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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

“As you can see,” says 93 year old Peggy from the stage – gamely sporting dark glasses, a cheerful floral skirt and a top mostly hidden by the black handbag on her lap, the sort that Lady Bracknell would approve of, along with a baseball cap like a visor so her white curly hair pops through – “I came to music rather late in life. I call myself the simple cymbalist.” She speaks in warm rich tones which make the Queen’s seemed clipped and slightly, if not common, then definitely bourgeois, before getting back to the rock-steady business of playing the thumb cymbals.

Everyone in the audience laughs. And it’s true: most of us can see. Though a sizeable number of people here tonight can’t. Not least all the musicians onstage. Not that this is noticeable from when they strike the first chord. There is more contact between them and us than loads of shoe-gazing indie bands manage in their entire careers.

The brainchild of Baluji Shrivastav, the Indian-born virtuoso sitar player and composer, his Inner Vision Orchestra is populated by musicians of varying ages from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds from Peggy to Nigerian singer Victoria Oruwari, with the Lebanon, Japan, Iran, the UK (and India) all represented. The music is a smörgåsbord of music from these different places with a smattering of blues and jazz and Spanish guitar thrown in. The multicultural theme is clear, but when it comes to crossing boundaries, what underpins this music and the experience of it is the confronting and possibly the transcendence of personal barriers.

I’ve never been to a gig where I’m plunged into the distinct category of ‘sighted.’ Or made to consider what the opposite might really entail. It seems too huge and frightening to think about. But watching the show this reality invades your consciousness and you have to confront your attitudes and prejudices.

As do the musicians on stage. Talking to Lebanese oud player (and multi-instrumentalist) Ziad Sinno, he tells me: “Playing music helps me to overcome barriers, not just between people but in myself.” It’s given him new-found confidence to deal with issues of mobility – and the vulnerability he feels carrying his oud to gigs. “If anything happened to my oud, if it was lost, I would be lost too.” But he has recovered a vigorous determination: he has to leave his house and venture into new untested territory.

Sinno, born partially sighted, lost his childhood to war in the Lebanon and then his sight whilst in England studying. Having fallen in love with playing music at the age of fifteen, his relationship with it became even more intense as his sight failed. Playing, he says, he forgets everything but that moment. He is immersed in the world that Shrivastav has inspired. And for Shrivastav, blind since birth, sound is his world. He hears how it travels through space and understands the shape and place of objects around him because of how the sound bounces off them. With music he creates his own landscape. His intention is for the band to compose together, to strengthen those interconnecting bonds that go beyond culture and resonate with shared human experience, to create a new musical world: a world that shimmers with the delicate splash of Peggy’s cymbals and the gorgeous overtones of his sitar.

Elizabeth Kinder


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