Mys­tic mer­ri­ment


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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.”


Jai Ut­tal

Glen Velez

Coleman Barks

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