Australian Musician


One of the most exciting aspects of living in Australia today is its cultural diversity. It began in the 50s, with immigrants initially arriving from Europe, to eventually include almost every nation on earth. The arrival of immigrants transformed a nation and it's people, and went on to create an energetic and vibrant society. 'World Music' is a legacy of these changes, and has greatly contributed to a global awareness that keeps this country isolated no more. Andrián Pertout takes a cultural journey to reveal some artists of Melbourne's 'World Music' scene.


Veena Melodies
Ramnath S. Iyer:
Gopinath S. Iyer:
Sridhar Venkatachari:
Brindha Jeremiah:

Twin brothers, Ramnath and Gopinath form the nucleus of Veena Melodies, a group devoted to the performance of South Indian classical music. Originally from Madras, they spent fifteen years perfecting their craft there with Veena maestro Sri Pichumani Iyer, followed by tours in India, Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Singapore. Once settled in Australia they founded the Pichumani School of Carnatic Music.

Interview with Ramnath Iyer

Tell me about South Indian "Carnatic" music. How does it differ from the "Hindustani" music of the north? What are the basic concepts?

RI: "There are some similarities actually between Carnatic and Hindustani, and it's mainly the raga system. Carnatic music and Hindustani music are both melodic in nature, they don't have the four part harmonies in Western classical, ragas are all linear, and that's the basically commonality between Hindustani and Carnatic. And then in Carnatic the approach to each of the notes in the scale which constitutes a raga is slightly different to the way it is approached in Hindustani. We do a lot more ornamentations of the notes, which we call 'gamakas', and the same note can be approached in different ways. Like you can slide from a lower note to reach that note or you can slide from an upper note to that note, or you can keep oscillating between that note and the next highest note, or a quarter of that next higher note or a quarter to the previous note, and arrive at the note and so on. So these are different ornamentations, and that's very prominent in Carnatic music. And it's not notated, we can't easily notate all those combinations of ornamentations. So I guess another commonality between Hindustani and Carnatic is you can't notate the music very well, because of these characters, so it's always taught by the ear, you've got to keep singing, and listen to the guru."

Do the compositions always reflect on the spiritual aspect of life?

RI: "That's right, yes. The compositions are both played devotional, and they're mostly singing in praise of the Gods, different Gods in the Hindu mythology. There are some type of compositions that don't follow that principle, but they're called 'Padams' and 'Javalis', they're more recent compositions, maybe from twelfth century onwards, and those are mainly used in dance forms, but the majority of the compositions are religious."

What is the instrumentation you have adopted?

RI: "Veena I should say is perhaps the oldest instrument from India, and if you go through the Scriptures, there's almost always talk about Veena in some form or another. There's different forms of Veena that existed in history, and the current Veena which we play has retained it's form for almost three centuries now. It's got twenty four frets, and there are four main strings, and there are three auxiliary strings which are used for the drone. The frets are embedded in bee's wax, and the frets sit on a long wooden neck, and on both sides of the neck there are two goat shaped parts, originally the smaller goat was made of real goat, but nowadays you get fibreglass, and they're hollow both sides so they resonate. So the body of the Veena does produce a beautiful sound, so you get a deep rich sound from the body, as well as the strings vibrating. Also, any Carnatic music concert is always played with Mrdangam in accompaniment, it's a percussion support instrument, a two headed drum. The third instrument we use is the Tampura, and the Tampura produces a constant drone in the background, helps us keep to the tonic, as well as it gives a very meditative atmosphere."

'Selected Compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar' distributed by Veena Melodies. 25 Clarke Place, Mount Waverley, Victoria 3149, Australia. Tel: (61 3) 9886 8406. Email:

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The Habibis
Irene Vela:
Julia Latra:
Mulaim Vela:
Racheal Cogan:
Achilleas Yiangoulli:
guitar, laouto, mandola, mandolin, baglama, tzoura
vocals, toubeleki
vocals, recorder
vocals, guitar, toubeleki, bouzouki, baglama, tzoura

The Habibis perform a blend of traditional music that truly reflects the ideals of multi-culturalism in Australia. The main source of their inspiration comes from their lineage, which extends from Australia to Greece, Albania, Turkey, Ireland, Holland and Cyprus, with a religious diversity to match. Although their music is predominantly Greek, they consider their material and style of performance as Australian.

