Category Archives: Extraordinary People

Amazing people I have met around the world

Mathew Ngau Jau – sape master

In the mid 1990s I traveled throughout the Malaysian state of Sarawak in northern Borneo recording traditional music for what became the CD Sawaku, on Pan Records.

I went to Long San, a Kenyah longhouse up the Baram River in eastern SarawaMathew Ngau Jauk to attend the first traditional naming ceremony to take place in many years. I was hoping I might hear and be able to record some traditional music there.

I had arrived a couple of days early as a guest of the Wan Ullok family and was left to my own devices as the family became very busy with preparations. I asked around the longhouse for anyone knowing about traditional music and someone mentioned that a good place to look was at the next longhouse up the river. I heard of a longboat going up river so I hitched a ride. Arriving at the longhouse I was told that there were no traditional musicians left, so I caught the boat back to Long San. That was when a young man with a traditional haircut asked me what I was doing, and when I explained my search he said that he played sape (the traditional boat lute) and would be happy to play for me once we got back to Long San. We had a great conversation on the way down the river, but arrived too late to visit him, so I went over the next day.

This was the first time I heard Mathew Ngau Jau play the sape and the first time I had ever heard anyone sing with it. I was quite familiar with the sape as I had recorded Tusau Padan the most well know sape player in Borneo many years earlier, and Mathew knew the traditional repertoire well. However his passion was in his arrangements of traditional songs with the sape, and new pieces he had written within traditional styles. These were quite innovative and yet seemed natural extensions to the tradition.

Over the next couple of days Mathew and I became friends and he was very helpful in arranging for one of the elder women of the longhouse to sing and play a bamboo zither for me to record. I found out that he actually lived close to Kuching the capitol city of Sarawak, where I was staying. He was a full time teacher, but was obviously very connected to his culture. Very few men retained the traditional hairstyle as Mathew did, and those that did were either working in the tourist industry or were elders in longhouses far upriver. At that time having a traditional hairstyle could be result in ridicule or even harassment, and yet Mathew wore it with pride.

After a few days with Mathew I was very impressed with his dedication to his culture and music. After arriving back in Kuching I met with him a few more times and became even more impressed. I asked him if he was interested in performing more and possibly going on a couple of tours, and he said yes. I then talked about him to the Sarawak Tourist Board as I knew that Uchau Bilong, who they had been sending overseas, and whom I took to Marseilles, was getting to an age where travel was no longer easy. I put in a very strong recommendation for Mathew at the Tourist Board. Mathew also put effort into this radical lifestyle change, and although the wheels of government work slowly, eventually they hired Mathew as their representative musician and started to take him around the world on tourist promotions. This enabled Mathew to leave his school teaching and become a fulltime artist.

Mathew began to flourish. He started to build and paint sapes regularly, then revived that art of making and decorated traditional bark clothing. After that he revived traditional rock sculpture. Now Mathew has become the grand master holding the culture as Tusau and Uchau did before him. He has made a substantial contribution to his culture as well as educating the modern world of its value. His likeness is the logo for the Rainforest World Music Festival.

If you go to Sarawak, he has a B&B at his house and you will be treated to great music, great hospitality, great stories, and to meet a living legend. Mathew named as National Heritage

Advertisements

India and the Dalai Lama

My first and only trip to India was in 1999 and as India does for many people, it taught me how deep our assumptions and cultural differences are.

I was the leader of a band invited to perform at a festival for the Dalai Lama in Bangalore. The band consisted mostly of my former band ASZA with Nancy Fisher (now Mortifee) as a vocalist. Nancy was the catalyst for the invitation as she was a founder and Director of the now defunct Vancouver Sacred Music Festival.

Our first stop was at a prestigious club in Bombay called Jazz by the Bay. As a favourite haunt of Bollywood stars, I was surprised upon arrival how small it was for the reputation it had. As concert time approached it quickly filled up to slightly more than capacity with an appreciative crowd and we had a great show. After our performance the promoter, with great pride, introduced us to a number of prominent stars, none of whom we recognized or had any knowledge of their fame. It was an odd feeling to know that we were being honoured in meeting these stars, but having no clue who they were! But we all smiled nicely and looked impressed.

The next day started with a tour of a state-of-the-art multimedia centre and recording studios. They were extremely amazing and quite far ahead of anything we had seen back home. Yet as we were leaving, just a few steps outside the door, I witnessed a homeless person crawl out from under some boards in a back alley to drink out of a mud puddle after a recent rain. The contrast was shocking, and I didn’t really know how to handle it emotionally.

