The idea of performing arts is fast-changing in Europe; music, theatre dance and film are overlapping each other to produce arts that are more open-ended, both in terms of performance and audience reception. In the past year or so, a number of German groups and artistes -- the likes of Felix Ott, Anika Bendel, Thomas Lehmen and Ben J Riepe -- have come to Dhaka and given the audience here a glimpse of the evolving arts scene of the West. Mahaphon Clang -- the German-South Indian collaboration was the latest in line of that set, consisting three members of the German band Lautstark!4 -- Jan Friedrich Kurth (vocals), Matthias Kurth (guitar) and Lutz Streun (saxophone, clarinet) teaming up with veteran South Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham for a band that is too wide open to be classified into a genre. They closed their “Mela Thing 2014 Tour” with a performance at the Goethe-Institut Dhaka on Sunday.
The performance spanning a little over an hour -- was intriguing, to say the least. Ramesh Shotham brought a versatile range of percussive pieces in his performance, playing a drums set with various types of symbals and hi-hats mounted while sitting on a cajon (percussion box), and every now and then pulling out a new shaker from a bag, and a small daf (hand drum). His playing styles ranged from rock drumming to tabla bol uttered vocally, expertly motoring the tempo of the pieces. Jan Friedrich Kurth uttered words in just one of the six pieces played, while in the other ones he just uttered sounds -- sometimes yodelling, sometimes chanting verses that sounded shamanic, and sometimes expressing horror and grief through muffled screaming. He often used a megaphone for a radio-like effect, and generated strange but expressive tones through it. Matthias, the guitarist, also complemented the experimental and spontaneous nature of the pieces, just plucking through the strings in some parts, while playing full-fledged electric solos in others, and in the last piece, using an archtop guitar to play a sweetly melancholic, almost-Eastern folk-like melody. Lutz Streun on the wind instruments was one of the strongest performers of the night, playing airblown notes to muted ones to bass notes that sounded like a slapped bass guitar, performing the most number of melodic pieces of the night.
What was thoroughly enjoyable was the way the band walked through their pieces without a prior set plan; one member would bring about a sudden transition in the playing and the others would follow suit. They also did not have a set plan for how and where each performance would end; for instance, in the last performance, the whole band walked off the microphones and came to the front of the stage -- Ramesh bringing his cajon to the front and playing on it, Matthias laying his guitar down, picking up the drum sticks and playing them on the floor of the stage, and Lutz and Jan going full acoustic with their sax and voice. At one point, the members all just walked out of the auditorium singing and playing their instruments, only to come back two minutes later and taking position on stage to resume the same melody.
The audience was kept guessing the whole time of what was to come next; many of them switched seats, some left midway, failing to communicate to the music, but those who remained burst into applause and cheers every now and then, more out of amused surprise than anything else.