A group of women, some of whom are well past 60 years of age, pound the ground with tall pestle instruments called chu yin, creating a hypnotic, rhythmic echo that carries through the air. Members of an aboriginal group (the Thao people) that has lived in Taiwan for centuries, the women are practicing a tradition that sends off a powerful signal to Thao men who might be hunting in the distance. It's a beautiful art form, and it's in danger of disappearing forever. Fewer than 300 Thao people live in Taiwan, about five speak the Thao language, and the next generations may not devote themselves to the practice -- which is why Michael Santoro, artistic director of the San Francisco World Music Festival, sought out the women for this year's performances, which emphasize important musical rituals from around the globe.
Each night of the festival, held November 19-21, 2010 at the Jewish Community Center, has a special theme. Under the heading of "Offering," the first night opens with song and dance from members of the Native American Ohlone people, then continues with Tibetan singer-songwriter Techung, Afro-Cuban percussionist John Santos, Burmese traditional harpist Su Wai, a south Indian youth ensemble and others, who will collaborate on music meant to pay homage to those who've departed. Musicians that night will also perform alongside film of the Thao pestel musicians, who -- via satellite -- will appear live on Sunday night, when the theme shifts to "Feasting" or having survived trying times. Saturday night, the theme is "Entering the Fire," with a focus on music that lifts people up during difficulties.
Like the Thao tribeswomen, many of those performing at this year's festival represent a music and way of life that are being challenged by globalization.
"We're trying to position ourselves to address the systemic issues that this music is facing," says Santoro, who divides his time between San Francisco and Taiwan. "We're looking at the origins of the music and the culture in general and thinking we can actually make a difference."
This more activist approach, in the festival's 11th year, includes working with the National Bone Marrow Donor Program's "Be the Match" campaign, which expedites life-saving transplants of blood and bone marrow. During the festival, images of marrow-transplant patients will be projected on stage, and a spotlight put on Bay Area resident Sanjana Sahni, a woman of South Asian descent who has a form of blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma, and who needs a stem-cell transplant. Donors of South Asian descent are rare.
Also different this year: The festival is streaming each night's performance at sfworldmusicfestival.org, in an effort to reach even more people than in previous years. The title of this year's festival is The Ritual Project, but for Santoro, the event was a chance to change the usual approach of festival organizers. It means more work (including editing film, transcribing music for all the different musicians, and months meeting with them) -- and more satisfaction at the results. Rehearsals have already proven this to Santoro.
"It's the most complicated project I have ever done in my career," says Santoro. "Just putting together music for 60 musicians is an enormous feat . . . (But) at a rehearsal, I watched Anuradha Sridha, a South Indian vocalist and violinist, watching Burmese musicians singing, in one of those moments where you say, 'This is what it's all about' -- an exchange between cultures, where you know they've never had the experience to be close to another culture in that way. Anything becomes possible between them."
The San Francisco World Music Festival is Friday, November 19 through Sunday, November 21 at the Jewish Community Center's Kanbar Hall. For tickets and information visit sfworldmusicfestival.org.