The following day we travelled to Bangalore and were well taken care of by the festival. Our hotel was quite modest, clean and comfortable except for the 4-inch wide crack running floor to ceiling down the wall of my room. I had heard on the news that many hotels in the region had collapsed due to poorly mixed concrete and this crack was very concerning. Somehow, I was already getting used to India so I wasn’t that worried as my bed was on the door side of the crack so I felt fairly comfortable with the possibility of waking to an open-air room.

Our group was assigned a young Tibetan handler by the name of Pema, who took care of all our needs and accompanied us everywhere. As the leader of the group I often needed his help in organizing schedules and technical requirements. Pema certainly made India easier to handle and over the next few days I spent a lot of time with him, and I felt we became good friends.

Pema met us each day with a driver to shuttle us to the gigs. We were very thankful for this as navigating traffic in India is an “art.” One particular amazing driver was taking us to the venue at the peak of congestion in a large bulky passenger van. Not far into the drive, we approached a bridge with two lanes in each direction. The two lanes on our side were totally clogged with three rows of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The oncoming traffic was stopped at a light on the other side of the bridge. So our driver casually drove into the oncoming lanes to get around the stopped cars. As I was the only person brave enough to sit in the front seat, I saw the light change and three buses side-by-side barreling towards us at full speed in the two oncoming lanes. There was absolutely no room in our lanes to get in and no room between the oncoming buses, so I sat back in resignation to see how this potentially life threatening event would unfold. Our driver continued to drive straight at the oncoming buses and politely asked me to pull in the passenger mirror, which I did quickly. At the last second he pushed into our lanes and everyone compressed to allow for him, with the buses also compressing a bit to just allow for seven vehicles to span the four lanes. In amazement I watched as the bus sped past my window with only an inch between our vehicles. Indian drivers are world class!

The festival had a large self-serve cafeteria that provided food to all the performers, volunteers, and monks, which made it a prime location for cultural clashes. Every meal there would be a giant line with a hodgepodge of nationalities wearing T-shirts and cutoffs interspersed with red-robed monks. The monks were obviously very used to close physical contact and pushing in line. One of our band members felt very uncomfortable when a monk behind him was slowly but constantly pushing with full body contact. Obviously, the monk had a very different concept of personal space. I handled the situation by standing sideways in the line and the monks were confused enough by this to give me space.

The highlight of the trip was an invitation to meet with the Dalai Lama. Sitting in the waiting room, one of the Dalai Lama’s staff came and told us to get ready, but that Pema would not come in with us. We discussed this between ourselves and decided that if Pema was not allowed in then we would not go in either. This caused quite a stir and our meeting was delayed, but finally a decision was made to allow Pema into the meeting as well.

We were not prepared however for Pema immediately prostrating himself on the floor in front of the Dalai Lama upon entering the meeting room. The Dalai Lama was also a bit taken aback and embarrassed, quickly encouraging Pema to stand. We were asked to sit on chairs arranged in a circle. Pema put his chair well back outside of the circle, but I quickly pulled him in line with us and said to him “Pema, you are one of us.”

The Dalai Lama was quite personable and spoke to each of us individually for a few minutes. He was everything you have seen him to be, warm, compassionate, extremely intelligent and well informed. It was clear that he was seeking out help in supporting his people’s cause. However I noticed that as he went around the circle to chat with us foreigners individually, he did not talk to Pema. I was a bit confused by his skipping Pema, thinking maybe Pema would be talked to last. So when the Dalai Lama started speaking to us as a group, I interjected “Excuse me your Holiness, it appears that you may have forgotten our good friend Pema.”

I was a bit taken back as the Dalai Lama gave me a hard stare followed by a stern challenging response: “Is he really your good friend?” It seems that I had overstepped my bounds and that the Dalai Lama was not used to being questioned. However, throughout my life I have progressively learned to dislike hierarchy, and I was no stranger to being challenged. So I replied mirroring exactly his tone and stare: “Yes, he is our very good friend.” At which point the Dalia Lama nodded and then spoke directly to Pema in Tibetan.

