THE RUMI CONCERT
The Rumi Concert
Improvisation is the guiding light for Open Secret:
The Rumi Concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Dancer Zuleikha, drummer Glen Velez, and vocalist and guitarist Jai Uttal perform to poet Coleman Barks’ reading of lines by the 13th-century Persian mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi on Saturday, Nov. 14. “Coleman has some ideas about the kinds of textures and flavors he wants in a very general way, but then it’s up to us to be very reactive to the way he’s reading,” Velez told
Pasatiempo. “Coleman really is a musician himself — the way he reads and the way he explores repetition and the rhythm and melody of the words. There’s a lot of interactive quality to it: We respond to him and he responds to us.” Velez masterfully plays and collects one of the world’s most basic musical instruments: the frame drum. “I have many different types,” he said, “and what I’ve been doing is studying the different ways of playing and then creating my own hybrid style that is influenced by Arabic and Persian and South Indian styles, music from places where the frame drum is popular and where they have very intense ways of playing it.”
The drummer, a Texan of Mexican origin, played frame drum from an early age and studied its use and origins worldwide. As a teenager, he was interested in the role of percussion instruments in jazz, but then found himself paying more and more attention to classical percussion. Ultimately, his growing predilection for spontaneous composition took him away from Western classical music. From 1983 to 1998, he was a member of the Paul Winter Consort. He has also worked over the years with singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and composer Steve Reich.
He said the frame drum is an instrument that originated in many traditions independently. “The oldest is the Middle East, but it has been found all over the world. In certain places they have utilized it in a very virtuosic way. Because it is so simple, you can really apply lot of creative ideas to it.” Some frame-drum players vary the pitch by tightening and squeezing the head in various ways and are able to play melodies. Some versions of the frame drum (especially tambourines) incorporate jingling zils, but there are also bodhráns, tars, and bendirs — these are all available in a line of “Glen Velez” signature instruments manufactured by the Cooperman Fife and Drum Company.
Velez’s activities this year included a China tour with his Trio Globo (with harmonica player Howard Levy and cellist Eugene Friesen) and duo performances with his wife, the dynamic vocalist Loire Cotler. He teaches at various universities in New York City. “One class I’m doing is at the New School, and it’s called ‘Time Tools.’ It’s such a fantastic subject, time, and how it’s translated into music, but also how it’s just an aspect of our existence that’s kind of underexplored. So the idea was to look at the way time is manipulated and experienced in different cultures.”
Velez has a history of performing with story-dancer Zuleikha. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Zuleikha evolved her
Become nothing, and He will turn you into everything. — Rumi
abilities with studies of Western classical music, North Indian classical music, Chinese martial arts, Balinese dance, and modern dance (with choreographer Anna Halprin). One of her distinctive performance elements is whirling, during which she focuses on what she describes as “the roots of inner space.” She has often performed with Uttal, a native New Yorker who had a particular love for Appalachian banjo songs and Indian classical music as a young man. At nineteen, he moved to the West Coast to study sarod and voice with Ali Akbar Khan. He lived in India for a time and made music with the Bauls of Bengal. Uttal’s own longtime performance unit is the Pagan Love Orchestra. In Santa Fe, he plans to sing, accompanying himself on the harmonium, guitar, and perhaps banjo.
His music is essentially devotional in nature, but this concert will be more freeform than the kirtan he performs at some venues. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “Kirtan, the chanting of mantras, is very interactive. It’s call-and-response group singing, and that won’t be what we’ll be doing. Although, now that you mention it, maybe we’ll sneak in a little kirtan. I think it would be a beautiful thing to add, and certainly the audience there would be very responsive to that. We have a rehearsal, but most of this is pretty improvisational, how we accompany certain poems and what comes up for us musically.”
Asked about a potential thematic dissonance between his Hinduflavored music and the poetry of Rumi, who was immersed in the traditions of Islam, Uttal said, “I think of bhakti, to use a Sanskrit word that comes from the Hindu tradition, which roughly translates as “devotion” but it really means the intimate personal connection with God and everything that one can do to enhance, to nurture, and to explore that connection. I think, at least in my understanding, that’s where the mystics of all the traditions are at. They all want to transcend the scriptures and the dogmas and all the ideologies and just meet God — or, in some cases, Goddess — full on, heart-to-heart. It’s this desperate longing for that deep, deep personal connection. In my understanding, which is of course limited, Rumi is in the same tradition as Tulsidas or Kabir from India.”
One of Rumi’s poetic lines is “Become nothing, and He will turn you into everything.” Isn’t such a concept somewhat at odds with tales about the Hindu gods Hanuman and Krishna, for example? “Maybe some of the ideas, but not the devotional intent behind them: It’s surrendering to God and offering your complete heart and soul to God and letting your art and your music and your voice and words be that vehicle of surrendering,” Utall said.
The Santa Fe audience will not hear Uttal on the sarod. “No, it sits there in my room and looks so beautiful, but I developed some back problems playing the sarod. I was studying with Ali Akbar Khan even toward the end of his life, but I was doing the singing classes. As much as I revere the sarod, I found gradually that the singing was more what was resonating in my heart and in my musicality. My main actual instrument these days is the guitar. I’ve been taking a bazillion guitar lessons for three or four years now with a Brazilian guy and really exploring the harmonic side of music. For all those years of Indian music, it was all about melody and rhythm, and there’s nothing happening much in harmony, so this has been amazing to me.”
Uttal said one of the things that’s unique about this group playing at the Lensic is that there is no leader. “In a sense Coleman is the anchor because everything will revolve around the Rumi poems. We’ve done different incarnations of this kind of performance many, many times all over the place and it’s always different and it’s definitely four people, four hearts, coming together and exploring creatively and spontaneously together. It’s always been very, very beautiful.”