Two Music Live Shows in March

Both of the musical personalities written below experiment with concepts. Both are considered as extraordinary pioneers in their own musical milieu. I had the privilege to watch them in the same month and I thought it would be a really cool post to write about them together. 

3/15 Xi Ban (戏班) at Kulturpalast, Hannover, Germany

I was delighted to learn that the band Xiban, which means "Theater Troupe," toured in seven cities in Germany starting in March. As students with semester tickets, we had two options to travel without cost: Braunschweig or Hannover. The train left earlier on Saturdays in Braunschweig than Hannover on Sundays, so we opted for the Hannover show. I joked to my companion Maaz that in China, "Kulturpalast" or wenhua gong (文化宫) was an actual place in cities where privileged young children would go for their weekend art activities. The venue was intimate and some audiences were standing by the bar, while others opting for a closer look sat around the stage. We sat against the wall and were duly impressed. Maaz compared the band's traditional styles to qawwali folk songs that he loves.

Xiban  is a really mind-blowing band in the way that they experiment with elements from the South Asian sitar, jazz,  and a lot of folk instruments and oral traditions from China. Their fusion does not aim to entertain and display the exotic with superficial crossovers, but to alarm and shock with the transgressive potentials of sound. I only learned about them in February, and I I did not know much about traditional Chinese instruments, such as the different "luo" and drums used in Xiban's double albums.  It was a musical education to see the different instruments in action, something more than what I expected of a live show. The lead singer Zooma has stated in Chinese interviews that he would like to see more people using Chinese instruments and hopes to revive that part of the culture by introducing it to a new context. 

A type of luo; though Xiban uses hands rather than the sticks to drum on it
As a northerner by speech style, I was really amazed to learn that the lead singer Zooma 竹玛 was from Shanghai, because he mastered the northern style of singing very well. My favorite song is sung in a northern style--Counting People for Fun. His multi-linguistic ability also helped him perform songs in southern languages as well. I was most impressed by Li Xing's sitar-playing with his guitar in the last song, 藏相守. I even asked where he had learned it, and he said in China, from an American born Chinese guitarist called Gu Zhongshan (Lawrence Ku). 

Music and film critic Mengjin Sun, a very active figure in the Shanghai jazz circle, also put on his own improvisation that night, although that was less musical and less agreeable for the ear... The band toured for their album 《太平有象》 & 《五石散》. You can listen to some tracks here.

3/21 Vijay Iyer Trio at Bergamo Jazz Festival, Italy

This was the first live show I went to alone in Europe, first jazz performance I ever attended, and first time ever traveling to Italy. I was understandably nervous about whether or not I would be able to procure the ticket. Luckily I got one and there were many seats close to the front rows when I entered.

I heard about pianist and composer Vijay Iyer first through Heems (Himanshu Suri), a rapper vocal about his South Asian identity. I had no clear understanding of jazz at the time and I was intrigued by the possibilities of collaboration between rap and jazz. Even though I had not seen the Open City performance, I have been more on the lookout for opportunities of jazz musical education. Vijay Iyer, with his insightful opinions on race and art, such as this phenomenal speech at Yale, served as an opportunity for a person with a liberal arts background like me to this daunting subject. 
I’ve found myself right in the middle of conversations about race for most of the past 20 years. Now I’ve managed to maintain a stable and consistent presence in the jazz world; by any measure I’ve been one of jazz’s success stories, and at this point I have no bitterness; I just observe how things unfold. For example, I’ve seen my work described repeatedly (mostly by white men, who tend to do most of the talking in jazz) as “mathematical,” “technical,” “inauthentic,” “too conceptual,” “jazz for nerds,” “dissonant,” “academic,” and just last month, a “failure.” Over the years a racialized component emerges in such language—basically a kind of model minority discourse that presumes that Asians have no soul and have no business trying to be artists, especially in proximity to Blackness, which is, in the white imagination, a realm of pure intuition, apparently devoid of intellect. No such critique, I should add, is typically leveled at white jazz musicians, of which there are many.
I really appreciated the album Revolutions as well as some parts of Accelerando. Vijay Iyer has been influenced by Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill, but also maintains his own style through incorporating improvisation as well as Carnatic inspirations. During the show Vijay introduced the trio members several times, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. I unfortunately could not grasp the beginning and ends of each jazz track, so I was lost in the music (in the bad sense). I experienced the frustration of not "getting it." Compared to the controlled environment of my own computer, the live performance was even more challenging to my musical sensibilities. But when I saw Stephan Crump sweating at the end and audiences clapping with much enthusiasm, I knew the performance was something special. Vijay disclosed that there will also be a show in Italy again in June, and he looked forward to seeing the crowd again. I was determined to read more about jazz, and I found his illuminating conversation in 2005 with jazz sax player and South Asian American Rudresh Mahanthappa--Sangha: Collaborative Improvisations on Community (PDF available for download here. This was my favorite segment from the conversation:

