Sounds of Bengal at Southbank Centre

The Southbank’s Alchemy Festival is now in full swing and already chalking up some hit performances. Sunday night’s concert by the sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta and the young tabla wizard Arif Khan has got to be at the top of the list.

Let’s just get it out there in the open: I’m obsessed with soundscapes. I love them. I almost always have a dictaphone on me, because you never know when you might hear something interesting – a distant wedding celebration, a call to prayer cutting through the din of traffic or the gentle patter of rain on the terrace.

It could be for this very reason that I was so captivated by Sunday’s performance.

It would do the show, Sounds of Bengal, a disservice to call it a ‘musical journey’ through West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh. It may be better described as an aural odyssey.

Explaining the project, Soumik says, “Bengal is a strange, overcrowded, yet delightful, carnival-esque bubble of a place. The colourful people, the green flat land and all its history is steeped in a tradition of music and sound. I wanted my audience to experience this with me. Along with the hugely talented Arif Khan, we filmed, composed and rehearsed the show ready for a winter tour in India. Inspired by the rhythm of rickshaws, the sounds of the city, the songs of boatmen and much more, Sounds of Bengal uses video, audio design and live music to create a portal for audiences to enter and albeit momentarily, lose themselves within.”

Using multimedia, despite technical difficulties at first, each piece began with photos, video and ambient sounds of the everyday. Gently and almost imperceptibly at first, Soumik and Arif would join in a duet between music and sound. Sounds included bird calls, traffic, cries of street vendors and the tumultuous drums of the dhakis (traditional drummers who perform at Hindu festivals). Each soundscape led to a masterful duet between sarod and tabla, which incorporated an eclectic fusion of folk tunes, ballads, poetry and contemporary music.

Sarod and tabla seemed to flawlessly grow out of the soundscapes, though I often found myself wishing for further development of the interplay between instruments and sound. This interplay was, however, brilliantly exploited in the last few selections, featuring the drums of the dhakis. Surprisingly complimented by beatboxing from DJ Jason Singh, the thunderous, whirling music skillfully ended a superb concert, or rather, journey.

This article originally appeared in Songlines.

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