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Los Angeles Times

At UCLA, Spring Festival of World Music and Jazz strikes a common chord

University's collection of instruments serves as tools to forge a global harmony.
By Blair Tindall
Special to The Times

May 20, 2007

THE classroom turned into a huge wind chime, as 30 musicians wielding wooden mallets hammered on Balinese gamelan instruments, the mallets rising and falling in unison. Melodies from a dozen bronze xylophones shimmered over incessant drumbeats, and as a deep gong rippled, every face became more intense.

"Sometimes I feel the music late at night, long after class is over," said Evan Phillips, a UCLA ethnomusicology major, as he pulled his shoes on at the session's end. "Once you've heard it, it's in your blood."

Phillips' perception of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra is nothing new. In 2,000 years of mythology, its music has been said to summon the gods. Some people, who offer flowers and incense and take care not to step over so much as a finger cymbal, believe the instruments are guided by spirits.

Though a gamelan — each a unique set of metal xylophones, drums and gongs — may seem exotic, many Westerners already know its sound from their everyday lives. Not only has the celestial music influenced composers such as Pat Metheny and Steve Reich but its instruments are heard on "Battlestar Galactica" and the classic Nintendo videogame "Secret of Mana."

But UCLA's gamelan ensemble will perform more traditional music during the university's Spring Festival of World Music and Jazz, which began Thursday and will run through June 5 at the university's Schoenberg Hall. Other groups, using many of the hundreds of string, wind and percussion instruments from around the globe that the university owns, will play Afro-Cuban tunes, gospel and the music of West Africa, Brazil, Korea, China and the Philippines.

Once a curiosity, music from these nations and others has gone mainstream in an increasingly diverse America. Today, world music has its own chart in Billboard magazine, concerts in upscale venues and CDs marketed nationally through companies such as Starbucks.

"As the world gets smaller and smaller, world music is a wonderful way to experience cultures firsthand rather than through someone else's lens," says Jacqueline Djedje, chair of UCLA's ethnomusicology department. "In many ways, UCLA is where it all began."

Indeed, UCLA is something of an ethno-epicenter. In 1960, the university started an Institute for Ethnomusicology, which in 1995 became the only stand-alone U.S. ethnomusicology department. Its alumni have founded nearly every similar program in the country.

In nearby Valencia, by contrast, the California Institute of the Arts awards degrees in world music performance, rather than ethnomusicology. Still, its own collection includes gamelan sets from Java and Bali along with hundreds of drums, sitars, tablas and Persian percussion instruments. And according to David Rosenboom, dean of the music school, its classes in Balinese, North Indian and African music and dance play an important role in the education of students majoring in classical music, jazz, music technology and composition as well.

Like those at CalArts, UCLA's 12 world-music performance ensembles are at times integrated into local communities. They are taught by some of their disciplines' most prolific practitioners, and while ensemble participation is required for ethnomusicology majors, the groups also draw players from other departments, who can traverse the globe just by entering the ethnomusicology building for rehearsal.

"It's part of our mission to bring in kids from all over the campus and give them an artistic experience," says Timothy Rice, an associate dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture who plays saxophone in the Balkan music group. Four nights a week, the rich tones of a Bulgarian women's chorus rise over the rhythms of a Brazilian drum bateria, while Chinese zithers and Indian tablas compete with a rousing gospel choir down the hall.

In the "Music of India" room last month, ethnomusicology student Alejandro Leda sat in a half-lotus position on a red oriental carpet, nestling the gourd of a long-necked sitar on his right foot. Surrounded by cymbals, drums, music stands and wooden xylophones, he plucked a melody, plaintively bending tones into an elegy that seemed effortless.

Yet as a visitor twisted into a comparable position, struggling to balance the sitar on one thigh, it became evident how much work is required to attain such proficiency. Some students come daily to learn from visiting professor Shujaat Khan.

Elsewhere in the room, Abhi Mathur, a student at the university's Anderson School of Management, watched as his teacher demonstrated a new musical mode, or type of scale. Khan's fingers flew up and down the strings, playing so fluently the music sounded like conversation. But, said Mathur, it wasn't just the chance to learn by observing such technique that had drawn him to this lesson.

"There's a big spiritual aspect in the cultural life," said Mathur, who was born in Kansas to Indian parents and regards acquiring traditional musical skills as something of a lifestyle change — and Khan's presence as a comfort. "There's a sense of security here not found anywhere else on campus."

Cultural traditions

AT such times, the music and culture are inseparable, as living masters impart traditions that have passed through generations and touch lives outside the music community.

Part of this cultural education is due to the caliber of the department's instructors. Khan, for example, is a seventh-generation sitar player, a living exemplar of India's artistic heritage. Other teachers — including Balinese musician I Nyoman Wenten, Spanish drummer Francisco Aguabella, Mexican violinist Jesus Guzman, Korean musician DongSuk Kim and Li Chi, a virtuoso on the Chinese two-string erhu — are similarly well-known.