I was surprised at this scenario. The Dalai Lama knows the West well and also is aware that many people in the West are firm believers in equality. I would have thought that the fact that we insisted Pema enter with us would be a clear sign that we had accepted him as an equal. We were all well aware of the hierarchy within Tibetan Buddhist orders. However, as the Dalai Lama was asking for our help in supporting his people, his inclusion of Pema in the conversation without being asked would have been a powerful demonstration of his humility and love for his subjects. I guess I should not have been surprised though, as the Dalia Lama is the head of a very large order of monks and as the pinnacle of a hierarchy he is an authority figure used to wielding power. We usually don’t see this side of the Dalai Lama, as his most powerful public image is that of a humble man. Our insistence at having Pema join us inadvertently gave us a glimpse behind that image, as it is quite difficult to appear humble with someone prostrating before you. Yet the Dali Lama was a gracious host, and very well spoken, and we all felt it a privilege to spend personal time with him.

Upon leaving out meeting Pema rushed down the hall well ahead of us. I caught up with him at the elevators and found him wiping his tears. It was at that point I realized how deeply the meeting with the Dalai Lama affected him. He had just met his God.

Almost everything in India was a culture shock, and often the shock was so deep that it shattered some of my deeply held cultural biases. I can’t say I enjoyed India, and I can’t say I hated it, but I do think that everyone should spend time there. India tends to throw reality in your face, forcing you to confront everything: your emotions, your cultural biases, even your own mortality. Add to all that the overwhelming crush of humanity, India is so overwhelming that it is understandable why there is a deeply held belief in reincarnation there, because for many it is almost certainly too much to handle in one lifetime.

 

Studying With Intangible Cultural Asset #23 Park Gui Hee 박귀희

In 1987 I had the great fortune to be a student with Park Gui Hee 박귀희, the first person to hold ​the position as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 23 for kayageum sanjo and byeongchang. Kayageum is a long zither with twelve silk strings and movable bridges. Traditionally, the instrument is plucked with the fingers of the right hand while the sound is manipulated by pressing the strings to the left of the bridges with the left hand. Sanjo is a solo improvisational form, while byeongchang is a vocal form accompanied by kayageum.

As I explained in my previous blog on Korean shijo, Kim Duk Soo, the leader of Samul Nori introduced me to Park Gui Hee while I was in Korea between concerts on an Asian tour. I was already playing the Chinese zheng, the parent of the Asian long zithers, so Duk Soo thought this would be a good fit.

Park Gui HeeThe daily routine at Park Gui Hee’s studio was for the students to start practicing well before she arrived. Once there she would spend one on one time with selected students working on the details of the piece they were learning. This was the traditional method of aural/oral transmission, there was no written music used. The teacher played, the students copied and memorized. Learning a piece with this method takes time. Rather than just learning what note to play, every aspect of each note is learned all at once, including its timbre, timing, expression, dynamic, and inner motivation. The students have to listen with every aspect of their being to understand the depth and meaning of the music, and to fully commit to its expression. This was very challenging.

On my first day as a junior student I was introduced to Park Gui Hee, and then explained who I was and what I wanted to achieve. After some discussion I was introduced to a senior student who was to teach me the fundamentals. I was shown the basic right hand picking techniques, which were not that different from what I knew on the zheng. Next came the most idiosyncratic right hand technique for the kayageum. The index finger plucks a note and then the same string is flicked with the nail of the middle finger and index finger in rapid succession. This is accomplished by tucking the index finger behind the thumb as if to flick a piece of dust, and then the middle tucked behind the index in the same manner. Performed properly this technique creates a roll or type of tremolo that can vary in speed and dynamic.

My instructor demonstrated this technique to me and then went through it slowly so I understood it. It was very challenging, as I had never used my fingers in that way before. I fumbled terribly. After a while of my struggle to get a handle on this technique, my instructor stopped me and said, “This is an essential technique for the kayageum and it takes well over a year to learn. Without it, we cannot teach you more. So I will teach you a basic piece for the rest of today, but your lessons are finished. You are welcome to return to listen at any time.” That was on a Friday.

I decided that I didn’t want my lessons to end, so I spent every waking moment of the weekend practicing this essential right hand technique. That meant I ate with my left hand while practicing the technique, a somewhat messy affair at first that got better. I practiced while reading; I practiced while taking buses, grocery shopping, and even visiting friends, pretended I had some kind of nervous tick. Gradually, I began to conquer the technique and by Sunday night could perform it on the kayageum. Monday morning I arrived back at the studio and sat down in front of my student teacher. She looked at me questioningly and I put a kayageum in my lap and demonstrated my newly mastered technique. Her jaw dropped and she screamed! All the other students came rushing over and saw my doing the technique and were as equally shocked, “That’s not possible!” they remarked. “How did you do that? It took me two years to learn that.” I explained that I was a professional musician and practiced non-stop.

