Rumours had it that the Insurrections Ensemble was working on a piece loosely based on Aime Cesaire’s version of the Tempest for 2015.  It has been hard to say that this Indo-South African ensemble is larger than its parts because its parts were and are enormous.

On Friday the 25th of September we were treated to the ambitious work and I hardly recall a music performance in Cape Town that got close to the stuff they dished out at the Homecoming Centre of District Six. Their “Storming”, billed as a loose adaptation of Cesaire’s and other people’s adaptations of the Shakespeare original, produced a modal and intricate work of four movements that balanced emotion, guts and virtuosity.

It lacked the sustained meditative quality of a concert like Toumani Diabate’s four years ago in the Cape Town Cathedral but at its most lyrical it had moments of profound spirituality that contrasted sharply with parts that felt like Dolly Parton, Ravi Shankar and Cecil Taylor mixed with a blender.

If previous performances made waves and rode them, to quote from one of their songs, they have never ridden waves like these. The heart of the ensemble- the double bass, the sarangi, the sarod, the guitars (Zulu and jazzlike), fronted by the sublime voice of Sumangala Damodaran and thee raunchy ballad-styles of Tina Schouw did wonders. Each of the muusicians got a moment or two to shine: Bolton, Khota, Dlamini, Ali and Ghoshal shone through daring solos. Peleole, Nixon and Mnukwana shone as sound weavers. What can one say? Great arrangements, subtle and sudden key changes, expansive compositions, sadness, anger and humour.

It was inescapable I suppose that we were asked to think hard as well. There is the loose narrative, the storms, the plantations, slavery and indenture, old and new forms of exploitation, the common references if colonial pasts. These themes being worked through were more than relevant at a time of Rhodes Must Fall tensions demanded cerebral responses. But thinking was mixed with feeling and raw emotion, violence, curses, angers and discord matched with pure beauty. Damodaran was an ethereal Ariela, Schouw a tough as nails Calibana, Sitas a hoot of a Prosperus and Vilakazi a sugar anfd knives airhead of a deity. What left me breathless was the sarangi, what a sorrowful sound, the heart of all that blues as the band reddened and reddened the mood.

I am waiting to listen to the recordings when they are released. But for a R100 I walked away with their second CD which gave me a sense of what went on before. So what went on before? I had my notes from an interview with Ari Sitas in 2012 after their first Fugard performance.

Q: So what is the story behind all this?

A: poet Ari Sitas meets India’s musical archivist and performer of the subcontinent’s resistance music, Sumangala Damodaran. Trouble followed.  We did not just gather musicians around us. Each one invited to join was a thinker, a composer, a performer, each one had a remarkable personal repertoire of excellence. The point is that we worked together and sweated it out to discover whether we could compose songs that made sense across the Indian Ocean.

Q: What is your specific relationship to music?

A: I am somewhere where three musical cultures meet: my Cypriot roots bring the Greko-oriental, my theatre work brings the working-class vocal traditions of the black majority and my love of avant-garde Afro-American jazz brings madness. My poetry has been music-drenched. ..after listening and talking to Damodaran, the thought that serious poets worked with remarkable composers in the IPTA movement in India made more than sense. Damodaran made me listen carefully to their renditions, to a range of Punjabi and Pakistani interpreters of Faiz’s poetry and to the differences between the raga forms, the Tagore modulations, the popular and folk art of her country. It was obvious quite early that much of the folk art had deep resemblances with Nguni incantation

Q: What made Damodaran interested in this?

A: I might be making this up but I think, she took me seriously after reading my Slave Trades. Our concord was not about politics and art, we both have been unashamedly involved in cultural and in real politics. It was in the how one approached art. I made her listen to my understanding of public poetry- from late 19h century Paris to Mayakovsky, Cesaire, Elytis and Neruda and the Johannesburg black poets of the 70s and 80s. We talked a lot about of aesthetic acuities, stuff that fed into her manuscript on the Radical Impulse. I waxed on of how John Coltrane, Don Cherry and even Duke Ellington approached Indian traditions.

