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hariprasad_chaurasia_06 - Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia au Rajarani Music Fest, Rajarani Temple, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, Inde - 19 Janvier 2015 - © Krupasindhu Muduli

Our elders : libraries consumed by flames during lockdown

Hari­pra­sad Chau­ra­sia, Danyel Waro, Joyce, Ray Lema, Zakir Hussain…they may all be giants of the music scene, but they also belong to a group consi­de­red “at risk” during the cur­rent health emer­gen­cy. At a time where the elder­ly are qua­ran­ti­ned, we address the elder sta­tes­men and women of the musi­cal tradition.


Hari­pra­sad Charasie/Zakir Hussain


He got up at dawn like he does eve­ry mor­ning. He fre­she­ned up, did a few stretches to get things moving then gave thanks at the lit­tle temple in his cour­tyard. For the rest of the day, in the open-air school in which he is qua­ran­ti­ned, he played the flute. On the 1st of July, Hari­pra­sad Chau­ra­sia will cele­brate his 82nd bir­th­day ; he isn’t just a musi­cal maes­tro, he’s a natio­nal trea­sure. He doesn’t bat an eye­lid when he tells you about the day his mother died, when he was six years old ; he still remem­bers her lul­la­bies. He also tells you about when, as a tee­na­ger, he found a tea­cher, Raja­ram, who taught him to sing. “I urgent­ly nee­ded a guru”.

Hari­pra­sad Chau­ra­sia now stands vigil over his own guru­kul, his aca­de­my, in Bom­bay. “There are only five of us during the pan­de­mic. They take care of me ; we take care of each other”. He’s not a fan of online courses : “I want to hear the sound, tem­po, into­na­tion per­fect­ly. It’s not just about playing ; it’s about being there for each other”. Chau­ra­sia has recent­ly wit­nes­sed the exo­dus from the mega­lo­po­lis in which he was born, migrant wor­kers retur­ning to their home vil­lages to escape the lock­down. He has seen the world change. “When the elder­ly die in num­bers, it’s an inef­fable loss”.

For weeks now, we’ve been des­cri­bing the elder­ly as an at-risk group, the refrain cree­ping in from a world that has stop­ped pro­tec­ting humans who are “unpro­duc­tive” and have alrea­dy lived their lives, in dan­ger of wide­ning the gene­ra­tio­nal divide fore­ver. Ima­gine, we’ve even tal­ked about confi­ning the over-65s to their homes for months or per­haps years, wan­ting grand­pa­rents not to be able to hug their grand­chil­dren anymore.

The light­ness with which we’ve consi­de­red depri­ving our­selves of the elder­ly in the hope of saving them, of saving US, says some­thing about our socie­ty as a whole. It over­looks the role played by the older gene­ra­tion and the very idea of kno­wing how to pass things on.


Danyèl Waro


From his home, Danyel Waro can take in the Baie de Saint-Paul, where the pebbles end, and Cap La Hous­saye. He lives in a kind of savan­nah, on Réunion : “We began squat­ting here 16 years ago. There weren’t many people”. They built a lit­tle alter­na­tive school, where it was as much about plan­ting as coun­ting, a school of Creole and the land : “You have to be roo­ted, stan­ding up, proud and calm. We don’t have our tree in our text­books, our life­blood, our way of belie­ving. The books are cen­tra­li­sed, they deal with French culture, autumn and win­ter, sea­sons that don’t exist here. This turns our kids into forei­gners in their own country”.

When he was 15 or 20, Danyel Waro was angry. “My father drank. He would shout. The tree of drun­ken­ness hid the forest of lear­ning and tough, aus­tere affec­tion. But he still sho­wed me the fields”. Waro found other guides : Paul Ver­gès, Fir­min Viri and Gran­moun Lélé. “They taught me to go beyond the confines of my lan­guage, my culture. You can’t sepa­rate the old from the young”. When he sings maloya, Waro, aged 65, shakes his kayamb like a boxer (a rat­tle sha­ped like a raft, it makes the sound of rain and the harvest).

