“So powerful and evocative is the spiritual element of these compositions that language poses no barrier to their universal dissemination, and listeners anywhere in the world can be profoundly moved by the music even if they don’t understand a single word of the English and German texts.

That, of course, is precisely the way earnest rasikas of Carnatic music tend to be moved by the songs of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar or Purandaradasa even if they don’t know Telugu, Sanskrit or Kannada well enough to understand the full significance of the lyrics.

“In any system anywhere in the world, all that’s necessary to absorb the spirit of truly great music is an awareness of the context to which it relates.”

In another recent essay (March 7), I had mentioned that the whole spirit of music is governed by the social, cultural, romantic, military, patriotic or religious values and sentiments prevailing in any given part of the world at any given time.



Lata Mangeshkar

And we had also noted that the most striking and worldwide examples of the social spirit of music are folk music traditions, which celebrate the advent of the different seasons of the year and stimulate related rural festivities, or highlight joyful landmarks of life such as birth, puberty and marriage, or even commemorate death.

Traditions prevalent

Of course, whenever we talk about folk music traditions prevailing anywhere in the world, we normally tend to visualise only rural settings and vibrant pictures of village life. That’s no doubt a universal scenario, but there are also isolated cases of urban folk music traditions, which are inspired by the common historic concerns of people living in large cities.

A flourishing example of this can be found in the traditional music known as Fado in Portugal, which had evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly in the capital city Lisbon, and also in a university region called Coimbra. It projects a uniquely nostalgic vision of urban sea-shore life, and is defined by the Collins Portuguese Dictionary as follows:

“The best-known musical form in Portugal is the melancholic Fado, which is traditionally sung by a soloist (known as fadista) accompanied by the Portuguese ‘guitarra.’ The theme is nearly always one of deep nostalgia known as ‘saudade’ and the harsh reality of life.”

I had discovered the universally appealing character of Fado more than 50 years ago, thanks to the broadcasts of Radio Goa. And after losing touch with it for a very long time, I have now discovered it all over again, thanks to the Internet.

Delicacy and drama

The two best-known fadistas of all time are Amalia Rodriguez (1920-1999) — whose legendary status as the permanent queen of Fado is the same as M.S. Subbulakshmi’s in Carnatic music, or Lata Mangeshkar’s in Hindi film music -- and Mariza, who is apparently the most popular exponent of the art today.

The following comments I found online convey some forceful impressions not only of these two outstanding musicians, but also of the whole musical tradition itself:

The New York Times says: “Amalia’s voice embodied all of fado’s delicacy and drama. She sang with sorrowful intimacy... with ornate arabesques and... sweeping crescendos that illuminated heartsick lyrics like a searchlight.”

A Chicago-based reviewer called Rosalind says in Ebonyjet.com: “Mariza sings in Portuguese but it’s really not necessary to understand the language; she connects beyond any barrier.” And she quotes Mariza herself as saying: “I was singing in Shanghai and I thought, they’re not going to understand. But everybody understands feelings. Fado is a music that explores the feelings of life. If you go to a taverna and hear Fado, it is like cleansing your soul and you can breathe again.” And a listener in Bucarest, Romania, tells the BBC online: “[I was] hypnotised by this bitter kind of honey for the soul, named Fado. I speak no Portuguese, but I seem to understand every single word... Thanx, Mariza, and thank you, Portugal!”

Indeed, if you wish to inhale the delicate and nostalgic fragrance of Fado, you don’t have to know any Portuguese, nor be a great lover of Western music — all you have to do is just hear the music rendered by an authentic and truly great singer. You’ll see what I mean if you take the trouble of finding YouTubeonline, click ‘fado’ and ‘amalia’ or ‘mariza,’ choose and play any song from the list of videos you see, close your eyes and just listen!

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