Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cultural Transplants

People often like to say that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Yet bees spread pollen and many a seed has traveled long distances by either the wind or some man-made form of distribution. Just as a mammal's fertilized egg must attach itself to the uterine wall so that the fetus can undergo a proper period of gestation (ranging from 31 days for a chipmunk to 480-590 days for a sperm whale), it takes time for a cultural tradition to take root on alien soil.

In today's digital era (where many people live for instant gratification), it's easy for entertainment to be consumed by those possessing the electronic tools to purchase or download music and film. Mastering an artistic process takes much longer, especially when it may requires years of practice to acquire the skills necessary to produce the desired artistic product.

Far less time is required to produce a paper sculpture using origami techniques than a stone statue like Michelangelo's David (which stands 17 feet tall and took the artist nearly three years to sculpt). When more than one artist is involved in the creative process, it's not just a question of different strokes working for different folks. The speed of an ensemble's learning process depends on the skills, intelligence, and natural talent of its members.

Although religious missionaries have spread certain rituals far and wide, they have not always met with success. Consider what happened to the Conquistadors and missionaries in Aztec Rex:

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Many Europeans and Americans have such a long association with classical music that they take it for granted. A documentary directed by Martin Baer and Claus Wischmann entitled Kinshasa Symphony (which was recently screened at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival) takes lovers of classical music on a rare and sometimes rocky journey as they witness the struggles of a church's volunteer symphony orchestra in the heart of the Congo. In its 15 years, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste's musicians have survived war, poverty, and two political coups d'├ętat.

Though they live in chaos, their devotion to creating music is equally inspiring and frustrating. It's easy to see why:
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a surface area nearly 75 times that of Belgium (its former colonial power).
  • Although The Congo contains 34% of the world's cobalt reserves (coltan is a raw ore necessary for the production of mobile phones, laptops, and video game consoles) and 25% of the world's diamond deposits, the average income for a Congolese adult is about 300 American dollars per year.
  • The third largest city in Africa, Kinshasa has nearly 10 million inhabitants.
  • Most of the 60 million Congolese are among the world’s poorest people.
  • 73% of the Congolese population is considered to be malnourished
  • Barely half of all Congolese children have access to school education.

As co-director Claus Wischmann notes:
"Three years ago when I heard of this extraordinary orchestra for the first time I could hardly believe that it exists. Musicians who partly construct their instruments themselves and perform Mozart and Verdi in public places in Kinshasa in front of thousands of people. Musicians who interpret Carmina Burana as if not less than their own life was at stake. Every note expressing an exclamation mark of the will to survive. Nothing could be more different from the reality of subsidized classical music in the West."

Among the protagonists in Kinshasa Symphony are the following musicians:
  • Armand Diangienda is a former airplane pilot who is the conductor and founder of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste. The grandson of political martyr Simon Kimbangu (who opposed Belgian colonists and established the Kimbanguist religion), he was entrusted by his grandfather with the mission of founding a symphony orchestra in the Congo. In the early days, there were so few instruments available that rehearsals took place in several shifts so that everyone could learn the music. Today, there are nearly 200 musicians onstage for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
  • Jos├ęphine Nsemba is Armand's wife (and one of his first cello pupils). Although she rises every morning at 5 a.m to sell omelets made from fresh native eggs at Kinshasa’s biggest market, cheap eggs imported from Brazil and the Netherlands are undermining her prices.
  • Albert Matubanza is a guitarist who has coached many string players even though he cannot play the violin or cello. During the film, he is seen trying to craft a new double bass for the orchestra.
  • Joseph Masunda Lutete plays viola and looks after the orchestra's lighting needs when he is not working as an electrician and hairdresser (he recently purchased a long-life battery-operated shaver for his hairdressing salon as a means of coping with the frequent electrical blackouts). Whenever the power goes out during rehearsals, Joseph puts down his viola and springs into action.

If you're the kind of classical snob who only wants to hear the purest sounds when musicians perform classical music, this is not the film for you. If, however, you're the kind of person who would be fascinated by watching classical music slowly taking root in what many would consider a totally hostile environment, you'll be fascinated with Kinshasa Symphony. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco's most famous halauNa Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu, in celebration of 25 years of hula under its founder and kumu hula, Patrick Makuakane, debuted its latest show on Saturday night at the Palace of Fine Arts. As Makuakane's hula concerts have grown more technically sophisticated, and Na Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu's audiences have grown in size, it's been easy for people to overlook Patrick's strength as both a showman and a choreographer with a keen artistic vision.

Kumu hula Patrick Makuakane

Ever since arriving in the Bay area as a student, Makuakane has been teaching and promoting hula. On a recent tour of Japan with several Hawaiian hula troupes, he was amazed to discover that more than 250,000 people are studying hula in Japan!

Part of Makuakane's strength has been to choreograph traditional (kahiko) and contemporary ('auana) hula numbers as well as nontraditional hulas which use music ranging from Delibes to techno, from popular songs like "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" to "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Na Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu's performances are wondrously rich in costume, song, and Hawaiian history.

The evening opened with a powerful section devoted to the impact of the missionaries on the native Hawaiians. In addition to using these concerts for educational outreach purposes (Makuakane talked about King David Kalakaua's love for the arts and his death at San Francisco's Palace Hotel on January 20, 1891), Patrick was joined by his "hula sister," Kumu Hula Shawna Kealameleku’uleialoha Alapa'i, local drag performer Matthew Martin, drummers Kris Lee and Derek Sam, and newly-married musicians Lihau Hannahs Paik and Kellen Paik.  In his program notes, Makuakane wrote that:
"To commemorate our silver anniversary, we are excited to present the full-length premiere of Ke Kumulipo -- He ho'ohanohano (The Kumulipo -- An Homage).  The Kumulipo is an epic Hawaiian creation chant that majestically recounts the evolution of the world we live in.  Our homage to the Kumulipo depicts the birthing of sea plants and animals, the creation of mountainous islands, the rich flora and fauna that cover the land, and the emergence of the first men and women and their subsequent generations.  We collaborated once again with Hawaiian scholar Lucia Tarallo Jensen, who provided an insightful and profound translation of this ancient poem, reclaiming nature's song of origin.  The Kumulipo expresses harmony with our environment and ultimately highlights our connectedness with the natural world, with each other, and with everything around us. We believe this ambitious project marks the first time that this tale has been brought to life through hula."
Makuakane's hula shows have always paid respect to the Hawaiian culture's love of nature. With this year's push toward an increased use of multimedia, the audience was treated to some spectacular video effects by Wally Murray while performers were showcased by Patty-Ann Farrell's sensuous lighting designs. As always, Makuakane's chanting and narration were a highlight of the evening.

A collection of videos on YouTube show a series of "Hit and Run Hula" performances by Na Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu, including the following performance on the slopes of Dolores Park.

One of the trademarks of Na Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu's performances is that the audience always seems to leave the theatre glowing with warmth and satisfaction. A great deal of credit for this goes to the halau's top-notch production team (which aims higher and higher, year after year) and to Patrick's unique artistic vision. Here's a trailer for the 25 Years of Hula show:

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