Mystical tour-de-force a festival highlight

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Sarangan Sriranganathan on sitar and vocal. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Canberra International Music Festival / Concert 15, “Ahimsa: Meditations on Gandhi”, The Fitters’ Workshop, May 6. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE.

“AHIMSA” in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist tradition, is “respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others”.

Such was Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra of non-violent protest.

But, with the festival’s theme of “The Idea of Vienna”, it’s not immediately clear how even the title of the composition performed in this concert, much less its music, would have a connection to the musical traditions and culture of Vienna, or, more especially, Austria.

If that connection seems tenuous, it should not be, for this was a concert of exceptional
musicianship and inventiveness. As such, its place in this festival’s program is utterly secure, and should be so in Vienna, too.

Sandy Evans. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Better still, Sandy Evans’ eight-movement work, “Ahimsa: Meditations on Gandhi”, is a tour-de-force in which east meets west, jazz improvisation meets hard rock, and the mysterious and mystical meet space-age technology.

Evans, playing soprano and tenor saxophones, was with Bobby Singh, playing tabla, Sarangan Sriranganathan on sitar and vocals, Brett Hirst on double bass, and Alon Ilsar on drums, percussion and a pair of completely amazing air sticks (the space-age connection).

This ensemble took the festival way out of its comfort zone, and did so unashamedly and with dynamism and great style. Judging by the audience’s reaction, the risk paid off many times over.

Seven of the eight movements are inspired by quotes of Gandhi. The playing of each movement was as profound as the messaging in the quotes.

Full Ahimsa ensemble. Photo: Peter Hislop.

The mood built slowly through the performance from the meditative, responding to the idea that, when “the power of love overrides of the love of power, the world will know peace”, to driving hard rock rhythms, responding to the thought that “terrorism and deception are weapons not of the strong, but of the weak”, to impossible improvisations, to exquisite chanting vocals, to show-stopping solos and duos in various combinations, to driving ears-pinned-back, full-blooded ensemble sounds, all the way down to the meditative final movement, reflecting Gandhi’s “Prayer for Peace”.

“Ahimsa: Meditations on Gandhi” is surely “a”, if not “the”, highlight of this year’s festival.

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