February 25, 2011 / 6:44 AM / 6 years ago

Philippine music fest celebrates cultural links

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Sitars, balalaikas and a medley of other stringed instruments took center stage this week as musicians from across Asia and the Middle East transcended the bounds of language and culture for a Manila music festival.

The four-day International Rondalla Festival gave each country a chance to showcase native stringed instruments in both traditional and modern tunes -- an attempt to woo back young people more interested in iTunes than centuries-old instruments.

"Among all the different instruments in the world, the plucked string is one that has real connections all over the world," said La Verne Dela Pena, a musicologist.

"Of course there are other instruments as well but for some reason the plucked string is where you can have connective heritage."

Featured instruments ranged from Asian lute-style instruments such as the sitar and the Thai two-stringed sueng, to the pear-shaped Iranian tanbour and the Russian balalaika.

Musicians from China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines all took part in the festival, now in its third year.

"It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to express feelings of pain or happiness with language," said tanbour player Arash Shahriari.

"We believe that music and art is a language that can easily be used to channel that feeling to others."

To appeal to younger generations, whose appreciation of Rondalla -- a Spanish word meaning serenade that is used to refer to an ensemble of plucked string musicians -- is declining, the groups have tried different musical innovations.

Chinese stringed instruments such as the pipa and erhu were used in traditional music for thousands of years. But Taiwanese musicians have now combined them with jazz, using violin, piano and saxophones.

Rondalla is closely associated with traditional culture because the ensembles are often used for festivals and dances, and many of the instruments have been around for centuries.

Festival organizers said they held the event to fight stereotypes that have the instruments pegged as only being used for simple entertainments, but acknowledged that wider recognition might take time.

"You are recreating a tradition, you are renewing a tradition. It's a process," said Ramon Santos, an ethnomusicologist who was also head of the festival.

"You can't just wake up one morning and expect the world to accept the music right away."

Editing by Elaine Lies

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