The Weekly Dig - May 2004

Cultural Constructions III: A Naked Clash of Cultures
by Stefanie Chun

It's musical foursquare with four divergent cultures. In this game, though, you're still in, even when the ball bounces out of the court.

This Friday, Cultural Constructions III: China Meets Brazil Meets Puerto Rico Meets Appalachia will be presented at the ICA. Cultural Constructions is a semi-annual concert series that was created in May 2003 to promote an eclectic improvisational sound that encompasses music and talent from afar. "We tried to find people who really represented a musical culture and stretched beyond that to play with people who played other kinds of music" said Ken Field, one of the curators for the concert.

The quartet ensemble will feature Shu-ni Tsou playing Chinese bamboo flutes, Fernando Brandao on flute, Abraham Gomez-Delgado on Latin percussion and Jimmy Ryan playing the mandolin.

Jimmy Ryan, whose genre encompasses the American roots tradition, is one of the top players of his kind in the country, says Field. Ryan picked up the mandolin when he was just a teenager, because he didn't want to play the guitar like everyone else. "It's higher pitched than the guitar. There is a percussive aspect to it that guitars don't have" Ryan said.

The Chinese bamboo flute is also distinct. Whereas a flute has a crisp, sharp sound, the Chinese bamboo flute approaches your ear in a wavy form. The sound from the Chinese bamboo either whistles or moans, and whatever the result is, the effect lingers.

Shu-ni Tsou, who has improvised with musicians including John Zorn and Butch Morris, says that this improvisation experience was very different from her previous "gigs" due to the extended rehearsal time and variety of instruments. The outcome from these differences she says is both harmony and dissonance. "When we actually do harmonize, that's when people start feeling really comfortable" she said. But clashing is also inevitable. "It's exciting to clash, because a lot of times, it feels just so naked. It's like being in front of people speaking foreign languages together, not understanding each other" she said.

Brazilian born Fernando Brandao and Puerto Rico native Abraham Gomez-Delgado complete this picture, with Brandao adding jazzy flair and Delgado contributing from his big band salsa background.

There is a constant struggle to juxtapose these international instruments and vibes while keeping their sounds distinct. Field says he doesn't want the sounds to "meet in the middle." "I want them to be in four corners and stay in their four corners, keep their own voices, [but] figure out how to make their voices blend."

Field said improvising with such differing cultural sounds was difficult for the musicians. "Some of them definitely first came into the first rehearsal and were like, 'Whoa, how do I deal with this situation?'" But the collaboration of instruments was not meant to be an easy task. Field said the concert "allowed the musicians some personal musical growth" and that "everybody had certain things they had to change when they got involved."

Cultural Constructions doesn't aspire to make the world a better place with its music, but it does have other ambitions. "I'm not sure that we were trying to make people aware of other cultures except for the musical part, but we wanted to do something that's worthwhile" Field said. According to him, the concert acts as a way to "open up new ground for the musicians" and at the same time, allow the audience to "broaden their musical plain." After all, who would expect to hear Chinese music at the same concert featuring Brazilian classical jazz?

The music may not be easy to listen to but definitely will be easy to appreciate. Give your brain a little musical exercise. Tsou, Brandao, Delgado and Ryan would love for you to come and play.