Exhibitions and events
Music of the world: a symphony of cultures

Bach’s Mass in B Minor, chants in praise of Vishnu in south India and the magnificent vocals and drums of qawwali music breaking like waves at a shrine in Pakistan. All these sounds are in praise of a deity – and show how music, all over the world, is used to elevate us from earthly concerns and take us to higher spheres.

In November 2017 the Academy of Ancient Music and Tenebrae performed Bach’s Mass in B Minor in the Museum’s Parthenon Gallery.

As editor-in-chief of Songlines, the world music magazine, I regularly hear music in all corners of the globe. As well as for worship, it’s used universally for public occasions like ceremonies and celebration, and for the personal, like seduction and consolation. One can also add inspiring and healing, dancing and dozing, protesting and waiting to the list – although telephone ‘hold’ music is hardly the height of the art.

It’s often said that music is a universal language. I don’t fully agree, but music is universally used because it inspires and elevates us. Music affects us physically, through vibrations, over a defined period of time, which isn’t the case with the written word or visual arts. So music somehow moves us even if we don’t understand the musical or spoken language. In its physical and temporal presence music is close to universal.

Flamenco singer Arcángel will perform with Baroque ensemble Accademia del Piacere, highlighting the musical links between Spain and the colonial Americas. Photo: Javier Salas.

Music is, of course, a cultural expression and a country’s history is written into its music, just as with its cuisine or art. Because of the transatlantic slave trade, Cuban music is a mixture of indigenous, Hispanic and Black African sounds. The same goes for music across the Caribbean, with the ingredients varying from place to place.

Music might be universal, but it sure sounds different in different areas of the world. And most people can probably identify music that is Indian, Brazilian or American – not just from the language, but from the sound and texture of the music. The more you hear, the easier it gets. But if music is played everywhere, what’s it for?

Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun showing musicians and dancers at a banquet. Thebes, Egypt, c. 1350 BC.

Look at the paintings in the British Museum from the tomb of Nebamun, painted in ancient Egypt around 1350 BC. These include female musicians at a banquet singing, clapping and playing a double flute, and two female dancers with their bodies entwined. Along from them there’s another group playing lutes and flutes. The pictures are so naturalistic that you can almost hear the sound of the music they’re making. Some of the musicians stare out at us and are not just seen in profile, their frizzy hair cascades onto their shoulders. The music is part of the sheer pleasure of the occasion.

Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun showing musicians playing lutes and flutes. Thebes, Egypt, c. 1350 BC.

The style is in vivid contrast to the paintings of the pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings with their spells for the afterlife. Nebamun was an official, not a pharaoh, and the tombs of ordinary people can give a much more human picture of life in Egypt 3,400 years ago. Whether it’s real life or an imagined afterlife that is depicted, we can identify with these scenes of music and dancing girls. This was made clear to me when I saw the dancers reproduced on the stage of a bellydance club in Cairo a few years ago.

Simsimiyya player Waziry in Port Said. © Simon Broughton.

Also in Egypt, I met a wonderful musician called Waziry in Port Said, who played the simsimiyya, a simple but beautiful lyre that goes back thousands of years. It’s actually the sort of lyre that Apollo, Greek god of music and arts, is said to have played, taking us back to earlier ideas of music. Proof of this is in the Museum with the very same instrument found in Athens dating from the 5th century BC. Waziry’s lyre was made of an enamel dish tied to a wooden frame, while the Greek example uses a tortoise shell, but the instrument is otherwise identical, one with five, the other with seven strings.

A Greek lyre reconstructed from remains. Probably 5th–4th century BC.

Over thousands of years of history and across the globe, music makes a party. A wedding is one of life’s biggest parties and everywhere people celebrate them with music – unless they are forced not to. In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned all music, except for chants in praise of themselves. After their fall, I went to a wedding in Kabul where one of the guests said ‘Two months ago we couldn’t play music and now we can. There is a big difference between a wedding that has music and a wedding without music.’ You can say that again, and in Kabul, after a six-year ban, most people felt a tangible need to celebrate.

Aïcha Redouane. Photo: H Hmima.