It is, for its island, not just a spring, but an estua­ry. It is conti­nui­ty and renewal.


Ray Lema and Manu Dibango


This idea of tra­di­tion han­ded down like tec­to­nic plates that sepa­rate, brush against and some­times smash against each other is embo­died per­haps bet­ter than anyone by the Congo­lese com­po­ser Ray Lema. Covid-19 has rob­bed him of his bro­thers : Tony Allen and Manu Diban­go. He quotes the well-known phrase by the wri­ter Ama­dou Ham­pâ­té Bâ : “Whe­ne­ver an old per­son dies, a libra­ry burns down”. Ray, who is fee­ling real­ly blue, has to focus to do his scales in the mor­ning. “I don’t go out much. I’m dou­bly at risk : I’m 74 and I have asth­ma. We’re being told to wear masks and gloves whe­ne­ver we go outside”.

Ray had deci­ded to become a priest ; he ente­red the semi­na­ry at 12 years old. His musi­cal skills were spot­ted so the White Fathers sat him behind an organ. It was there that he lear­ned Gre­go­rian. Then he was given an upright pia­no from Bel­gium. He stu­died Cho­pin, but also slip­ped into Afri­can inde­pen­dence songs, rum­bas, drum­beats and jazz. Ray Lema did not choose bet­ween the dif­ferent schools he came across, so ended up foun­ding his own.

It was very bad for busi­ness. Record dea­lers never knew where to put me. They thought I wasn’t ‘world’ enough, but I come from the world ! Whe­ne­ver a young musi­cian comes to see me, I ask them what their moti­va­tion is. If they just want to be famous, I tense up. The most pre­cious thing that can be pas­sed on is this freedom”.


Angé­lique Kidjo 


The same sen­ti­ment is felt by Angé­lique Kid­jo, who ans­wers our ques­tions bet­ween baking loaves. “I can’t sit still, so I’ve been cooking during lock­down!” She was sup­po­sed to be crea­ting a new show at New York’s Car­ne­gie Hall these last few weeks, a tri­bute to black inde­pen­dence, with Manu Diban­go and Ame­ri­can sin­gers. “I was born in 1960, just before my coun­try, Benin, became free. I had invi­ted Ame­ri­can sin­gers to do this show to cele­brate civil rights as well. You know, one of the merits of get­ting older is that you don’t real­ly care if you don’t look like anyone else”.




A few thou­sand miles away, in the south of Rio, the sin­ger Joyce, aged 72, looks for­ward to ban­ging her pots and pans at the win­dow eve­ry night. “This is how we express our disap­pro­val of Bol­so­na­ro. Most people shout too, but I’m trying to save my voice”. Joyce grew up in Ipa­ne­ma ; her tee­nage friends were Tom Jobim, João Gil­ber­to, and Elis Regi­na. She whis­pers sweet, revo­lu­tio­na­ry words in a nation that is inven­ting itself : “Bos­sa nova is Bra­zil the way it was sup­po­sed to be”. She was a femi­nist before the rest of her gene­ra­tion ; she was eman­ci­pa­ted, hum­ming, with such a sophis­ti­ca­ted gui­tar that people would come to take les­sons from this self-taught musician.

Nowa­days, whe­ne­ver young musi­cians come to tell me that I’ve ins­pi­red them, I pre­tend like it’s nothing, but it’s real­ly tou­ching. I’m also the daugh­ter of other women. We’re links in a chain of emancipation”.

How long will I conti­nue to strum chords?” gasps Laurent Aubert from his den in the Gene­va area. “My mother has just tur­ned 93 years old”. He has foun­ded the Ate­liers d’ethnomusicologie (the eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gy work­shops – ADEM), a refe­rence in the world of tra­di­tions, and he is taking advan­tage of his reti­re­ment to get back to the Afghan, Tur­kish and Arab lutes. « It keeps me busy. » Aubert tells us about his own tea­cher, Daoud Khan, who is youn­ger than him and who has put him back on tracks. « I stop­ped playing for 30 years. I feel like I’m picking up music where I had left off. »

Laurent Aubert men­tions clean­ness, depth, qua­li­ties he often found in elder­ly Maes­tros. “I could speak of vivid memo­ry. In some elders, there is an incal­cu­lable num­ber of musi­cal data that can arise at any time”.


