Concert Review

Abida Parween with percussionists. Royal Festival Hall, London 30 May 2000 (PGW)


This concert may represent a parting of the ways between Seen&Heard and live music from India/Pakistan. The writer has been a long time supporter of Indian Classical Music since the '50s, when it was an exotic, minority interest, which had to be hunted out in small obscure halls. It has grown steadily in popularity over the years and become a huge a commercial success in UK.

There were however relatively few Westerners at Abida Parween's concert and no attempt was made to cater for their needs. The concert marked the release of her new Navras CD Songs of Love.[ no web-links available]

There was no programme available and the spoken introductions, which were plentiful, were in (I presume?) Sindhi. There was a noisy, party atmosphere, encouraged by the soloist, who came on clapping & exhorting the audience to join in.

The note in the May Events brochure told us that she was a powerful vocalist from the home of Sufism, whose mysticism is reflected in her kalams, geets and kafi with emotional zeal which takes the listener into a state of 'ecstasy and intoxication'. Neither ecstasy nor intoxication figured on this occasion!

We are unable to report sensibly, because the music was presented at an inordinate volume level, amplified badly with equipment which distorted grossly Abida Parween's voice. Even after retreating to the extreme back of the Terrace Stalls it was quite unnecessarily over-loud, the distortion precluding serious listening - in the circumstances, the good-humoured banter shouted by members of the audience was not inappropriate. We soon fled, feeling we had strayed into the wrong concert, and this notice becomes in consequence more of a 'health warning' to those with sensitive hearing.

This music simply does not depend upon high volume for appreciation of its felicities. I recall, years ago, a wonderful, magical experience at a Proms evening of Indian Classical Music. The amplification was so judicious that a huge audience was drawn into the music, played in the centre of the arena; it was not shouted out at us. The vast Albert Hall miraculously became an intimate shared space. Those were the days! But since then, the influence of pop culture has become all-pervasive, and driven away many regular concert-goers who would otherwise take more interest in unusual musics.

During this same month, Seen&Heard has had occasion to celebrate twice the marvellous developments in quality amplification systems. At the vast Olympic Hall in Munich the Irish Riverdance sound engineers achieved distortion-free naturalness at a reasonable level. At the large Peacock Theatre in London, the Youth Music Theatre sound team enhanced the young voices, just enough and no more to help them get across clearly Stephen Sondheim's marvellous lyrics in Into the Woods, done so discreetly that one was unaware of loud speakers.

The secret is state-of-the-art equipment with radio microphones, plus use of 'delay', so that all the sound appears to come from the performers themselves. And, most importantly, a sensitive musician-engineer at the controls whose objective is sound enhancement, and who rejects as inadmissible the crude amplification which is so regularly imposed upon audiences at the beginning of the 21st Century. It can be done, but I fear that for live music making from the Indian sub-continent, the cause is all but lost?

It can only be hoped that this is not received as whistling in the wind, and that The Music Room Management Ltd, and other promoters of this treasurable music, will consider the possibility to reverse the trend which has blighted their art.

The engineers implicated produce excellent Navras CDs from these live concerts, but treat the paying audiences with scant respect. Those in charge of the venues, including the South Bank Centre and The Barbican, should also address the problem as being within their responsibility too.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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