A tall, lanky Dharmoo dressed casually in black, enters the stage area almost, it seems, accidentally. He begins on a series of percussive sounds, which might be a song, a chant or a poem, accompanied by facial expressions, hand gestures and bodily movements, all of which seem tantalisingly familiar but disturbingly strange. We learn from an on-screen academic that we are hearing an invocation from remote Ruonshtan, one of the several examples of songs and chants archived in the Memory Museum.
Accustomed as we are to having our experience described and interpreted for us, we might apart from the “imaginary” of the title readily accept the reality of the Ruonshtan fictive population, the spiritual nature of its invocation, and the analysis of the serious, contemplative anthropological expert. We could quietly accept the “significance” of a disappearing practice that has been “collected” for our enjoyment and enlightenment. However, even without the “imaginary” the apparent authority and distance of the academic gaze is uncomfortably parodic. As other examples are introduced, the apparent delight in exotic practices shown by a particularly charming “expert” is unnervingly close to the bone of our own cultural preoccupation with and appropriation of the outsider experience.
The remarkably virtuosic invented vocal traditions presented to us range from the joyous celebratory aquatic songs of the nomadic Paretongn upon discovering water, to the Élélé whose hit songs represent a successful adaptation to modern life. Both charm and playfulness are balanced by the unpleasant preventative exorcisms after sexual acts of the male Sviljains and by the experts’ hurtful and arbitrary dismissal of the songs of the Ab-Pe as “unrefined”. The final presentation, the Girrhu, a cultural practice of singing through clenched teeth, provides a powerful conclusion to a program that has questioned our culture’s hypocritical attitude to colonisation and oppression.
Although Dharmoo’s program is carefully structured and smoothly stage managed, he imperils his own success by engaging in audience participation. Or does he? The audience, apart from a few extroverts, may not be completely enthusiastic when invited to join in a demonstration of the collective trance techniques of the Sariêh. However, they succumb reluctantly to imitating the master’s sounds. Are they responding to Dharmoo’s imperious glare and gestures? Or for cooperate for reasons of their own: obligingness, curiosity, novelty seeking, supportiveness, guilt, dutifulness, embarrassment, discomfort? How would we know? What would a future anthropologist make of this scene as a recorded observation of early 21st-century public behaviour?
A distinguished composer and vocalist, Gabriel Dharmoo mixes musical styles to create a dialogue. He is an artist interested not only in music, but in what it can represent, and how it can be used to interrogate our cultural assumptions. An intellectual artist in the best sense, Dharmoo is equally concerned with beauty and meaning. In this performance he appears onstage by himself, evoking the chants and rituals of fictional, exoticised “others” – the exorcisms of one tribe, the sung theatre of another. It’s all very fascinating, and our interest is further piqued by what appears onscreen behind the singer: various anthropologists and other humanities experts holding forth on the origins and meaning of these vocalisations.
Dharmoo’s purpose is quizzical and satirical; his creations hold a light up to our own cultural perspectives, provoking us to examine the way we look at others. A mischievous, funny and boldly original work.