Hearing of this Park Gui Hee reconvened my lessons, and I was then taken through the left hand techniques. Korean music utilizes a wide variety of vibrato, many of which are not mere ornamentation but fundamental notes in constant motion. Korean folk music uses a modal structure called tori, which designates the five main tones of the scale. Often one or two of these is always played with a moderate or very deep vibrato. Then another note in the mode will be a falling note that descends from the original pitch, and is always played as such. These moving pitches all have an emotional characteristic that is must be expressed properly and is often the subject of work with the teacher.

I met with Park Gui Hee once a week to demonstrate my progress and she would correct some things and then give my student teacher detailed instructions in what to do for my next lessons. The learning curve was very high and the schedule grueling. I remember Park Gui Hee working with one student for a number of hours on just two lyrics of a piece, both of which were “sarang,” meaning love. The first rose slightly expressing the joy of love, while the second descended with a complex convoluted vibrato, voicing the pain of lost love. The student could easily reproduce the first lyric, but the second the teacher was very fussy about, with the student copying the teacher’s example repeatedly for hours on end. This student worked only on these two sung words for months, which was the level of commitment to detail demanded in the studio.

Park Gui Hee lived close to the studio in an old Korean courtyard Manor. She lived in a large multi-storied house in the middle of the square courtyard surrounded by a wall on all four sides, with a large gate on the southeast corner. The inside of the walls were lined with small sleeping rooms on three sides, and the kitchen and bathing rooms on the south end. Except for the house, the rest of the compound was turned into a yogwan, a Korean traditional style B&B. I lived in one of the rooms. The rooms lining the wall varied in size, but the majority of rooms were only large enough for two people to sleep on the multi-layered varnished paper floor. Each had sliding paper doors with a small entrance way. There were no chairs only cushions on the floor, the bedding was laid out at night and rolled up in the morning. The rooms were breezy, which was a good thing as they were heated with coal fired hot water heaters in the floor, and many people died each year from coal gas seeping into the rooms. Although the grounds were totally surrounded by city buildings the walls blocked a large amount of city sounds, and so the yogwan was a very peaceful place to stay.

Park Gui Hee gave private lessons in her house so every evening the courtyard was filled with the sounds of kayageum byeongchang. I spent from six to eight hours a day taking lessons and practicing in the studio, then came back to my small room to practice a few more hours, while listening to the lessons coming through the walls every evening. This constant exposure felt like a total immersion in the genre, cementing the music deep into my soul. Listening constantly to soaring voices sitting on the razor’s edge between a cry of pain and a cry of joy, performed with such commitment and passion, was an education unlike any I had ever experienced before. It was like being in a constant state of ecstasy, so much so that I often had to improvise quietly along with the lessons next door to give voice to my own ecstatic expression.

I felt like I was in two worlds. I would walk out the gate into the modern chaos of Seoul. This was the time a student unrest, so there was often a lot of tear gas in the air, and I learned to avoid approaching student riots by ducking into a subway station and taking the train back behind the riot, to find shopkeepers opening their shops and sweeping bricks and stones away from their doors. I would return to my yogwan and enter old Korea again, sit on the floor of my room listening to the lesson next door while eating an evening meal of rice, vegetable and kimchi, and a few hours of practice before sleep.

My time in Korea was too short, as I would have needed years to live and study all that I wanted to on the kayageum, and life didn’t take me in that direction. However, what I did learn was profound. Korean music is a balance of opposites and extremes: heaven and earth, male and female, joy and pain, tradition and innovation, silence and sound, Confucianism and shamanism, composition and improvisation, order and chaos. Park Gui Hee’s lessons pushed me deeper into my musical soul, freeing me to create with all of my being at every moment. As I continued to study Korean music I have found a deeper balance within myself, allowing me to express my wildest passions while maintaining a calm still centre.