Q: Is the AfroIndian possible then? 

A: Obviously…yes

Ari’s first port of call was Sazi Dlamini. He had heard him talk of the proximity of Indian forms to African intonations. At first Ari thought OK, Sazi’s avantt-garde side was all too familiar with the way he thought but he brought with him a deep Nguni musicology. He felt it would work.

The ensemble is made up of serious folk then: Sumangala Damodaran has one of the most distinctive voices imaginable and is classically trained- the way she arrives at a note and the way the cello and the sarangi respond to her would have been enough. But Tapan Mullick on the cello was a walking tradition and Ahsan Ali on the sarangi is a masterful musician beyond words. They were and are accompanied by the sarod’s young genius, Pritam Ghosal. On the South African side, Neo Muyanga, Sazi Dllamini, Tina Schouw, Brydon Bolton and Jurgen Brauninger cook up a storm. The poets, Pitika Ntuli, Malika Ndlovu, Mbali Vilakazi and Ari Sitas, Vivek Narayanan and Sabitha Satchi had to swallow their egos and let the composers snip away at their lines, I was told.  

Mayihlome Aahwaan is the second album of the ensemble and follows the trailblazing first, eponymously titled Insurrections. The albums are different: the first is undoubtedly more demanding. It takes great risks but the risks make it a profound encounter. The second is more accessible, it swings and it pummels. Both are live recordings mixed with due finesse by Jurgen Brauninger.

The interweaving of the strings of the first where percussion was a decorative extra is left to the side and percussion and the rhythm section drive the new album on. Paki Peleole and Ze Maria make sure it does.  The atmosphere is rebellious, the words are harsh, the songs allude to defiance. Unfortunately for an English-speaking audience some of the most brilliant lines are in Hindi, Urdu or Malyali- like in Flowers in Insurrection, like in the first part of Malibongwe and in Song for Ourselves.

The music captures, the suffering, the struggles, the dilemmas of our times and it does so in musically revolutionary ways- the raga-like voicings as opposed to strict harmonies, the Nguni bow, cello, double-bass and sarod conversations, the microtones between the tempo switches are truly intricate in Insurrections. The sarod, sarangi and guitar inter-twinings of the second and the jazz folk cadences, are spellbinding. When they mourn, they mourn and when they jive, they jive. You can sense the miners being surrounded and you know they will be shot, the children of Gaza being perplexed and lied to that these are Eid’s firecrackers, the earthworms on the move, and the arrogant womanism of Mayihlome don’t f* with us, we bring you cinders! .

Listening to the concluding track Relah which has a different introduction in Mayihlome (worthy of an essay in its own right), the way the band shifts into a playful uptempo revolutionary invocation sounds like a marching band of crazy proportions..Listen to that against the haunting Insurrection of the Cow with the Nguni bow and cello and Damodaran in raga-mode delivering the most devastating lyrics deadpan. Listen to how the sarangi, the sarod and flutes attack the uptempo pieces of Mayihlome. Listen to the extreme sentiment-ridden vocalising of Schouw and Muyanga in the Mourning the Insurrection.

This is live music recorded in Cape Town and despite the talent at hand the improvisations are disciplined. This is no clash of styles, they are seamlessly woven together and can be African or Indian, you get lost about what is what after a while. The despair and violence of it all for me comes clearer in the first CD where the texturing is more crazy. They are and are not oratoria and yet they are. There are memorable compositions, Flowers,Let me Lie to You, KeAHana, Migrant’s Lament, and the crazy first section of Relah with Ari Sitas orating about birds as Sazi Dlamini blows and grunts away a full-forest of eerie sounds.

Now we have to wait for Storming. On the night it sounded like the most accomplished of their work. The whole was taken seriously. It was more than its parts. The expansive and haunting first movement, blends into the dark and sorrowful second; the Afro-anarchic third into a joyous fourth. I think this line comes from the Art Ensemble of Chicago: music as ancient as the future! 

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