A shadow play of distant histories

In parapatric speciation, where two populations diverge in adaptation to varied ecological niches without total reproductive isolation, a sequence of ‘ring species’ can evolve. A commonly cited example is of gulls distributed around the Arctic Circle, where geographically adjacent species, such as the European and American herring gulls, can interbreed, but where the species at either end of the sequence – in this example the European herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull – are mutually infertile. Similar phenomena can arise in cultural speciation, where the most distant cultures in a long chain of adjacent hybrids might look pretty alien to one another, but there is never any absolute structural barrier to cultural fusion. From India to Triana presents music and dance from two cultural regions that are not the ultimate terminals of the exchanges that connect them, but between which there is a significant distance, and elements of the practices that mediate them are missing from this fusion – specifically those that belong to the Arab world.

It is also interesting to note that the space of hybridity that the performing group Rootless claim for this performance is a steeply asymmetrical one, with an entire subcontinent as large and diverse as Western Europe at one pole, and a single district of Seville at the other. Such a lop-sided relation might accurately describe the character of the exchanges between, say, New York’s Lower East Side and the very widespread sources of its historical Jewish immigration, but no such mass-migratory relationship exists between Triana and India. The performance that Rootless presents is an imaginative journey then, not a literal one, but for me the experience was more of a meeting-in-the-middle, than a convergence of Indian cultures on one of the historic birthplaces of Flamenco. The nine performers we saw each brought whatever cultural materials they commanded to the table, and found their common ground, which is considerable.

Without a more detailed knowledge of the source cultures it was impossible for me to determine exactly what came from where. The overall format of the performance was consistent with the episodic character of Flamenco performances that I’ve seen, but was also reminiscent of alap, the performance schema of Hindustani classical music. Although it is impossible to generalise about ‘Indian music’, improvisation on set modal and rhythmic materials is a common theme there, and Flamenco could be characterised in a similar way – although it is probably more accurate to speak of embellishment than invention with regard to the traditional musics of southern Spain. The fusion was quite seamless: only a corpse could fail to notice that there were stylistic differences among the dancers, between the percussionists or between the vocalists, but there were common formal elements of fluidity, lyricism, polyrhythm, melismatic vocalisation and so forth, while the sequential structure of the performance allowed each dancer and musician to present their materials as an integral part of a coherent whole.

Clearly a fusion, a celebration of cultural commonalities, is also an opportunity to note and celebrate difference. Spanish Romani dance appears to involve more dramatic skirt-waving and less intricate footwork than Flamenco; the Indian dance we saw, aside from its more obvious differences, seems to accord more importance to the face and hands than the Spanish traditions, and to have a more explicitly narrative content, abetted perhaps by the clear denotations of the mudras (hand gestures) that are employed. But it is important to bear in mind, when watching a performance like this, that some expertise would be required to distinguish between the inclinations of the individual performers and those of their respective practices. For example, tocaore Daniel Martinez plays his guitar with forward rhythmic and melodic intricacy, while sitarist Ewa Adamiec cleaves to a more accompanimental approach, but this does not reflect any parallel distinction between the roles of the two instruments in their traditional contexts. As I lack a detailed knowledge of any of the raw materials from which From India to Triana is constructed, I was content to take the performance as given, or in a more cosmopolitan sense, as an artistic collaboration between a number of creative individuals, rather than a merging of traditions.

However it is interpreted, it is a performance which passes through many dynamic and dramatic positions, layering and modulating its various textural resources to weave a constantly transforming cloth of narrative warp and affective weft. Like the weather in Glasgow, if you don’t like it you only have to wait a few minutes and it will be quite different, although for me there was no call to wait anything out. While Rootless incorporate a variety of performance techniques, the heart of the show is the human body, and its capacity to visibly and audibly embody subjective experience. Both Spanish and Indian vocals deploy melisma and complex phrasing virtuosically, to produce an emotional discourse that is as precise and particular as it is compelling. All four dancers move in ways that speak not just of rhythm, not just of the erotic jouissance of the human form in flow, but of lives lived, and experiences internalised. The percussion and stringed instruments bridge these two domains, with the guitar and tablas in particular drawing parallels between the movements of bodies and the unpredictable flux of voices.

My ignorance left me, and I suspect many other members of the audience, disconnected from the history of the sounds and sights I encountered in fusion here. Given the complexity of the music and dance, and the enigmatic but clearly deeply ingrained language which they articulated, the effect was of a dimension lost, an involute three-dimensional geometry projected forward onto a screen. I loved the surface that I apprehended, with its psychedelic intricacies made all the more intriguing and exotic by my inability to interpret them with certainty; but at the same time I thought of an article I read recently, in which I learned that modern audiences of Indonesian wayang shadow puppetry tend to view the show from the same side of the screen as the puppeteer. Sometimes the mechanics of a performance help us to appreciate its surface. While mutual fertility is never excluded by cultural distance – as it is by genetics for the terminal members of a sequence of ring species – to truly appreciate the undoubtedly beautiful children of such a union requires an acquaintance with both parents. What this absorbing fusion articulates most forcefully, irrespective of that acquaintance, is that at either of its poles are human beings with the same fierce need to give voice to their experience.

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