Vijay: I guess I still have twinges of bad feelings about it, because I find that barriers are maintained in the way that music functions, in all these different cultures and subcultures. I find that what’s true in the mainstream superstructure gets transferred even to these little fringe subcultures, like the South Asian underground scene. And in particular, the role that jazz has today, or anything affiliated with or having any relationship to jazz: it’s sort of a pariah. It’s true what Wadada said; it’s the sort of thing that nobody wants to like. And that continues to be true even in the club culture scene. And what’s funny is that if you go to these Desi club nights where there’ll be DJ’s and people playing tabla and dholek and stuff, the way they promote the events and the way they talk about it afterwards, they’re using all this idyllic language about improvisation and freestyling. You know the kind: these people are “on some next shit” because they’re making it up off the top of their heads. And it just strikes me how that same language is never used by those people to describe what we do. 
Rudresh: Yeah. I think when people think of jazz, the younger generation thinks it involves too much homework. Somehow this idea of just going and listening and not trying to understandit is kind of inconceivable. Somehow when jazz comes up, people feel like they always have to have a background, they have to understand it. I was online and I found some blogs about your quartet shows at the Jazz Standard in June. And some singer had posted to her blog, and it was this whole rant about how she’s been trying to get down with modern jazz but she just can’t deal with it. And the whole thing was so laden with—it wasn’t about the music, really. It was about her feeling like she’s supposed to understand this but she can’t understand it. And obviously there was this psychological thing happening there, where she was maybe on the verge of feeling ignorant or stupid or something like that. So that’s actually seen as a reason for not liking it. I mean, do you feel like when you go to the museum and look at some crazy modern art, do you feel stupid? I generally don’t, but I kind of decided a long time ago that I was just going to deal with it on my own terms....So jazz just challenges people—just the word “jazz” challenges people in all sorts of bizarre ways. It’s really a shame that people can’t just come to it with a blank slate and then decide if they like it or hate it, or just be able to groove off the energy or the emotion of it…
In this sense, both jazz and experimental music such as Xiban challenge the audiences. 

This was my favorite performance of Vijay and Rudresh together, from 2008:

Bonus: Vijay Iyer talking about the importance of participating music events (even when one does not know what is exactly going on)
I was checking out a lot of these South Indian classical concerts in the Bay Area, mainly in Palo Alto, which had such a strong South Asian population because of the Silicon Valley. They were able to bring over artists from India to perform, so there was a regular concert series and I was going to that twice a month. And that was where I learned a lot about just the basics of listening to Karnatak music. Not that I’m an expert or know anything at all, really, about the details of it, but I know how to participate in that kind of event. That is something you don’t get from listening to records — some of those extramusical factors that you can’t really get from books or pedagogy, really. You learn a lot from being immersed in this community that’s participating in these events. 

What's next? Post-rock band Wang Wen (惘闻) will be playing in Dortmund. Looking forward to seeing them again. The last time I saw them play was in Chengdu, June 2012.