"Many of our faculty are considered national treasures in their country," says Djedje, the department chair, who explains that ensemble work is required of ethnomusicology majors because hands-on knowledge is integral to the study of ethnic and indigenous musical traditions.

The instrumental groups also attract faculty and staff from nonmusical disciplines. Some of these players are new to music. For some, the opportunity to play in an ensemble has never been offered.

Ordinarily, college orchestras and bands audition only musicians who've practiced and refined their art for many years. And although some forms of world music require the same level of expertise as a classical virtuoso, many others embrace beginners, even those who have never played or read music.

"I always felt music was something you had to start learning young, but what I discovered is that music doesn't have to be hard," says John Leo, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in mathematics.

Two years ago, Leo began playing zhong ruan, a guitar-like Chinese instrument. From the start, he could join the 50-person Music of China orchestra, made up mostly of nonmusic majors who had never touched these instruments before.

"This was the first time I'd ever played in a group, and it was fantastic," says Leo, for whom the class became the highlight of his week. "It's a great way to relax, and very different from math."

Like Leo, beginners in professor Abhiman Kaushal's tabla class play alongside more advanced musicians. As Kaushal's fingers flew gracefully across the drum recently, he imitated the rhythm verbally with an Indian version of scat singing. "Dhati dhage tina gina," the students repeated one by one, with varying results.

"You have to think the syllables while you're playing," said 15-year tabla veteran and neuroscience student Shekhar Pai to Daniel Bolwell, a Japanese major who had started playing only two months earlier.

For every newcomer like Bolwell, there's also a musician in these ensembles who's finding joy by dusting off an old instrument. Some gave up the rigors of classical music long ago, assuming they'd never play again without daily practice. For others, the experience is a way to participate in ensemble playing in a relaxed, fun atmosphere, says Russell Schuh, a linguistics professor who has played clarinet in the Balkan ensemble for more than a decade.

"This music has tremendous appeal. There's something so energetic about the structure," says Schuh, who sees similarities between southeastern European tunes and northern Nigerian languages.

Schuh, who played clarinet in high school, began taking private lessons again after receiving his linguistics doctorate in 1972. But he found that he didn't enjoy playing Mozart and Beethoven as much as improvisatory Balkan styles.

While the ethnomusicology groups allow some players to use Western instruments, the vast majority perform on the traditional ethnic instruments collected by UCLA or lent by its instructors, many of whom have the expertise and connections to find authentic instruments.

"I bought six of these for $80 each when I went home to the Philippines," lecturer Tagumpay De Leon said as he held up a small 12-string bandurria during a rehearsal by his rondalla choir of plucked instruments, which includes guitars and double basses, as well as Philippine octavinas and lauds. "But if I'd just shopped on EBay, they'd be $200!"

De Leon's new bandurrias make up a mere fraction of the department's holdings. Many of these instruments are stored in a room housing the collection's centerpiece: a 60-piece, 150-year-old Javanese gamelan dubbed Kyai Mendhung (Venerable Dark Cloud) for the sound of its largest gong.

Sitting on a carpet near the gamelan, Miles Shrewsbery, an ethnomusicology major, was conditioning a drum's goatskin head using talcum powder. Nearby, another student tuned one of the intricately carved, five-chime saron instruments of the gamelan, adjusting bronze bars strung over bamboo resonators.

Though the room resembled a museum storage facility, the students' caretaking was a reminder that these were no museum pieces but instruments used daily — linking eras, continents and cultures.

In adjacent rooms, bamboo flutes sang sweetly along with a Chinese zheng zither, and Korean drumming thundered over traditional rondalla music, a European style that evolved in the Philippines during the Spanish occupation. However, given that this was Passover week, it seemed strange to hear no klezmer, Israeli Mizrahi or Sephardic folk music.

At once, the musicians of the Philippine guitar choir — a mix of individuals with Asian, European, African and Hispanic roots — struck up a new tune. At first, the chords of the introduction sounded vaguely familiar. Perhaps it was a repetition of the folk melody they had just finished? But then, their spirits rose in unison, transcending cultures and borders to celebrate a joyous Hasidic melody.

"Ha-va nagila, ha-va nagila, " sang De Leon, beaming as he led 10 students in a surprise encore.


Spring Festival of World Music and Jazz 2007


• African American Music Ensemble and Afro-Cuban Music Ensemble, 7 p.m. today

• Music of Mexico Ensemble, 7 p.m. May 31

• Music of West Africa Ensemble and Music of Brazil Ensemble, 7 p.m. June 1

• Music of Bali Ensemble and Music of Korea Ensemble, 7 p.m. June 2

• Music of the Philippines Ensemble and Music of China Ensemble, 7 p.m. June 3

• UCLA Jazz Combos, 7 p.m. June 4

• UCLA Big Band Jazz Concert, 7 p.m. June 5

Where: Schoenberg Hall, UCLA

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 206-3033 or http://www.ethnomusic.ucla.edu <252>
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Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times