Interview with Irene Vela

How would you describe the traditional music that you perform? Does the music allow for personal interpretation?

IV: "Basically what we do, we call it music of Greece or the Eastern Mediterranean. And the reason why we say the Eastern Mediterranean is that language wise, we sing in Greek, but a lot of the music we do, some of it is purely Greek, but a lot of it is not, it's regional. So you'll often find the same tunes in say the west coast of Turkey, or you might find some songs from mainland Greece. You might find them in the south of Bulgaria, or in the south of Albania, and in Macedonia. So in that sense it's Greek music, but it's also Balkan, and it's also Eastern Mediterranean, but what makes it Greek is the language, because most of us have a Greek connection. I think what we do, we're playing very early music, it's probably been around for thousands of years, but it's somehow been kept alive in Greece, that folk tradition hasn't died, it hasn't yet become academic. And so what that means for us, is that we can do a lot of things with it because nobody has technically composed it. For example, in a song which perhaps traditionally never had a harmony sung to it, what we'll do is add harmonies, and for purists that's often quite a big 'no no', but we don't mind, that's where we do our own personal interpretations. We incorporate lots of solos in our pieces, and quite often we invent our own introductions and middle sections, so in a sense we're re-inventing the music."

Though the music is of mixed cultural backgrounds, do the lyrics share a common theme?

IV: "A lot of the songs that we do are very fatalistic, there's a lot of death in them, and lot of not necessarily unrequited love, but more eroticism. Death and eroticism mixed together (laughs). I hate to say it, but there it is, and that's sort of like on our album, there's a lot of that. I suppose that lately we've been going towards more up dance stuff, but we like to go for the darker mysterious part of that music, and that tends to be the subject matter."

What is the origin of your instrumentation?

IV: "Rachel plays a Recorder, and that's obviously not a traditional Greek instrument, they have got instruments called the Floghera, which are like Bulgarian Kabals, but she plays a Ganassi Recorder. I play a Creten Laouto, which has eight strings, doubles, Violin tuning G, D, A, E, and it's a big bassie sounding instrument, fretted, but with moveable frets. We have lots of Guitars in our band, we also use the Bouzouki, a Mandola, and various versions of Bouzoukis, things like Tzouras and Baglamas, which are really tiny Bouzoukis used a lot in Rebetika music, and a Darabukka (Toubeleki), a Middle Eastern drum, and we also have a fiddle player with us. We work with Wendy Rowlands a fair bit, and Vladimir Koccibelli at times."

'Four Warriors' distributed by The Habibis. 6 Gordon Street, Coburg, Victoria 3058, Australia. Tel & Fax: (61 3) 9386 6411.

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Le Tuan Hung & Dang Kim Hien
Le Tuan Hung:
Dang Kim Hien:
dan tranh, dan nguyet, dan Bau, percussion, voice
dan nguyet, dan bau, dan tranh, percussion, voice

Le Tuan Hung is a composer, performer and author who specializes in Vietnamese classical and contemporary music. In partnership with Dang Kim Hien, they have performed right around the globe. Dang Kim Hien incidentally is the recipient of many awards of excellence in Vietnamese Zither and Traditional Chant, and also taught at the Department of Traditional music of the Conservatoire of Music in Ho Chi Minh City for fourteen years.

Interview with Le Tuan Hung

What is the history of Vietnamese classical music? How do the northern styles differ to the ones found in the south?

LTH: "If you talk about the history of Vietnamese music, you can go back up to four thousand years, but during the history of four thousand years the music styles have been changing. The music that we play nowadays mostly developed, I would say around the last two thousand years. And it shows a combination of both Vietnamese indigenous characters and a blinding of other features that we borrowed from China and from India. There are three major classical genres in Vietnamese music. The northern genre is essentially vocal, and there is a voice and a musical instrument used to accompany the voice. You have one stringed instrument and a percussion instrument. In Central and South Vietnam classical music could be either vocal or instrumental, and there is a lot of emphasis on improvisation, so you don't have a fixed composition like Western music, but you improvise on an idea or a set of melodies."

How would you describe the characteristics of the voice in this tradition? What kind of message is conveyed in the lyrics?

