Concert review: Ensemble Sinawi at the City of London Festival

Ensemble Sinawi at LSO St Luke's as part of the City of London Festival, 8 July 2014. Photo: LKL
Ensemble Sinawi at LSO St Luke’s as part of the City of London Festival, 8 July 2014. Photo: LKL

How can you adequately describe a gig which touched the highs and lows of human emotion? There were times when the melody sung by the voice or ajaeng had a searing, heart rending intensity which brought a lump to the throat and tears to the eye; and then in the next piece the toes would involuntarily be tapping as the musicians improvised to jazz-like rhythms.

On balance, it was the han-infused music which predominated, with maybe the highlight being the setting of a story of two separated lovers– a story that was banned under Park Chung-hee as it was thought to express a pro-North sentiment in favour of reunification. The song had a pansori-influenced setting which gave it a suitably traditional context but as with the other pieces the sound-world of the music was fresh and up-to-date. At the end of the concert the audience felt both emotionally exhausted but also uplifted.

It was a shame that there were no programme notes accompanying the performance. Absence of programme notes of course gives the performers the opportunity to introduce the pieces themselves, thus building a welcome bond with the audience. But such interaction is possible regardless of what is written in the programme. Purely selfishly, some having some programme notes prepare you for what you are about to hear, and make writing a review that much easier.

Ensemble Sinawi at LSO St Luke's as part of the City of London Festival, 8 July 2014. Photo: LKL
Ensemble Sinawi at LSO St Luke’s as part of the City of London Festival, 8 July 2014. Photo: LKL

Some time has passed since the concert. In order to get more information about the music, I ordered the two Ensemble Sinawi’s CDs in the hope that the accompanying booklets would contain some useful additional information. They didn’t. And more disappointingly – but as is often the case – the recorded performance did not really capture the magic, emotion and immediacy of the live performance.

Ensemble Sinawi appeared twice as part of the City of London Festival. Once at LSO St Luke’s – which was a hugely emotional and atmospheric performance – and the next day at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery lecture theatre, which was more informal. At SOAS they introduced themselves briefly. The musicians met each other at university where they were studying traditional music. It seems that their studies were largely theoretical and academic, because they said that they had never experienced “real” traditional music performances in the countryside. After leaving university they spent time together as a community and explored “real” traditional music together and found the experience to be revelatory.

The experience of sharing their daily lives together seems to bring an extra magic to Ensemble Sinawi’s performance. A combination of passion, inspiration and togetherness produced some very special music-making.

Ensemble Sinawi were at LSO St Luke’s on 8 July 2014, and at SOAS on 9 July, as part of the City of London Festival with the support of the KCC. Below is a collection of LKL’s snaps of the evening at LSO St Luke’s.

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