Storming: The Insurrections Ensemble by Marcus Grossman, September 2015

Global Studies Programme

It was Shakespeare’s puzzling take on colonialism that Cesaire and many others decided to re-interpret and re-interpret. But for the Insurrections ensemble, Prosperus is not about magic but about a sense of the demonic power of the current world system. He is a white man who hates the feel of money but who can’t help it with Ari Sitas one of the main drivers of this project acting like a Mick Jagger of a bygone time when rock made sense: he warns, cajoles and shows to the subaltern that power IS power. The oratorio develops its emotive and musical power against him. Two prior works together of musical prowess, made the ensemble feel its way into new heights.

The production at District Six, a venue where talk of slavery makes sense, brought fine musicians from India and South Africa together, amplified the gorgeous voices of Sumangala Damodaran and Tina Schouw, got the African grit of Sazii Dlamini and Kazi Mnukwana, the ethereal playing of Ahsan Ali and Pritam Ghoshal and many more anchored by Brydon Bolton on double-bass and Reza Khota on guitar to challenge, enchant and violate through self-conscious cacophony. Some quiet and soulful moments are added by Nixon on the weena. There is no reconciliation between slaves and masters here, there is not redemption or forgiveness, there is more violence in tow.

Tina Schouw is the militant, Calibana- haunting and full of subdued violence. .It is Ariela who tempers the emotions with Carnatic magic- it is Fanon Vs Gandhi. In this, the ensemble added a further complication in Ms Vilakazi who is sometimes with the spirits and sometimes with the roaches in the slave camp. The radical cuts from the original, take it away from the complexity of the old Tempest and reduce it to a Manichean duality of class and race struggle, but again the lyrics are too smart to make it all simplistic. You realise that the poets in the background are having a jazztime with both Shakespeare and Cesaire. 

The problem I had with this amazing piece of music and performance is that it had no resolution and it had at the same time a cathartic finale! All of a sudden, the music goes Bollywood and post-King Kong jazz, all of a sudden the lyrics get silly and throw away junk, the musicians play intricate but joyful solos and, the chorales get hopeful, the audience is clapping and stomping and then bang: the end. Slavery, race, violence, mastery and exploitation are on the back burner.

I searched with interest (I am sorry, on the Net I know) and found brilliant insights on the ensemble’s individuals. Ahsan Ali, Pritam Ghoshal and Sumangala Damodaran have very few impish equivalents in India, nor does the South African crew, although their YouTube clips are rather scarce;  so Cesaire need not turn in his grave. But Ari Sitas floored me when he said, don’t look at Cesaire in what we did. Look at #Rhodes Must Fall and Cesaire’s wife: Souzanne Roussi, we reconstructed her lost play- Aurore de la Liberte! I did…if he was not joking it could be the story of a Calibana!

They did cut out a lot of the plot- no fancy daughters and sons in law, just hints at weddings and progeny, no European angst about a lost city in Italy and so on. The narrative is stripped down to its musical essentials- yaman, bairav, maskandi, choral and jazz.

Whilst Calibana and Ariela make much of the compositions tonality, the rest around them are keen on the disconcerting edge: not only where Indian ragas meet South African sound but where spontaneous and improvisatory noise is be made into art. They do like artful noise but you can dance to it.

What can I say, the world  needs Clevers Mr Zuma!!! These Clevers make you want to cry and think.

  • Ensemble:

Ahsan Ali (sarangi) Brydon Bolton (double bass) Sumangala Damodaran (vocals), Sazi Dlamini (guitar, flutes, mbira, bows), Pritam Ghoshal (sarod), Reza Khota (guitar), Kazi Mnukhwana (vocals, bows)  Michael Nixon (weena) ,Paki Peleole (drums), Tina Schouw (vocals, guitar) Ari Sitas (voice) Mbali Vilakazi (Vocals).

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