Howard plays lute and guitar and is part of Trio Sefardi–one of our specialist groups for this year’s Christmas Revels. Howard has studied guitar in Cleveland, Ohio, Washington, DC and Alicante, Spain! (he even played for the King and Queen of Spain at the Smithsonian Institute in 1976 and at the White House in 1978). Howard is not new to Sephardic music (although Trio Sefardi is actually a fairly new group); he was a founding member of La Rondinella, which has three recordings on the Dorian Discovery label, with a new retrospective recording just released this November — Sephardic Songs: An Anthology. For many years, Howard has also worked extensively with Sephardic singer/composer Flory Jagoda (whom he accompanied on her latest recording, Arvolika) and early music singer Barbara Hollinshead, with whom he recorded an album of Elizabethan lute songs and solos entitled Loves Lost… and Found; their new recording of 16th and 17th century French songs and lute solos will be released in early 2012.
In this year’s Christmas Revels, Howard will be playing both lute and guitar, and will be playing everything from Renaissance and Sephardic music to some Flamenco (for our Sevillanas dancers).
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days helping to finish the Christmas Revels program. Our program is really elaborate. It has about eight articles, some about Revels activities and some about aspects of this year’s show. There’s a section of program notes that list every song, poem, and dance in the show, with a ton of information contributed by a lot of different people. It’s quite a job to make the notes both accurate and concise. Not to mention that things change, so we have to make sure the items are in the right order and list the right performers. The final product is beautiful. (And, I hope, interesting.)
Yesterday I had some expert assistance on the final proofread.
That’s a teeny knitted tarasque, the mythical beast that will appear on stage. We plan to sell these little guys at Lisner, so start saving your pennies. Not this one, though – I don’t think I can part with him.
We saw the full-sized tarasque in action yesterday. WOW. Seriously. I had no idea. It’s so…lively. And I heard the tarasque puppeteers are scheduled for a special rehearsal tonight to make it even cooler.
By the way, if anyone wants to pitch in and knit some tarasques for the merchandise table, I’ll e-mail you the pattern. It takes about three hours for me to knit one. There’s no crochet pattern, but anyone is welcome to design one and share it.
Monday night was our first night at Lisner Auditorium. We were all in costume to work on the first part of the show. This was our first time seeing the set (wow) and finding out what it’s like to do this show on that stage.
Most of us carry a paper copy of the running order on stage to remind us what’s coming up next. The running orders are covered in notes about where to go and what to do. By the first performance, on Saturday, we’ll know the show well enough to banish most running orders. But for now, the rule is that the director shouldn’t be able to see them.
Now, here’s the challenge: Our costumes have no pockets.
This year we are lucky to have two specialist music groups for our Christmas Revels show. The Arab Andalus group of musicians is named Layali El Andalus and is led by Rachid Halihal.
Rachid is a world-class musician who brings, to us, the true character and spirit of music from Andalusian Spain, the diverse regions of Morocco, and North Africa. As a child, growing up in Morocco, Rachid played the nei and sang, imitating the famous singers of the time. At age fourteen he entered “Dar Aadyil” the Conservatory of Music in Fez. At first he studied Western classical and Andalus music on piano and violin. He soon expanded to include a variety of other instruments in order to better express his native music. In addition to his voice, which is best featured in the Andalus style, his strongest instruments are the oud (similar to a lute without frets) and the violin, which he plays in both the classical manner and upright resting on the knee for Moroccan folkloric music.
Rachid arrived this Friday evening (November 25th) from Colorado, where he was presenting workshops and concerts in Boulder and Denver. Soon after his arrival he began rehearsing with local musicians Tina Chancey (you’ll hear more about her soon) and Elisabeth Myers–Tina and Elisabeth will be joining Layali El Andalus on a few of their songs, and the Washington Revels chorus will be singing with the group as well.
Learn more about Rachid by visiting his Web site (rachidhalihalmusic.com). And, visit the Layali El Andalus band Web site to learn more about his group (ayalielandalus.com). We are so excited to have them as part of this year’s Christmas Revels.
The Christmas Revels you get here in Washington is wonderful and unique, but it’s not the only Christmas Revels. We’re one of 10 Revels cities across the U.S. We’re all under a national Revels organization based in Cambridge, Mass. In addition to D.C. and Massachusetts, you can see The Christmas Revels in New Hampshire; New York; Houston; Boulder, Colo.; Tacoma, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Oakland, Calif.; and Santa Barbara.
The Revels cities share scripts and major prop pieces. In 2008, someone drove a van up to Cambridge to get the flying canoe for our French Canadian production. Our show this year, Andalusian Treasures, is based on the show that Portland did last year. This year, Portland is visiting medieval England with “The King and the Fool,” which we last did in 2004.
I’ve been lucky enough to see productions in two other Revels cities. Washington’s performances are among the earliest, so it’s possible to sing in eight performances here, then travel to other cities and celebrate with them. In 2009, I went to Boston with my parents to see a version of the American show we did in 2006. It was fascinating to see another city’s take on a show I knew so well.
I particularly envied their performance space. The Cambridge production is in Sanders Theatre, this absolutely gorgeous wood-paneled hall at Harvard University. They don’t have the things you would expect in a theater, like a curtain, and it does not matter at all. Then when the audience joins hands and dances out of the theater at the end of the first half, for “Lord of the Dance,” they end up winding back and forth in this lobby with extremely high ceilings and, generally, an enchanted historical feel. The California Revels, in Oakland, has a similarly gorgeous hall, the Oakland Scottish Rite Center.