Korean traditional music is in my opinion one of the world’s richest musical treasures, and essential study for anyone forging new directions in creative music and self-expression. I highly recommend it. It can change your life.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Waikiki, Ichigenkin and Yamada-sensei

In 1992, I studied ichigenkin with Chie Yamada, who had achieved a master status in a number of Japanese traditional music styles, and was not only an adept musician, but a masterful teacher. I had first taken some lessons with her a few years earlier, but this was the first time I could spend an extended period in Hawaii just to study ichigenkin. On my arrival her husband was not supportive of my lessons, as Yamada-sensei (sensei means professor/instructor in Japanese) was in therapy for cancer and some days the medicine made her quite ill. However, Yamada-sensei insisted I come every day to study, and her husband acquiesced.

Yamada-sensei playing ichigenkinThe ichigenkin is a rare one-string Japanese zither that some believe may have come from the Chinese seven-string qin. Both instruments were played by philosopher-musicians who would sit in front of their instruments without striking a string, believing that if a musician and an instrument are in the same room, then music is also present, no action is necessary to produce the music. “The music can be heard,” they would say, “if you know how to listen.” Before beginning my lessons, Yamada-sensei described this philosophy to me and added, “Sometimes I just look at an instrument and I hear it play, the music is instantly born inside me.”

This strong sense of philosophy is inherent in the ichigenkin, and Yamada-sensei would often explain: “The ichigenkin must be part of your body. It has only one string and no place for the sound to resonate; it cannot produce a strong sound by itself. The sound must resonate from your body.”

“You can not hide the sound with other notes,” she would say, “the ichigenkin has a pure sound. It can only be played as part of you, and the music should come as naturally as any movement.”

Studying daily with Yamada-sensei was challenging and rewarding. I worked hard to understand and apply the philosophy of the ichigenkin while I developed my finger and picking techniques and memorized each piece. It was only through listening and feeling her play and trying to copy it as well as I could that I made any progress. This was not music that you could learn from reading notes off a piece of paper; this was music you had to experience. She often remarked, “You can either read music or play it. You can’t do both at the same time.”

One day after I played a piece, Yamada-sensei sat quietly for a minute and then nodded saying “With the ichigenkin, every note must come from deep inside you. You must play from your center, deep in your body, because this is where the real sound is. But when you play you must also bring the sound out of your body into the air. Today I can feel the music come from you, this is the sign of a good player.” She then would regularly tell me if my focus on my centre (hara) was too high, too low, too forward or too back. She knew the instant it was not correct.

In the last days of my lessons Yamada-sensei would often look at me and scowl, “You are so relaxed on the instrument that it resonates inside you. You play like you are Japanese, yet you are not. You must have Japanese blood.” Then she would shake her head and in a sad voice ask “Why aren’t you Japanese…you should be Japanese?!”

On the day of my last lesson her husband thanked me for studying with her and being very patient with the occasional repetition of lessons (the medicine made her forgetful). He said that I had given her a lot of energy and made her days meaningful. He said that I was her best student and gave me the contacts for the Ichigenkin school in Tokyo, asking me to be in touch with them.

I was Chie Yamada’s last ichigenkin student. She died of stomach cancer a few months later. Her husband gave me the instrument that she taught me on. yamada1

She was the best teacher that I had ever had. She could see things that were inside of me and guide me to use them, sensing things about me that no other teacher ever had. I could sense hundreds of years of knowledge being passed to me; lessons that she had learned from her teacher before her, and likewise for centuries. When she taught, every note sang, as she would place it deep inside of me. I was taught to play each note as if it contained the whole piece of music. The piece should be as complete playing only one note as it was playing all of the notes. She taught me to feel the rightness of every note, to give each note time to exist and resonate in my body. She somehow had a deep understanding of the music that I always had felt inside of me, but never knew how to release. She nurtured my internal music, gave it life, and brought the deepest parts of me alive with it.

While I studied with Yamada-sensei, I stayed in a dorm room with 6 people, so to practice I would go and sit on a bench at Waikiki beach for hours every night. This was actually quite dangerous because the beach was where drug dealers, pimps and other underworld folks did business at night. They each had their spot, and any intruders were not welcome. However they fully accepted me. I had a spot I could practice, and many times a bunch of very scary looking people would come and listen. They asked me questions about the music, and myself, and we developed quite a personal relationship. They were totally fascinated with the ichigenkin and its philosophy, sometimes sat for hours just staring at the dark ocean and listening to me play. The only time somebody started to be aggressive to me, a number of big guys came up and told him that I was their friend and anyone wanting to mess with me had to mess with them first.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Park Kiok 박기옥 Shijo in Korea, Kim Duk Soo of Samul Nori

In 1986, I became good friends with Kim Duk Soo 김덕수 the leader of the famous Korean percussion group Samul Nori. The group spent quite a bit of time in Vancouver at Expo 86, at which I was very active as a composer, performer and producer.