Zakir Hus­sain and Alla Rakha


This is pre­ci­se­ly the fee­ling we get when lis­te­ning to Zakir Hus­sain. We want to address him at the end of this immo­bile report in the land of those who have lived and keep on living. He has been for so long the embo­di­ment of juve­nile ener­gy and cos­mo­po­lite appe­tite, that it is hard to ima­gine him cele­bra­ting his 70th bir­th­day soon. Zakir is the son of an immense Indian musi­cian, the per­cus­sio­nist Alla Rakha, who has contri­bu­ted to the defi­ni­tion of his ins­tru­ment (the tablas), but who has also ope­ned up clas­si­cal music from Nor­thern India to new winds, such as drum­mer Bud­dy Rich’s jazz for ins­tance. Mickey Hart from Gra­te­ful Dead des­cri­bed him as an Ein­stein and a Picas­so of rhythm.

Stran­ge­ly, Zahir Hus­sain has never felt bur­de­ned by this heri­tage. He tele­phones from his house in Sau­sa­li­to, in front of San Fran­cis­co, he des­cribes the pure air, the roads deser­ted by cars, all the merits of a glo­bal slow­down : « In 2019, I lined up 5 dif­ferent tours. 50 concerts in spring, 30 in the sum­mer. Honest­ly, I hadn’t even rea­li­sed how much I had been sun­ken in work these past years. I am honou­ring this pause. »

In each of Zahir’s sen­tences, we can feel the mark of his tea­chers. Ravi Shan­kar. Ali Akbar Khan. John McLaugh­lin. And his own father : « He told me I should remain a good student throu­ghout my whole life. When someone would tell him he had given a per­fect concert, he would ans­wer that he hadn’t played well enough to give up music quite just yet. »

At a young age, Zahir took off to the Uni­ted-States with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the sarod lute player. « He never addres­sed me as if I were a child. He cal­led me Sir. I never felt any­thing else but the res­pect gran­ted to a dis­ciple doing his best. I always had the fee­ling I was playing with musi­cians more talen­ted than me. And still today, when I hear the young Indian musi­cians, they are so incre­di­bly talen­ted. It’s frigh­te­ning ! I am lear­ning more from them than what I am actual­ly tea­ching them. »

During lock­down, Zahir Hus­sain hos­ted Ins­ta­gram ses­sions. « It’s impor­tant to pass on what we know, to dis­se­mi­nate the infor­ma­tion. When the bodies are at dis­tance, it’s the only avai­lable means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Even when confi­ned, we are not alone. We must avoid at all costs brea­king the links of transmission. »

Arnaud Robert


Arnaud Robert is a Swiss journalist and filmmaker. His work has been published by National Geographic, Le Monde or Le Temps. He is a regular contributor to the Radio Télévision Suisse. He has published books about Haïti, art or music, such as the book about the Montreux Jazz Festival (« 50 Summers of Music », éd. Textuel) and the book on the Ateliers d’ethnomusicologie de Genève (The Ethnomusicology Workshops of Genevea - Genève aux rythmes du monde, éd. Labor & Fides). As a filmmaker, he produced a documentary on the encounter between the trombonist Roswell Rudd and the Malian griot Toumani Diabaté (« Bamako is a Miracle») and another one about the Beninese fanfare Gangbé Brass Band (« Gangbé!»). With the photographer Paolo Woods, he is currently working on « Happy Pills », a documentary about medication in the pursuit of happiness. In 2020, he received the Swiss Press Award for his series of reports on « The bathroom revolution ».

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