LTH: "Various, so many (laughs) messages are conveyed in the lyrics, but mostly, especially in Central Vietnamese classical music, the lyrics will focus mainly on the philosophical aspects of life, the perception of nature, about love, and in South Vietnam, as far as I know, most of the lyrics are concerned with love and affection, I mean love between people and love between people and nature. And in North Vietnamese classical music, they are basically a type of chanted poetry, so they chant any poem being created by poets, and the topic normally varies from one poem to another. The style of singing doesn't project much volume and dynamics as in the Western style of singing, but the singer should have a very high level of control, and very high technical ability, bending the voice to produce the different kinds of ornaments, mainly microtonal ornaments, so it's quite difficult to learn."

What are some of the instruments used in this music?

LTH: "In Central and South Vietnam, the main musical instruments being used in classical music are string instruments. Sometimes we also use flute, and maybe one woodblock to mark the phrase when we play the music. The Dan Tranh is a long Zither with between seventeen and twenty five strings, and each string has it's own moveable bridge, so you can move the bridge to adjust the minor tuning, and when you play, with your right hand you pluck the string, and with your left hand you bend the string to produce different kinds of ornaments. And microtonal and tonal ornaments, inverted tones are very prominent in Vietnamese classical and folk music. The Dan Nguyet (Lute) looks very similar to the Banjo, and it has only two strings, but the frets are very high, and the Dan Bau (Monochord), it has only one string so in order to play the instrument you have to actually stimulate harmonics on the string."

'Musical Transfiguration - A Journey Across Vietnamese Soundscapes' distributed by Move Records. 1A Colonsay Road, Springvale, Victoria 3171, Australia. Tel & Fax: (61 3) 9547 7749.

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Alejandro Vargas:

Ivan Gándara:

Diego Veliz:
José Manuel Vargas:
Willy Virán:

vocals, cuatro, charango, tiple, guitar, quena, quenacho, moxeño, ica, malta, zampoña, semitoyo, toyo, bajón
vocals, cuatro, charango, tiple, guitar, quena, quenacho, moxeño, ica, malta, zampoña, semitoyo, toyo, bajón, percussion
vocals, cuatro, charango, tiple, guitar, percussion
vocals, cuatro, charango, tiple, guitar
vocals, guitar, percussion

Alejandro Vargas is the musical director of Apurima, a group of multi-instrumentalists dedicated primarily to Andean music. His ensemble has toured extensively throughout Australia, performing at many concerts and festivals, including the Misa Criolla and Nelson Mandela concerts. In 1987 he was invited to Mexico to join world renown Chilean group Illapu. He also founded the Latin American School of Music in 1996.

Interview with Alejandro Vargas

Tell me about the indigenous music of the Andes? What were some of the changes introduced by Spanish colonialism?

AV: "The main changes that I know of, are the introduction of the string instruments, the Guitar. The Incas always played the panpipes and the Quenas (flutes). The Quenas were mainly made of animal bone, hollowed with the holes, but they were pentatonic then, just a five note instrument. The panpipes were also pentatonic, there weren't any sharps or flats. There was no actual scale, till the Spanish came with the Guitar, that had harmony. They introduced a new sound onto the traditional Andean music. The introduction of the Guitar also helped the Indians develop the Charango for example, which was a copy of the Mandolin or the Lute that the Spanish brought over. And the Charango was made firstly with strings made of animal gut, but then the Spanish brought the nylon and the steel strings. And also the rhythms were brought in by the Spanish, later you have the introduction of the African rhythms, like in the Peru area, for example you have the Afro-Peruvian rhythms brought in by the Negroes. But the main country is Spain in introducing the things to Latin America."

How has the political instability of Latin America affected the lyrical content?

AV: "Very much so, I'll talk about Chile for example, where I think it was most influential. Even though it is influential everywhere in Latin America. You have 'Chico Buarque' in Brazil, 'Ali Primera' in Venezuela, 'Ruben Blades' in Panama, 'Charlie Garcia', 'Mercedes Sosa' in Argentina, 'Illapu', 'Inti-Illimani', Quilapayún' in Chile, 'Los Olimareños' in Uruguay. They all created a new poem, a new way of saying things without having to say so much, or a way of rebelling through music. The main problem with dictatorships in Latin America is that they couldn't control the young people, and the music played by all these people I mentioned, got through to the young crowd, with a message of hope, with a message of, 'Hang on, there's something better, you can better yourself', and there was always hidden messages. The poems themselves were banned during the dictatorship in Chile and Argentina. Most of the musicians in Latin America lived in exile in Paris or Rome. Poets were banned, and the music, even the instruments. The Charango was banned, and the Quena were banned in Chile in 1973, because they were more piercing than a bullet to them. Because when you hit people with culture, people think, and when people think they see wrong and right."

