The London Jungle Book

Illustration by Myrto Williams

www.myrto-williams.com

This is a visual response to the interactive performance called ‘The London Jungle Book’ which was performed in the Clore Ballroom on Saturday the 14th of April. I especially liked the imaginative props and descriptions used throughout the performance. One to which I had a particularly strong visual reaction was the desciption of the Tube being like a worm snuggling its way through the earth.

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A Bridge between East and West

I first heard the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on YouTube. Most people did. A group of Pakistani musicians placing their own spin on five and a half minutes of the most popular jazz music ever written is pretty difficult to ignore. At first it was novel, then it was catchy, but always it was unique. If the inevitable comparisons with Marmite were to be made, I was happy to take a piece of toast and spread the Sachal Jazz Ensemble all over it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Almost every chair in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was occupied on Tuesday night to see the ensemble play its world premiere performance. It was hardly surprising, given that Sachal’s rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five has received over 340,000 views on YouTube in a single year, which, I’d tender, means it’s already reached more western ears than almost any other sound wave to have emanated from Pakistan.

I’ve become used to the charming humility that many South Asian performers assume, but there was an added dimension to this group’s humbleness. For a long time, during General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan, these musicians had to set down their instruments and concentrate on forms of employment besides music, which would have made a performance at something like Alchemy far beyond any realm of possibility. If anyone could be forgiven for walking on stage with a defiant swagger, therefore, it’s these guys. Yet they didn’t.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble

The ensemble somehow reminded me of the big band I used to play in while at school, albeit the sound they produced was, inevitably, very different. The stage was crammed with performers – I lost count at 25 – and they were all following large manuscripts which, presumably, translated Western notes into the musical language of the East. Each musician concentrated intently on their copy in the same way I used to stare furiously at my own music stand, mindful that if I lost my place I’d likely never again find it, while a conductor stood at the front of the stage with flailing arms, trying to keep everyone in check.

But this was hardly surprising, serving as a constant reminder that despite their tight, balanced, studio-polished sound, this ensemble are very much breaking new ground, doing something incredibly innovative and fresh. And they’re doing it with jazz, no less; not rock, not pop: jazz. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to turn the tables, to interpret South Asian music through a Western mouthpiece, but somehow I doubt it would be done quite so well, a testament to the group’s outstanding ability.

During Jude Kelly’s introduction to Pete Lockett’s concert on Sunday, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director described Alchemy as an exploration of the dialogue and ongoing exchange between English and South Asian cultures, a sentiment that seemed particularly pertinent to this performance. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble have essentially created an entirely new genre of music, building a bridge over which musical enthusiasts can cross from East to West and back, and I hope it’ll be used as a gateway by listeners from both sides to discover music they may otherwise never have heard.

Pete Lockett: the Key to Indian Music

I’ve long been fascinated with the vastness of the planet and the number of people on it, with the idea that over 7 billion people are going about their daily lives, compiling experiences and memories, emotions and thoughts, and that I will cross paths with only the smallest number of them. Even greater is my fascination with the human beings I have met, with the personalities I’ve interacted with and the lives I’ve briefly shared.

I think about Rafik, the auto-rickshaw driver who showed me around Jaipur; Julian, the grinning Bolivian who guided me into the Amazon Jungle; Govinda, the affable Nepalese trekker who walked me up and down the foothills of the Himalayas. I think about the short time I spent with each of them, and the fact that they’re still out there, living in those places and doing the very same things, while I’m sitting here at my desk in London.

On Sunday night, the roles were reversed.

Jaipur

Before introducing the 9 musicians from rural Rajasthan to a keen audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, renowned percussionist Pete Lockett described the journey you’d have to take to visit one of their villages. First, you’d spend 9 or 10 hours on a plane flying from London to Delhi, where you’d then have to board a train or bus to Jaipur, a trip that could take anything upwards of 4 hours. Once in the Pink City, you’d have to find another bus – this one smaller and much less frequent – to take you out into the desert, and eventually, after 5 hours or more, to one of these musicians’ villages.

Pete spent 20 years visiting India before he made the journey himself, but when finally he did, he unearthed a musical world untouched by the West, free from the vices of fame and fortune, and thus preserved with an authenticity that he found irresistibly captivating. Naturally, he collaborated, and with the support of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation built a number of musical relationships which, ultimately, is what brought us all to Alchemy.

Lucknow

They walked onto to the stage with palpable pride, apparently unaware that the privilege they felt to be playing in London paled in comparison to the privilege the audience felt in being able to witness a performance by 9 musicians who’ve barely set eyes beyond rural India. Their reserve, grace and measured movements only added to their charm, giving way to a raw intensity when they began playing their instruments. It was instantly mesmerising, and intensely evocative.

Lockett, who began the concert with a virtuosic solo performance demonstrating the full breadth of colours that can be painted by the percussion family, held the group together without once stifling the performance, adroitly blending traditional Indian rhythms and sounds with other musical flavours, from the clave pulse of samba to the dizzying scales of Tim Garland’s saxophone. At times, the dazzling diversity of musicianship meant it was difficult to know where to focus one’s attention.

Overall, the evening was a glorious exemplification of how music can transcend cultural boundaries, paying scarce regard to differences in language, tradition or place. It was fantastic to see a group of performers from such a broad variety of backgrounds play together, and to do so with a joy that was infectious, but even greater was the opportunity to peer directly into a new corner of the world. Those musicians will now travel from the heart of London back to the depths of Rajasthan, to a life far removed from our own, but for the briefest of moments our paths met, and that’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Rasa: Looking for Kool

Rasa: Looking for Kool is a one-woman show written and performed by Rani Moorthy. It tells the tale of Mrs. U, a defiant character whose world has been turned upside down by war, leading her to retreat underground to a bunker she calls ‘The Coconut Grove’.  The show unfolds in a secret labyrinth underneath Royal Festival Hall, where the audience play the part of war tourists as Mrs.U tells the story of her bittersweet life, her guilt and her loss.

Earlier on today, we caught up with the show’s creator Rani Moorthy as she walked us through the underground tunnels of the Festival Hall. She tells us how the show unfolds and talks about her inspiration for writing the show. Have a listen here.

For more info, and to book tickets to the show, visit our website.