As the Oman World Festival of Folk Music gets ready to shine on-stage at the Royal Opera House Muscat on March 14-16, we bring you a sneak peek at the line-up and how this traditional art form is finding new significance among a young generation.
We all have a song that reminds us of our childhood; one which evokes a sense of time, place and belonging. It may have been a ditty our grandmothers sang to us as we helped her roll dough in the kitchen; it might have been a chant we sang in the school-yard or an anthem we heard in a national celebration. They’re the melodies
that linger a lifetime – no Billboard chart flashes in the pan.
Given the ephemeral nature of music, what tends to stand the test of time are those compositions that somehow link us to a greater sense of our identity and define a generation. And folk music is an intrinsic part of the equation that forms the cultural identity of a people. Part of a rich form of cultural expression that can date back centuries, it’s an oral tradition that is, in its most essential form, the voice of a people.
In an effort to keep the cultural histories passed down through folk music alive, its exposure to new audiences who have new stories to tell is vital. It’s with this intent of cultural preservation and celebration in mind, that the Royal Opera House Muscat is launching the Oman World Festival of Folk Music, running from March 14-16.
Here, the Royal Opera House Muscat’s General Director, Mr. Umberto Fanni gives us an inside glimpse of the upcoming festival highlights.
Y: The Oman World Festival of Folk Music is a first-of-its-kind for ROHM. Walk us through its creation from concept to reality.concept to reality.
UF: Over the past eight years the Royal Opera House Muscat has brought a diverse range of productions from all around the world spanning opera, musicals, symphonic concerts, ballet, dance groups, and popular singers and musicians. While folk music from Oman and abroad won’t be new at the Royal Opera House Muscat, a festival dedicated to the celebration of diverse international folk music traditions, represents, as you rightly say, a first for ROHM. It will be an historic, landmark event.
All the programming of the Royal Opera House Muscat is derived from the vision of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said who established the Royal Opera House Muscat to contribute to world peace through the understanding and harmony that comes with cultural exchange. The universal language of music has a powerful and lasting cross-cultural impact as it engenders genuine communication with inspiring results.
The Oman World Festival of Folk Music is already creating a lot of excitement as Omani folk musicians are busy rehearsing, while folk music artists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas prepare to come to Muscat. ROHM patrons can anticipate an amazing and spectacular festival that will take them around the world in three days.
Y: Can you tell us what cultural performances audiences can look forward to?
UF: Furthering the Royal Opera House Muscat’s longstanding commitment to diversity, no less than nine international groups will present unique musical traditions from their various homelands. They are joined by three ensembles from Oman.
Audiences will experience a colourful programme featuring dramatic transitions from, for example, traditional tribal performances of New Zealand to folkloric song and dances from Senegal. In addition, outstanding artists in traditional costume from Serbia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Palestine, Georgia, Korea, and Mexico will transform the maidan at the Royal Opera House of Musical Arts with stunning dance sequences, unique forms of drama set to music, and captivating indigenous songs.
Y: Why is folk music an integral part of preserving the cultural traditions of a people?
UF: Traditional folk music, or anonymous music of common people that has been transmitted through countless generations, is a genre that reflects facets of the history and character of a given culture, which were valued enough to be memorialised in musical art.
Important events in the cycle of life, such as marriage and coming-of-age ceremonies were ritually celebrated with music. Drums announced wars while ballads romanced heroic acts and victories in battle. Folk music also arose out of vital aspects of communal work, particularly the rhythms inherent in agriculture and the repetitive tasks associated with sea-faring and fishing.
In the increasingly transitory conditions of modern life, traditional folk music can bring the past alive in ways that touch the heart and register in consciousness, endowing both performers and listeners with a sense of identity, continuity and stability.
Y: How does folk music take on a role as a form of oral history – and are audiences today still listening to what it has to say?
UF: Until the modern era, the dominant form of transmission for folk music was oral. Folk music was a de facto form of oral history. Today’s mass audiences listen mainly to contemporary popular music, finding messages in it, whether explicitly as in rap music, or in terms of emotional communication, such as with the impact of pervasive songs about love and the vagaries of relationships.
There are audience segments for the countless different genres of music globally available today – from classic to pop, jazz, blues, rock, country, electronic, world music and many others. Apart from people who are integrated in traditional societies, audiences for traditional folk music constitute a minor segment in the global market. Modern adherents are probably not so much listening to what traditional folk music has to say that might be of current personal relevance, as they are enjoying a journey into the past with its nostalgia and psychological comforts that may include pleasant associations with older generations and lingering ideals.
Y: Here in Oman especially, what is the significance of folk music within the cultural identity of Omanis?
UF: Oman is one of the few countries in today’s world that has taken successful measures to preserve its traditional heritage and culture as a living force within a modern civilisation. The central component of the Sultanate’s traditional cultural heritage is folk music.
As a bulwark in the preservation and continued development of Oman’s musical heritage, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said established the Oman Centre for Traditional Music in 1985. The role of the centre is to collect, authenticate, and preserve Oman’s cultural traditions in order to reinforce the nation’s collective heritage. Hundreds of audio and visual recordings were produced of flourishing traditional arts, along with the reconstruction of those that had been lost.
This music conservation project has a global scope as the centre worked in cooperation with UNESCO to produce recordings of traditional Omani music in different world languages. The centre also collaborated with Omani radio and television media to broadcast programs designed to imbue Omanis with the richness of their heritage in music.
Y: How do you see folk music adapting for the modern age and where is its evolution headed next?
UF: In recent centuries, folk music has proven to be an incredibly fertile and generative resource in the evolution of modern music. In the United States of America, traditional folk music that came with European immigrants sparked the evolution of important new genres of music that became popular in America and spread worldwide, particularly country music, the blues, rock’ n roll, bluegrass and jazz.
In Europe and Russia, traditional folk music and dance inspired many famous composers to write beautiful pieces of music incorporating and adapting rhythms and compositional sequences from folk music. Among the wealth of famous works based on folk tunes are, for instance, Chopin’s fifty-nine mazurkas for solo piano. With a worldwide decline of traditional cultures in the face of global forces of modernisation, the conditions that originally gave rise to folk music no longer hold in many parts of the world. Consequently, cultures that have remained traditional tend to preserve rather than advance their repertoires of folk music. Oman is an exception, as His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has taken care to develop as well as preserve traditional music with initiatives such as the creation of military bands and new orchestras for traditional
Arab music. ν