In 1987, I was invited to perform in Korea and the Philippines, but had almost two months of down time between the performances. I asked Kim Duk Soo if he could set up some lessons in traditional Korean music for me. He arranged lessons on kayageum with the Intangible Cultural Asset Park Gui Hee 박귀희, which I will talk of in another post. Duk Soo also arranged for me to study with the shijo, ancient sung poetry, teacher Park Kiok 박기옥 that had a studio in the same building as Samul Nori in Seoul.

Duksoo
Kim Duk Soo at Chan Centre, Vancouver

Kim Duk Soo thought that through shijo I would learn the foundation for Korean music, notably the moving tones, or pitches in constant motion. In western terms this is like a highly expressive vibrato that changes in depth of tonal variance, speed, and intensity. Rather than ornamentation this is an essential and defining element of Korean music. Some pitches in a mode are always performed in motion and are never static.

My teacher was in his seventies and spoke no English whatsoever, and I knew only tourist Korean. Everyday we would sit on mats on the floor facing each other for the lesson. This is not so unusual in Korea while studying music, except that he was always impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit! For the first few weeks, our lessons went very well, although this was the first time that I had taken any kind of formal voice lessons. After a while I noticed that my teacher was disturbed by something. He kept repeating the meaning of the piece to me and even brought in someone to translate the piece so I understood it fully. Still somehow I was missing something in the lessons and he was struggling with how to tell me. I tried to become as diligent a student as possible thinking I was missing an important detail.

Normally when I study with a teacher I imitate them exactly to the point of copying the way they sit move breath, and every detail of their playing technique. This I did with renewed diligence, trying to find what I was missing, I mimicked my teacher almost exactly. Yet, he became increasingly frustrated and on numerous occasions he would crawl around on the floor in his business suit miming the story in an effort to try to get me to realize something about it. Soon after we were at an impasse, both quite frustrated at what I did not understand.

The time was approaching that I had to leave Korea, and even though I had not understood this vital part of his teaching, he asked me to come and perform at a gathering of the shijo teachers at his house. I arrived on the appointed day a bit late, as there was a meal involved, and as I was a vegetarian, I didn’t want to embarrass my teacher by not being able to eat anything. My teacher lived up five flights of stairs, and although I was quite winded from climbing them, as soon as I arrived my teacher asked me to sit down and sing for everyone right away. There were about eighty teachers there from all around Korea and including the Intangible Cultural Asset. They split up into two circles, one for the junior teachers and one for the senior teachers, which I was told to join.

Shijo teach on left
Shijo teacher Park Kiok on left

We started by me singing the piece I had learned and although I was winded and didn’t sing it very well, they were all very supportive of my effort. My teacher then said something to them that I didn’t understand, which sparked some discussion and then it seemed a decision was reached. One by one they each sang a piece. This took hours, as some of the pieces were long, but the time went quickly as I was totally fascinated by the range and depth of expression in the music. This was the first time I had ever heard anyone other than my teacher sing, and there were as many different styles and approaches to the music as there were singers. Many times I heard the song I sang repeated, but each time it sounded so different that at times it was almost unrecognizable. The last two people to sing were sitting beside me in the circle. The first was the Intangible Cultural Asset, whom I was told was 101 years old at the time, or so they thought. His voice was so quiet we had to strain to hear. He sang the same song that I had, but it was remarkably different, with a much deeper range of expression and moving tone than all the others. The person next to me again sang another variation of the song I had learned.

I realized that I was going to have to sing it again, and that this was the final master lesson. I was to interpret the song, not to mimic my teacher’s version but to express it in my way, to put the emotion within the song that the story expressed. I took some time to process all the all the techniques I had just heard and let my subconscious choose the appropriate technique for the emotion of the song. I let go of worrying solely about technique. I sang the song again, this time using the depth of my emotion to freely choose from the techniques that I had just heard.

Everyone roared their approval as I finished the piece, some leaping to their feet. However, for me the only person that mattered was my teacher, I looked at him kind of timidly, wondering what his reaction to my reckless version of the piece would be. He looked at me directly, his face totally expressionless, then he nodded once emitting a very sharp loud grunt of approval, turned and started talking to his peers. That was all I got from him in praise, but I knew I had finally understood that important point, I had to feel the music and sing it from my soul, and not just imitate. I felt glad that I finally understood while also honouring him by doing a good job in front of his peers.