Lisner Auditorium, our Christmas Revels home since 1983, is more cavernous than intimate. The lobby doesn’t have that warm, cozy, Revels-y ambience I felt in Cambridge and Oakland. Also, we have to worry about electric shocks from feet shuffling along the carpet during “Lord of the Dance.” (Tip: Pick up your feet.) But it’s been a wonderful home, and I’m excited to be moving in there tonight for my seventh Christmas Revels tech week.
There are two really exciting dances in this year’s show. I’m not in either one, which means I’ve had opportunities to take blurry pictures of both. One is called “Saidi” – it’s a dance from southern Egypt with its roots in Ancient Egyptian martial arts. It involves guys dancing with sticks.
Revels aficionados may think, “guys with sticks? that sounds familiar.” Indeed, guys have danced with sticks on our stage many times. They’re usually morris dancers. Morris is an English dancing tradition which is most commonly associated with big white handkerchiefs and bells on the ankles, but can also involve sticks.
Last summer I was in England and saw a bunch of morris teams performing in a town square. One of them was doing a stick dance and another team kept messing with them by running up, grabbing a stick, and giving them something else – a different team’s stick, a bit of ivy, a coffee mug, a flower, a member of another team. It was the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. I was informed later by an experienced morris dancer that this is utterly old hat, but, you know, it was the first time I’d seen it. I was impressed.
I do not recommend trying that trick during a Christmas Revels performance, by the way.
Anyway, the point of that little digression on morris dancing is that the word morris supposedly comes from the Middle English word morys, which meant “Moorish.” I don’t think anyone actually thinks the stick dances of the Border Morris tradition came from the Upper Nile, but it’s an interesting connection, isn’t it?
Every year, The Christmas Revels has a different theme. Those themes bring different languages with them. And different languages have different levels of difficulty. Before this year, the toughest show I’d been in for languages was the Scandinavian show in 2005, when we sang in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Finnish.
Actually, that one wasn’t all that hard for me because I speak a little Norwegian, and once you know Norwegian, you basically know Swedish and Danish, too. They’re all very closely related. Finnish, on the other hand, isn’t even Indo-European (the language group that includes English, French, and a whole slew of languages from Russian to Hindi). Finnish is Uralic, the family that includes Hungarian and Estonian. For the songs in Finnish, I was basically memorizing nonsense syllables along with everyone else.
This year’s equivalent of Finnish is Arabic. We’re only singing three songs in Arabic; mostly we’re singing in Spanish and a few other languages that are closely related to Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but it’s reasonably familiar, and I can look up the words I don’t know in a dictionary.
But with Arabic, I’m lost. We’re given translations, so I can find out what the songs are about, but I don’t know the individual words. This makes memorizing the songs extra-challenging. I’ve come up with little stories based on what the words sound like, or words they remind me of in other languages. A line in “Qum Tara” reminds me of the Norwegian for “I got some tuna,” for example.
Memorization isn’t the only problem with singing in Arabic; pronunciation is challenging, too. Arabic has a lot of sounds we don’t have in English. Sometimes in rehearsal it feels like we’re having this conversation:
Rachid Halihal: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”
Rachid: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”
It reminds me of when I taught English in Japan – Japanese doesn’t have an “L” sound, and the “R” sound falls kind of in between our “L” and “R.” One time I was teaching a private lesson on directions, and I discovered that when I told them “turn right at the light,” the words “right” and “light” sounded exactly the same. I showed them the difference in how I form the two sounds. They could see it, but they still couldn’t hear it.
So, now that I’m singing in Arabic, I think I understand a little bit of what those Japanese students were dealing with. We’ve been told how to handle the Arabic vowels, so don’t worry. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to produce exactly the right vowel, but at least I know how to make that pesky “eh” sound so that it doesn’t sound totally wrong.
Did you know that the hand clap is something of an “art form” in Spain? Indeed, palmas (hand clapping) is an essential ingredient to the musical accompaniment used for dances like the flamenco and sevillana. If you want to know just how important, try a Google search for “palmas clapping” and you will be amazed at the amount of tutorials, instructional videos, and examples that will come up (like the following instructional video from YouTube).
While this Christmas Revels will not have any flamenco dance in it, we will be dancing the sevillana, and, there will be palmas! In fact, you will hear palmas used in many of our musical numbers.
To explain the two distinct ways of hand-clapping, here is an excerpt from “Flamenco Compas for Alegrias Analysis of the 12-pulse palmas (clapping) rhythm and its relationship to the standard African bell pattern,” by Jerry Leake:
Palmas refers to the specific accompanying clapping pattern that is built within the compas structure. There are two types of palmas techniques: sordas and claras. Soft claps (sordas) are produced when the open palms strike together in a low, muted tone. Louder, higher-pitched claps (claras) are produced when the fingers of the strong hand land into the open palm of the weak hand.
Volunteer Leanne Wiberg has put in a lot of hours sewing scales onto the tarasque the last few days. She’s been keeping me up to date on the goings-on in the basement at the office, where this work is being done.
I have to share this picture Leanne took of Snap, a dragon puppet who has appeared on the Lisner stage many times. He lives in a prop storage area next to where the team is working on the tarasque. I particularly enjoyed Leanne’s caption.