The words "classical music" evoke a consistent set of images and sounds: white-tied and evening-gowned orchestra members surfing waves of Beethoven, a sequined soprano belting Bellini. Left out of this definition is the fact that most non-European nations also have their own classical music, much of it many centuries older.
Despite its overwhelmingly Wonder Bread ethnic makeup, Portland boasts a large and diverse number of ensembles devoted to performance and preservation of these vocal and instrumental traditions. From China to Iran, it's art, specifically music, which ties it all together in the sort of harmonious multicultural balance that governments fail to achieve.
The Damâm Ensemble (pronounced dahm-AWM) is unique for two things: its specialization in the classical and folk music of Iran--an ancient musical tradition attested to in the writings of Herodotus--and the fact that its performers are so young.
Named for a primitive drum used in the Persian Gulf region, Damâm was founded in 1999 by twentysomething Bobak Salehi, a graphic designer/media developer who teaches violin, kamancheh (spiked fiddle), setar (long-necked lute), tar (double-bellied lute), oud (an unfretted lute that is one of the oldest of Middle Eastern instruments), guitar and Persian vocals on the side. Salehi is well-grounded in the Western classical tradition--his grandfather played a 1710 Stradivarius-style violin, on which Salehi studied. His father, setar master Hossein Salehi, was his first teacher of Iranian music. As Salehi says, "My father even played music in the car when they brought me home from the maternity ward in Teheran." Salehi composes or arranges all the music performed by the eight-person ensemble, which touches on music not just Iranian but also Kurdish, Turkish and others. "My ultimate goal," he explains, "is to preserve classical and folk music of Iran." One of his father's strongest admonitions was "to learn, preserve and pass on."
Kalakendra, the Society for the Performing Arts of India, is not a music ensemble but knows where to find and present performing artists of the Indian subcontinent. Improvisation is so much a part of the nature of Indian music, whether northern (Hindustani) or southern (called Carnatic, music performed in praise of Hindu deities), that it's often compared to Western jazz techniques. But the patterns handed down to their disciples by generations of past masters of instrumental and vocal music follow strict formal structure, and it's this tradition that Kalakendra seeks to preserve.
Formed in 1987, the society, which represents the performing arts of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka as well as India proper, has brought to Portland everything from sitar and percussion masters to vocalists specializing in North Indian classical music, from performers well-known only in India to such world-famous musicians as sitarist Ravi Shankar. (Shankar returns to Portland this September.) More importantly, Kalakendra brings a taste of home to ethnic Indians living in Portland, introduces a flavor of India's marvelous musical heritage to non-Indian audiences, and gives these communities a valuable opportunity to come face-to-face and culture-to-culture.
Kalakendra's president, Dr. David Savage, explains: "Indian music, especially the North Indian (Hindustani) style, is itself a fusion of Hindu and Muslim traditions," pointing out that many of the most outstanding Indian musicians sponsored by Kalakendra have been Muslim--proof that in art, if not politics (and we all know which world really matters), Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims can make beautiful music together.
The Yat Sing Music Club, a group specializing in classical Chinese/Cantonese opera, has been around since the 1940s. It's the oldest traditional music group in Portland and one of the busiest. It's also a tribute to the resiliency of tradition: Performance techniques have always been handed down from performer to performer, all of whom are male (women were not allowed on stage).
While Cantonese opera dates back to the southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 1179-1276), opera in China stretches back much further, to that most poetry-loving of Chinese dynasties, the 5th-century T'ang, an emperor of which founded the first opera troupe in the empire and dubbed it the "Pear Garden."
Yat Sing's members--most of whom hail from Canton--learned from their elders, according to John Lee, who plays Chinese horn and pipa (Chinese lute) with the ensemble. Though Lee describes most of the men in the group as elders themselves (a position of signal respect in Chinese culture, but a challenge when performing vigorous Chinese opera), they are an energetic bunch--meeting for jam sessions every Monday night at their Chinatown venue, sometimes in tandem with musicians from Seattle and San Francisco.
During World War II, the group offered full Chinese opera performances, with traditional costumes, to raise funds for Chinese relief. Later, when production costs soared, the gentlemen scaled down their performances, though they still appear occasionally at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden and hire out for parties, weddings and the Lunar New Year events. They hope younger musicians will learn from and join them, keeping the Yat Sing Music Club and its "Pear Garden" in healthy bloom.
The Damâm Ensemble
For more information, call 577-0446 or go to www.damam.org.
Kalakendra, the Society for the Performing Arts of India
For more information, call 233-8838 or go to