Shijo taught me that playing the notes perfectly every time is not where music lies. Music is found in one’s soul. Techniques are a means to craft sound, and the more acquired, the more shapes the music can have. However, the perfect performance is not how well the technique is used, but how freely the deep inner voices of the musician can choose and utilize techniques to gain total freedom.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Pauline Oliveros

Sometime in the 1980s, composer/performer Pauline Oliveros and I had overlapping residencies at Art Park, in upstate New York. Although mainly designed to assist and showcase visual artists and their work, Art Park also has a couple of small performance spaces and occasionally presents music as well.

Pauline’s stage was a small concrete platform at the end of a meandering path in the woods, and she was joined in her performance by a dancer as well as a visual artist drawing throughout the performance.

Pauline started the performance by simply lifting her accordion to her lap, tilting her head to her side and listening.

r3poAfter about five minutes she started to play one very high note, held it for a long time, and then slowly added another, then another. As the music progressed, Pauline began punctuating the these long tones by ever increasing short rapid passages of flurried notes.

Listening carefully, I was gently being lulled into the music, when suddenly something changed. It was as if someone had just focused my ears. Everything that I was hearing was interacting in a clearly organized manner. I don’t just mean Pauline’s music, but all the sounds: the wind in the trees, the birds, peoples voices in the distance, everything made musically sense! When the birds sang, they sang in perfect tune with Pauline, entering at exactly the right moment, and sometimes paralleling Pauline in long intricate passages. In the same manner, the wind in the trees would shift and rustle, dogs would bark, squirrels would chatter, all in perfect time to Pauline’s music!

I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Somehow whatever Pauline was doing had such a perfect foundation, that every other sound fit together with it as if finely orchestrated by a master composer. Even the cars passing by sounded like finely tuned instruments rather than their usual obnoxious clamor.

I was so stunned that I held my breath, fearing that this would be only a momentary occurrence, but it wasn’t. It lasted for the twenty or thirty minutes that Pauline played. I had plenty of time to revel in this amazing experience. I had of course philosophically believed that “all sounds are part of the symphony of life”, but this was the first time that I was actually experiencing it! Every time I started to doubt the experience another group of random sounds would occur in perfect order! It was like a dream come true, I was filled with a an overwhelming sense of the order of life.

As the piece came to a close, the sounds of the birds and wind progressively became more random again. I tried to hold on to the experience, to somehow keep this way of hearing, but the more I tried, the faster it slipped away. It was replaced instead by the excited sounds of the audience: “Did you hear that?”, “That was amazing!”, “Everything was in tune!”, “Was that real?”, “Amazing how everything was in synch, what do you want for lunch?”

Amazed and excited by this experience, I went up to the stage as Pauline was packing up to leave, and told her of my experience. She listened politely, smiled and then said “Good…it worked……that’s the way it should be”.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Nukan Srichrangthin, Sombat Simla to Aerosmith

In 1984 I received a grant to study in Thailand. At that time the Canada Council for the Arts only funded study trips to Paris for classical musicians, so my request for funding to study in Thailand was refused. However, I was persistent and when on a cross-Canada tour, I stopped in at the offices to talk to the officer again. Once she saw the poster for my concert with a picture of the khaen, the instrument I wanted to study, she became interested in the instrument and project. As such I received the first Project grant given to a Canadian artist to study overseas in a non-classical genre, and opened the flood gates for Canadian artists to study around the world. I stretched the $2000 I received to last a full six months in Asia.

I had arranged to study at Srinakharinwirot University in Mahasarakham, in the north east of Thailand. , who had recently returned to Thailand after finishing grad school at the University of Washington, assisted me. I was there to study the khaen, a 16-reed bamboo mouth organ native to the region and that of Laos.

r3khaenI quickly found that I was following in the footsteps of Dr. Terry Miller who had recently been in the area a year or so before, researching his doctoral dissertation. My work was not academic, but just out of self-interest in the instrument and music. Parts of the northeast had not seen that many white people yet, and in some villages kids threw rocks at me, thinking I was a white ghost coming to eat them (a popular story parents told their children so they would behave).

Jarenchai had arranged for me to study with three top performers as teachers, one from each generation, but upon my arrival the oldest teacher was too ill, so I worked primarily with Nukan Srichrangthin and later with Sombat Sinla, the youngest.