In many parts of the Islamic world Sufi music and poetry is seen as a way of getting closer to God. The global popularity of Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Al Khan demonstrated the power of this music to break out of its religious confines and reach festival audiences. His qawwali successors like Faiz Ali Faiz and Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali, along with the extraordinary Pakistani vocalist Abida Parveen, demonstrate the international power of this music. In the Museum’s festival Europe and the world, Moroccan-born Aïcha Redouane brings classical Arabic and Sufi songs from Egypt on a rare visit to the UK.

Throughout history music has been essential for national celebrations, royal and political events. Think of Handel’s Water Music (1717) for George I and his Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) for George II, the magnificent xylophone playing at the Buganda Court in Uganda, performances by Bruce Springsteen, Yo-Yo Ma and Stevie Wonder at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009, and shows by Angelique Kidjo, Elton John, Hugh Masekela and Justin Bieber for the opening of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Music raises the spirits and brings grandeur to a big occasion.

Reigakusha Ensemble.

The oldest form of ‘orchestral’ music still played is gagaku, a Japanese court music dating back to the 7th century. It’s rarely heard outside Japan, so the visit of the Reigakusha Ensemble to London is a notable event. To 21st century ears, the music sounds strangely austere and it’s hard to imagine what sort of ceremonies it might have accompanied. But the musical form came from China, along with Buddhism, and it’s known that gagaku music was played for the celebration of a monumental bronze statue of the Buddha in AD 749. The dominant sound is of wind instruments – flutes, oboes and bamboo mouth organs – but there are also lutes, koto zithers and a drum that leads the ensemble. The music has a strange beauty, but it does sound like something from another age.

Sitar of Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920–2012). Commissioned by Shankar from the instrument maker Nodu Mullick in Calcutta. Made in 1961. The sitar is on display in Room 33.

In the west there’s often been a pretty clear dividing line between religious and secular music. Hymns, plainchant, spirituals, oratorios are religious, whereas love songs, symphonies and dance tracks are secular. In Indian music, the dividing line is rather more blurred. The late Ravi Shankar said that playing a classical sitar recital was an act of devotion – not surprisingly after he’d spent six years of intense tuition with his guru Allauddin Khan in the early 1940s. ‘I used to get up very early in the morning, practice for a few hours, then have a little breakfast, bathe and go to him for three or four hours training’, Shankar told me. ‘I’d rest a little and then I’d practice all afternoon, so I was doing about 14 hours a day. But it took me six months to get into that groove.’

Kaushiki Chakraborty. © Avishek Dey.

That sort of dedication now perhaps belongs to another age. While today’s artists are rarely playing sitar till their fingers bleed or singing till they drop, there are younger performers still serious about their art. One is khayal singer Kaushiki Chakraborty. Khayal literally means ‘imagination’ and it’s an art, learnt from her father, that requires extensive musical knowledge and vocal dexterity, but also the ability to improvise musical phrases on the spot.

Chakraborty told Songlines magazine, ‘it needs the poise and peace of the middle of the sea, it needs the force of a waterfall, it needs the soft and crisp feeling of rain, it needs the grandeur and majesty of giant waves… it needs everything that a musical form can possibly accommodate.’

The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia will be the venue for several performances during the festival. You can see some of the Amaravati sculpture in the background of this image.

Khayal became popular in the 18th century, quite recently compared to many Indian forms. But like many other genres from the subcontinent it can be sacred or secular, or even both at the same time. In the British Museum it will be heard in a glorious setting in front of sculptures from the Great Shrine at Amaravati, a Buddhist monument in stone carved with secular scenes from the life of the Buddha. Ravi Shankar’s sitar is also to be found in the same gallery. It’s thanks to musicians like him and Kaushiki Chakraborty that classical Indian music like this can still live and speak to audiences today.

Europe and the world: a symphony of cultures takes place from 16–29 April 2018. The performances will be accompanied by a series of panel discussions that will explore the role of museums in complex political times, as places to listen, to debate and to experience music.

Share your thoughts and experiences of the festival using #BMmusicfestival.

This festival is organised by the British Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and made possible by the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Presented in association with BBC Radio 3.