Pierre Flasse: International Endeavours - Part 3 – Finding a path to cultural equality
After my June workshops I had a small break before returning to Rajasthan in October for the Kabir Yatra. In Hindi, ‘yatra’ means journey or pilgrimage, and this was a week-long travelling folk festival celebrating the music, life and poetry of the mystic saint Kabir. Initially I came on board to discover more about the music, but managed to find a lot more.
Every morning would begin with all the yatris and musicians engaging in a ‘satsang’ ¬– a circle where the all the music and poetry was sung together, encouraging discussion and connection with one another.
Then we would travel to the next village and sing, listen and dance at a ‘plugged’ concert until the early hours of the morning. I was at a disadvantage, as I couldn’t understand much of the lyricism which embellished the music, however the emotional and physical intensity of the yatris, musicians and atmosphere was infectious. There were also two musicians attending from my workshops in June – Kasam Khan and Mir Basu Barhat Khan – who were playing all week.
In terms of playing, I didn’t learn much here until much later in the week – the vast amount of learning here came from a more philosophical perspective. Inevitably as one of the few foreigners on the yatra, it was difficult to ignore the fact that I was an outsider. This was something that everybody on the yatra did their best to overcome (or even ignore), by explaining traditions, poetry and most importantly – engaging with the culture as an equal. I was encouraged to dance, sing, talk and discuss as a peer, even though I was relatively new to this discourse.
I had played trombone briefly in our time off but was keeping it quite low-key. This was mainly due to the fact that I was aware of some of the shortcomings of cultural tourism and trying to engage with the music from a less educated standpoint, especially with a non-traditional instrument. However, one morning a friend prompted me to bring my trombone and finally with just enough confidence I did.
For a lot of the session I was fighting an internal struggle being very aware of what could be considered offensive or incorrect in this context. That morning’s satsang was a mix of some intimate guitar/banjo/harmonium and singing in a beautiful hall with reverb. The satsang works with the musicians in the centre of a circle and the other 300 yatris watching, singing along and enjoying it. Finally I built up the courage and took out my trombone, to a sense of intrigue from the other yatris and musicians.
The first composition I played along with went OK, finding my feet in the texture. In the second one I built upon this a bit more and there was an opportunity for a solo, which I took! It wasn’t particularly difficult but built up with the music, and the entire ensemble came down in sound to listen to it.
It built emotionally and suddenly everyone in the room was clapping and crying - it all got very intense out of nowhere. This marked a giant change in my perspective towards the cultural fusion that was possible. The only person in the room who was worried about all of these things was myself. I had been invited to play with them as an equal and to engage with them as an equal. This had a huge impact on my confidence with this group and towards my position in India.
In some senses, I had still wondered what I was doing in India. I had even at times felt like an imposter trying to do music out here. Suddenly from this I gained a lot of confidence in my journey, in my way of doing things, and the ability to engage in a genuine way.
During this week I had a few meetings with Kasam on potential projects that we might be able to form. He would sit and show me some of his fusion projects, and discuss issues like many musicians not actually having passports! I had learnt that for the cultural fusion to properly function, both musics would have to be equal to one another. In my opinion that comes from understanding the culture you engage with, whilst performing in your own sound world – for stability and equality.
I also observed that when I was engaging at the festival and also across India, I was very much playing in my own style, but also in the sound world of traditional folk music. And so, I developed an idea of fusion similar to a seesaw. If the seesaw represents the fusion, on each side you have each type of music, but the balance doesn’t have to be found in the exact middle. You can have a fusion that is more heavily grounded in one music, but maybe features it in a different way, or more closely and intensely. These are things to further explore on my return.
In my final month here, I went back to Jaisalmer to meet Lohan Lal Lohar. I wanted a relaxed end to my trip, but still with some light cultural exploration, and so surmised to learn the algoza with him. The algoza is a double flute (in playing similar to that of a recorder) with a bass and treble played simultaneously. It also involves circular breathing which I naively only started learning to do on my first day with him.
I would spend an hour every evening in his small home, learning a little about the music and the tunes, and the rest of my time during the day deciphering the lessons. Much of the music is cell-based and you cut and paste the cells in any place, so the music is more about an intimate knowledge of the cells. He taught me under the attitude that you don’t move on to the next cell until the first one is perfect, which meant that even by the end of my time (although pretty adept by then) we were still on the first one!
Learning was difficult as his English language was limited. At points the teaching was more guided learning, as I was teaching myself to circular breathe and he would correct me in the evenings. On circular breathing – I did actually manage to teach myself to do it semi-comprehensively after four days, and I have made a resource with detailed explanation and exercises – if you are interested then feel free to get in touch. I realised halfway through my lessons that he was well versed in many instruments, and so with my learning on fusion, started to bring my trombone and create synthetic tracks to play alongside and interact with, which went quite well!
Finally, I returned back to the UK in December. I will now learn the monetary and admin issues in setting up projects. I want to keep an element of the cultural equality close to my heart and if I manage to get any projects running in the UK, I would love to tour them equally in India as well, so that it is not just the UK that gets to benefit from the results. I am sure that ISM will be a crutch for me in advising routes and ways of taking these further. For those that have been following since the first blog, thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed them and feel free to get in contact with me if you have any further questions!
Pierre Flasse is a composer, performer, writer and educator based in Manchester.