My lessons with Nukan were intense; I studied 7 hours a day with him six days a week. Then I practiced four hours a night to make sure I was ready for the next lesson. I didn’t speak Thai and he didn’t speak English, so the first few lessons we had a translator. The translator said he couldn’t come for a few days and when he returned he was shocked, as I would ask Nukan a question in English and he would answer me in Thai seemingly understanding each other. That was the last day we used the translator.

Nukan Khaen Photo Raine-ReuschMy way of learning was to imitate Nukan precisely, every movement of his body, breath, fingers, to try and be an exact mirror copy of him. At first it was a struggle to understand what was happening, but after awhile it started to flow. The greatest difficulty was that the music had an improvisatory element to it, so every time Nukan played a piece it was different. So I had to learn to understand the patterns and underlying structure of the music and this took a lot of time.

sombat sinla copyright Randy Raine-ReuschOne day Sombat Simla showed up and took over my lessons. He was quite young and totally blind. He only spoke about ten words of English. When we first sat down he played the instrument slowly note by note. I responded by playing the same thing very quickly. He laughed and said, “OK.” He then played a simple piece, which I played back again a bit faster with embellishments, he laughed again, saying ‘OK.” Then he played an amazingly fast and complicated piece, after which I sat in total silence, and he laughed again saying, “OK, OK, OK!” And our lessons began. The music that Sombat played was basically the same as Nukan’s, but included his own voicings and approaches. It was great to experience the contrast between the two performers.

My host, Jarenchai, wanted to make use of my studying khaen to promote the instrument to Thai youth as much as he could so he arranged for me to give lectures at local universities, interviews and performances on local and national radio programs, and finally at the end of my stay he arranged for me to appear on National TV. I was to play khaen for a famous mawlum, a singer that the khaen usually accompanies. The mawlum sang in Lao and I would adjust my melody based on what she was going to sing. By the context of her lyrics I was to anticipate the tones of the words she was going to sing and then adjust my melody to match or at least not conflict with her tones and melodic line. As I had by this time only learned a small amount of Thai and didn’t speak Lao at all, my teacher stood off camera indicating if my melody should rise or fall with hand signals. The TV audience saw this white guy easily accompany an amazing singer, while in reality I had no clue as to what was coming next. I was technically good, but still was not inside the culture enough to fulfill the traditional function.

After studying khaen I went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and undertook a short study of the naw, a 5-pipe bamboo mouth organ with a gourd resonator played by the Lahu and Lisu people. My lessons took place in a large building in a small village on the outskirts of town. I would sit down with my teacher while the women of the village would all come, set up their weaving and watch. It was quite a strange experience to have an audience for my lessons and it certainly added a new element of pressure. Most of the time they laughed at my mistakes and attempts to get the music, but once I got a piece they all applauded. While there I wrote a new piece for the instrument and taught it to my teacher. When I returned for the next lesson, he told me he had played my piece at a tourist event, expressing that the dumb tourists didn’t even know a Canadian piece when they heard one!

Unfortunately, at the time I was there, Thailand did not recognize the cultural treasures that they had in traditional village musicians. To be able to spend hours a day listening to each of these stunning performers play was amazing, and to be able to study with them was a huge honour. I often would wonder why I was the only person sitting there listening to this amazing master play, when people just outside the door would be listening to garbage music on the radio.

Nukan survived as a rice farmer, but was a superb performer. Although I was a poor musician in the west, I was rich compared to him, and never balked at giving him as much money for lessons as I could. Nukan, passed away a number of years ago, and I owe him a big thank you for all the time he spent with me. Sombat was an itinerant musician, traveling throughout the region, living off what people gave him to perform. He is still active and is now considered the top khaen player in Thailand.

Aerosmith_PumpFortunately there have been a small number of other folks that have gone to Thailand to study khaen and some have done much better at integrating into the culture than I did. My hat is off to them. The khaen became one of my main instruments, which I recorded with artists ranging from Pauline Oliveros to Aerosmith (I played the naw with Aerosmith as well). I often used to play for the Thai community in Vancouver at their special events, and it was always a treat when those from northeast Thailand got up and started dancing. I went back to Thailand a number of times to continue my studies and visit my teachers.

Dr. Jarenchai Chonpairot is the champion of these amazing northeast Thai performers, bringing foreign artists, researchers and the public to recognize their talents. He is still active in Thailand, and by some at least is recognized as a pivotal person for this music.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014