Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Among us there are no castes

On stage I have always been surrounded by French and Gypsy musicians as well as musicians from the Eastern nations - because this mix is my universe, my world and it is the only thing which brings me the stability I need in order to live and to survive, like the balance that is found in the bosom of a large and closely-knit family. Among us there are no castes and when the time comes for singing and breaking bread, the time for dancing, the people becomes king'.
As my seventh year of blogging approaches I find myself less and less interested in rumours about the next career move of a jet set conductor or the latest hyperbole lavished by the twittering classes on last night's BBC Prom. Which is just fine; celebrity classical music is well served elsewhere leaving me to find sustenance where people rather than personalities are what really matters. Which brings me to the musician who supplied my opening quote.

Titi Robin, seen in my first two photos with 'the gypsy queen of Rajasthan' Gulabi Sapera, is a self-taught French composer and musician who plays guitar, buzuk (small Middle Eastern lute) and oud. As well as spending time with Roma and Sinti people - the forgotten Holocaust victims - he has travelled extensively in the East including a pilgrimage to Ajmer in Rajasthan, the holy city where the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is buried. More than thirty years of travel, both physical and spiritual, have moulded Titi Robin's music, but above all it is diversity that he celebrates.

Around one quarter of the French population has at least one immigrant parent or grandparent, and this creates one of the largest global markets for world music. In French retail outlets browser space devoted to world music exceeds that for classical and there is a huge range of new world music releases which contrast sharply with the tired Chopin and Mahler re-issues from the big classical labels. France's cultural diversity and strong links with North Africa are reflected in its world music artists who long ago left behind the self-conscious fusion offerings still so fashionable in less inclusive northern Europe and North America. World music from France embraces styles as diverse and inclusive as the ethnicity of the population, burqa bans notwithstanding.

Titi Robin grew up in a rural community outside Angers in western France with gypsy and North African neighbours and this is reflected in his unique blend of gypsy, tzigane and Arabic music. In the paragraph above I discussed world music at some length, but interestingly Titi Robin rejects the very concept, as a biographical portrait explains:
Thierry “Titi” Robin is a fringe artist. He is placed within a “World Music” movement that he does not acknowledge, as it seems to him to be motivated by a profound ethnocentricity, creating a barrier between Western “ethnic” music (rock, jazz…) and others!'
My first exposure to Titi Robin's music was through the Accords Croisés Jaadu Magic album where he improvises on Sufi texts with Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and, quite appropriately, I bought that album last year in the capital of world music, Paris. While in western France recently I bought and spent time listening to several other Titi Robin albums and now want to share these with readers.

Gitans, which was recorded in 1993 with Roma musicians from Spain to Rajasthan including Gulabi Sapera, was Titi Robin's breakthrough album and it has been described, with some justification, as one of the best albums of gypsy music ever recorded. The title means 'Gypsies' and Titi Robin's musique sans frontières is rooted in the nomadic cultures of the Roma and Sinti which contrast with the sedentary urban culture that is the home of what is referred to above as 'Western ethnic music' and in which the celebrity caste system still rules. It was followed by Rakhi, again featuring Gulabi Sapera, which blended retained many of the elements of Gitans but shifted the spotlight to the musical traditions of Gulabi Sapera's native Rajasthan.

A path that started here four years ago leads us to the final, and for me most remarkable, Titi Robin album. In the summer of 2006 we travelled to the Roma pilgrimage centre of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Camargue in France to visit the shrine of the black Saint Sarah. In 2008 Titi Robin released Kali Sultana (Black Queen), a ninety minute largely instrumental suite. As Titi Robin explains:
The Black Queen represents the beauty every artist seeks ... she can be very violent, but this violence also makes it possible to express and to resolve things.
Kali Sultana is scored for gumbass, oud, buzuk, guitar, accordion, saxophone, clarinet and percussion, with viola and cello backing using Eastern style unison writing and Arab (or gypsy) scales. The result is mystical and hypnotic without ever losing forward momentum and the discs returned to the CD player many times during our recent travels. Strange isn't it? - if Kali Sultana was released on ECM there would be a big buzz about it, instead it remains a very well-kept secret on Naïve.

The sleeve notes for Kali Sultana are as eclectic as the music, with quotations from Sufi saint Mevlana Rumi, the yogi and astrologer Suraj Nath, poet Seanus Heaney, champion of the ethnic Kurds Yachar Kemal, poet Laure Morali, Bosnian writer Abdulah Sidran, poet and Sufi mystic Yunus Emre and African American American author Toni Morrison. Kali Sultana is subtitled 'L'Ombre du Ghazal' (In the shadow of ghazal) in homage to the poetic form used by Mevlana Rumi and other Persian mystics. These links to sufism are particularly interesting as this branch of mysticism focuses on the third and deepest component of Islam, inner life. (Practice and knowledge are the other two components). Sufi spirituality connects with inner life not by Western style integration, but by addition and rhythmic repetition, which is also a pretty good description of Kali Sultana. But Titi Robin explains it much better -
'The real journey is inside of you. Music feeds from that source, from the bottom of your heart, under your star, because there is no better place elsewhere and there is no golden age in the past'.
But even better than words is the video:

* January 2016 - It is only fair to say that, for me, over the last months much of the enjoyment of blogging disappeared as self-promotion and clickbait became more important than content, and I would prefer to lay On An Overgrown Path to rest among happier memories. So over the next few days I will bury the blog by reprising some personal favourite posts from the past. This one first appeared in 2010.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All Titi Robin CDs were bought at retail price. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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