What are the instruments that you play?

AV: "I play the Venezuelan Cuatro, the Charango, which is a five double stringed instrument made mainly of the shell from the armadillo, the Colombian Tiple, which has four triple steel string, tuned like the Guitar except for the second string which is B octave, a second octave, so the second string's higher than the first string, and it sounds like a Harpsichord, the Spanish guitar. I also play wind instruments like the Quena, which is a bamboo flute with a big hole at the top, but it has no mouthpiece, so sound and the tuning, you have to do it with your mouth. The Quenacho, which is a bigger version of the Quena, it's like the imitation or copy of the normal Flute, then you have the Moxeño, Moxeño is a bigger version, it's a copy of the Oboe. The panpipes, you have six different types, the Ica, the Malta, the Zampoña, the Semitoyo, the Toyo, and then you have the Bajón. They mainly tune in the G scale, so they have an F sharp, not a natural F."

For information about the 'Latin American School of Music' contact Alejandro Vargas. 492 Victoria Street, West Brunswick , Victoria 3055, Australia. Tel & Fax: (61 3) 9317 7421.

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Musiki Manjaro
Leona Chishala:
David Marama:
Richie Brain:
James Brown:
Nick Schultz:
Paul Holleman:
Kojo Owusu:

Suzanne Watts:

guitar, vocals
keyboards, alto saxophone
congas, atumpan, djembe, sugo, atata, apantma, kaga, breket, donno

Formed in 1989 by drummer Nick Schultz, the Musiki Manjaro of today features the songs of two prominent African songwriters. Leona Chishala is well known in Africa for his participation with Zairean supergroup 'The Real Sounds of Africa'. David Marama, on the other hand, as founder of Tanzanian group 'Tatutane', who in 1991 won the Radio France Grand Prix award for African and Caribbean music.

Interview with David Marama

From what sources do you draw the inspiration for your original compositions?

DM: "One, because me and Leona are the main composers of the music in there, and it's to do also with our background, where we come from. Leona is from Zaire, and I come from Malawi, although I've spent a lot of time in Tanzania, that's where I've grown up actually. So much of that music as you see is based on very much Zairean 'Soukous', and very much also East African 'Rhumba'. Yeah, and basically that's the main content of the CD, although we tend to do something like 'Township Jive' on 'Ndiza Kuhlula' and then we have a traditional beat in 'Leo', that comes from southern Tanzania. So basically it's very much 'Rhumba/Soukous' influenced music with a lot of sort of like hot rhythms, mainly for dancing."

Could you describe the cultural significance of your lyrics? Do they contain a certain African component?

DM: "Yes, they talk about, well everything. Love, they talk about pain, you know, contemporary, should I say cross cutting issues in the community, about the struggling people, and very much about just everyday life (laughs) in Africa."

Do you use any traditional African instruments?

DM: We do, basically we do that as a warm up session, Kojo Owusu is a master drummer as said, they call that people who actually play drums in Ghana. And he's been playing drums since he was probably, I don't know what, four, three. So basically we use Marimbas when we need to, we use the African Xylophone called Kalimba, the African drums and other sorts of African instruments. We will incorporate them into the music, and that's this next stage, I guess once we feel comfortable with the audience, that they respond to that, we'll definitely be using most of those things. But basically at the moment we're also responding to the market (laughs)."

'Moto Moto' distributed by Blue Moon Records. 30 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia. Tel: (61 3) 9415 1157, Fax: (61 3) 9415 1220.

If you wish to see some of these acts perform live contact the following venues: 'The Boîte World Music Café', 1 Mark Street, North Fitzroy, Victoria 3068, Tel: (61 3) 9417 3550; 'The Stage', 231 Smith Street, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Tel: (61 3) 9417 2703; and 'Footscray Community Arts Centre', 45 Moreland Street, Footscray, Victoria 3011, Tel: (61 3) 9689 5677.


'Australian Musician' ~ Issue 7, Spring, September 2, 1996


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Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1998 by Andrián Pertout.

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