This weekend saw a totally new experience presented by ROHM in an inaugural Worldwide Folk Music Festival. Drawing from countries as far flung as New Zealand, Mexico and Senegal, spectators viewed the shows presented on a purpose-built stage from tiered seating for over a thousand, in the beautiful Maidan of the newly opened, Royal Opera House of Performing Arts. There were three al fresco evening programmes, with a free informative comprehensive brochure, with four different groups in each. Spectacular screen presentations gave the background of the nine visiting countries before each live performance.
Finding the amphitheatre without adequate signage proved a little challenging for the newcomers, and being open-air, issues of smoking, photography, moving about and talking during performances had to be addressed before each evening opened with Oman’s contribution.
On Thursday night, the twenty-five men from ‘Shahbaa Folk Music Ensemble’, Nizwa began their display of folk arts, including chants and drumming (Kasir and Rahmani), in official dress of golden dishdashas with Khanjar, shield and belt and dazzling ceremonial swords. There was a patriotic song to Sultan Qaboos, concluding with some impressive sword-throwing.
They broke the ice splendidly, paving the way for the first guests of the evening, the poised and meticulous twenty-seven-strong, ‘Aqqu and Arka Sazy Ensemble’ from Kazakhstan. They brought live instrumentalists with them such as Korean-like kayagam (Zither) lutes, pipa (flutes) and cello-like fiddles to perform pentatonic music of East Asia. The ladies appeared resplendent in purple and yellow dresses to perform their perfectly graceful dance, and later as Swans in yellow and black to represent revival and proud nobility. Between there was a rhythmic modal folksong with lute suggesting Chinese influences, and another more robust solo, like a Turkish ballad. Bamboo flute solos with fiddle over compelling repeated rhythms, created an hypnotic spell, to be broken by the final Ottoman-styled dance in pure red, to the delicacy of oriental flute accompaniment.
The Palestinian ‘Al Asayel Folk Music Ensemble’ stormed the stage with fourteen unapologetically energetic dancers to pre-recorded music in, ‘Jerusalem Dance’. Ladies in dazzling bright Bedouin dresses, their leaping gesture was a sheer delight to watch with handsome, smiling faces illuminating the pleasure of continuous movement. A slow piano ballad with solo dancer told a story in the dramatic operetta, ‘Albal ya Haifa’, concluding with, ‘Dalona Dance’, an almost Cossack performance for its vibrant energy.
Twenty-two members of the Mexican, ‘Leyenda Ballet Folklorico’ appeared in a swirling mass of colour in Hispanic costumes – Sombreros, blanket-ponchos, brightly coloured Spanish dresses – and continued to whirl for a dizzying 20 minutes. They exuded so much energy, exhibiting incredible physical fitness and ability in their researched-based interpretations of different regions of Mexico. Ladies in black and grey spun with men as they imitated stylised, ‘Rancheros’ with demanding footwork to Spanish folk rhythms. Six Pink Ladies presented a sophisticated ‘tango-cabaret’, tap shoes borrowed from Flamenco, in a galloping fiesta. They concluded with a lengthy bluegrass fiddle piece and male stick-dance, reflecting the intense vitality and passion of Mexican dance.
On Friday evening the show was delayed by rain for 30 minutes, but still the ‘Ajyal Folk Music Ensemble’ from Sur opened the show with their Dhow-based theme (Al Bahri) to a fully packed arena. It featured a character in black dishdasha appearing with a theatre-horse, a model dhow and finally Omani flag.
Nabhan Khamis alAlawi blew the Barghum – made from Oryx horns which only give two pitches – with Ali Gharib alSaadi on Scottish bagpipes. The African influence was clearly seen and heard in ‘tug of war’; seven percussionists, clapping in complex rhythms or sporting Dhow-oars. This troupe comprised men with six ladies dressed in maroon robes and coloured dresses.
The twelve musicians and actors of, ‘Deylamoun Folklore Dance Ensemble’ from Gilan in northern Iran brought Naghareh (oboe-Shawm), Tar (long necked lute) santoor (zither) and Kamancheh (bowed string instrument) musicians. The first dance was an evocative Sufi-like four-hander, hiding under shawls to a haunting Naghareh solo. The second, like birds awakening, twirling in bright colours, was based on a folksong, representing rituals of farming. The impetus built up with yelping and Farsi hollering to four fast drummers, followed by a delightful love story where a pretty girl poured a basket of apples over her head (her dowry?) and two young rivals competed for her in a ritualised dance. Complete with stripey socks, the men portrayed something from a Persian pastoral legend, ending with a Prayer dance.
A very moving tribute to the tragedy in Christchurch was given before the exuberant performance by ‘Tuwhitia Kia Angitu’ from Auckland, New Zealand. It opened with a traditional Maori ceremonial greeting, tribal primordial chanting and wailing by the fourteen dynamic grass-skirted members.
However, the authenticity of the ritual was lost on some of the audience. It dissolved into beautiful choral singing in harmony to a single guitar. A traditional chant in Maori contrasted with forceful acapella and was followed by a jazzy ‘Action Song’ with bluesy voices and guitar. ‘Poi’ was a traditional Maori performance by the ladies swinging pompoms, rather than celebrating male warriors.
The ‘Haka’ war-dance was a fearsome, wordless rhythmic chant for the six male dancers. The final ‘Song of Farewell’ with guitar had Hawaiian overtones explored very high female voices in the four-part folksong, demonstrating the unique indigenous culture of the South Pacific.
Last but not least after nearly two hours, the ‘Khorumi Dance Ensemble’ of Georgia presented an incredibly energetic whirlwind of medieval troubadours. The performance featured huge leaps of Cossack-like bravura and complicated footwork from the six male dancers in twenty minutes of amazing turns, jumps, kicks and splits in perfectly synchronised athletic prowess.
A solo female in red broke the perpetual motion, accompanied by constantly repeating rhythms of the two Balkan accordionists and drummers, in swirling, seamless flowing movement. A slower, animated courtly dance for the whole ensemble followed. The finale reached a frenzied climax as they held hands, Levant-style jousting like medieval knights and dancing on their knees until the audience could feel their pain. It was an incredible display of skill and energy and provided a fitting finish for two days’ performance.
Each night concluded with a massed curtain-call, however one cannot help but wonder if the same could have been equally appreciated in ROHM’s auditorium, without the necessity for this purpose-built amphitheatre.
STORY BY Georgina Benison
PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDI