28 March 2009

Out of Melbourne multiculture

Dan Bau and Dan Tranh featured the other night when Way Out West visited the Gods. Dan Bau and Dan Tranh are traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. They’re not common in Canberra, and they are not even particularly common in Vietnam these days. You hear them in recorded music, but mostly I just saw them live at upmarket restaurants and tourist haunts when I was there. They were always being played by slim women in that most refined Vietnamese dress, the Ao Dai. They are zithers of a type. The Dan Bau is a single stringed instrument with a vertical joystick mechanism for stretching the string. The Dan Tranh is a 16-string instrument on which the strings are exposed, plucked with one hand and bent with the other hand out past individual bridges. I felt those strings, and they were surprisingly low in tension, nothing like a guitar despite the high pitch.

But Way Out West is more than just these uncommon instruments. It’s a group that formed out west in the Melbourne suburbs and seeks to represent the multicultural world they formed from. So there’s the sound of Vietnam, but also the Afro-Cuban sound of rich percussion from Ray Pereira and tonalities and melodies that were distinctly worldly that I often heard as Middle Eastern. And even the standard jazz instruments, trumpet and tenor, had individual sounds in this outfit: the trumpet soft and smooth, like a flugelhorn rather than edgy, and the tenor also less hard-edged.

So this was worldly music. To me, the grooves of percussion/bass/drums underlaid and defined it all with rich cross-rhythms and regular, sometime hypnotic bass lines, often in odd times, like 13 or 10. Raj’s drums were pretty straightforward, necessarily to fit with the layer of percussion, and the resulting patterns of beats, especially in a later percussion solo, were wildly infective so that I found myself bopping in the corner. Over this, the melodies were sometimes short, often unison giving way to obvious but effective harmonies. Dung would play Dan Bau or Dan Tranh as a feature (especially being relatively quiet instruments), or played the most Asian-influenced of guitars as accompaniment or solo or melody. I noticed later he had deep scalloping on all frets on the neck of his strat-style guitar, presumably to allow the pitch bends that are so evident in Vietnamese music, and this carried across to his guitar style.

In fact, there were many more ways in which this band’s equipment was unique: the kiddy-coloured, minimal drum kit; the radically remade, scroll-less double bass; the surprisingly effective and good-sounding opening percussion played by Ray on a Peter’s son’s $4 tambourine. There was even poetry from Peter, “teeing off on the Moon … divots of Moon dust”, in a tune that oozed sun-drenched Hawaiian rhythms.

They played music from various albums. Mostly they were tunes, although with arrangements that saw fills and accompaniments by the horns in harmony, and more complex movements of parts between instruments. And there was one extended work, a suite of four tunes called Old grooves for new streets, which was symphonic in extent. Always energetic and melodic; often arranged and communal. Layer on layer creating a dense landscape of colour and patterns and interactions. Like a city or a diverse community, which is what they are picturing in their music, and is so fabulously imaged on the CD cover of Old grooves for new streets.

It was an infectious night of rich rhythms and worldly, melodic tones, and a wonderful depiction of a busy, multicultural patch of Australia.

Way Out West comprise Peter Knight (trumpet), Adam Simmons (tenor sax), Dung Nguyen (modified electric guitar, dan tranh, dan bau), Ray Pereira (percussion), Howard Cairns (acoustic bass), Rajiv Jayaweera (drums).

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