Rainforest World Music Festival: Chet Nuneta Saves Dying Dialects

Kuching, 29 June 2013. Chet Nuneta from France dares conventions, braves norms and crosses international borders in oral music, delivering powerful vocal polyphonies backed by polyrhythms in many languages of the world. Their style is inimitable as it is definition defying. Their mission is not just to make unforgettable show stopping music but also to relive endangered dialects, forgotten sounds in distinct melodies sung simultaneously.

Mallika Naguran gets to the heart of the matter with an exclusive chat with Chet Nuneta at the 16th edition of the Rainforest World Music Festival in Santubong, Sarawak today. She spoke to vocalists Anne Roy, Lilia Ruocco, Fouad Achkir, also a percussionist, and Mika Fernandez, a percussionist, and band manager Loraine Mochado. Vocalist Lily Noroozi was not present at the interview although she performed at the concert. Fellow band member and vocalist Beatriz Salmeron did not perform at the festival, as she was having a baby back home.

Chet Nuneta composes tunes in more than 15 different languages, as I understand, and among them are endangered dialects. What are a few of those?

Lilia: We sing old and new songs, many of which are our own composition. And we sing using endangered languages as well, such as Komi from the North of Russia. Komi is spoken by only around 300,000 people. We also sing the M’bochi dialect from Congo, Africa. It is not too common although the President speaks it.

Chet Nuneta: (from left) Anne Roy, Lily Noroozi, Lilia Roucco, Fouad Achkir and Mika Fernandez.

I’m curious. What is your process of picking up such quaint languages and turning them into songs?

Lilia: First, we do some research. For instance, the songs in Komi came about when our band member Juliette Roussille who visited Pompidu Centre to learn more about the language. She came across a poem by Victor Savin, which touched her heart. Then she composed it in melodies and harmonies that are Chet Nuneta style.

We also seek to perfect the pronunciation from a native speaker because we have to achieve the right kind of feeling for the song. We walk through many streets in Paris to look for native speakers of old or endangered languages and dialects. Surprisingly, we find them when one person on the street connects us with another. People lead us on to others – they are very generous.  We even met a specialist in Komi language in Paris.

What other languages do you sing in?

All: There’s Mandarin from Asia, and apart from that we sing songs from Arabia, Eastern Europe and Sephardic traditions.

Anne Roy of Chet Nuneta strikes a high note to keep roots alive.

Now I’m really curious. Why sing in endangered dialects at all? I’m going to ask each one of you to tell me what it means to you personally.

Anne Roy: “For me, it’s very personal. I take the time to go through sources on the Internet like You Tube. I watch traditional videos and read up on the politics and society of the place where the dialect originated. Then I listen to the range of music and let one or two songs appeal to me. Once I feel a sense for the songs, I let my imagination go wild with the music. Never mind where the place is – be it Macedonia, Russia, China, Africa – I feel there are so many similarities. We are all alike. That’s why world music touches a lot of people even though we don’t understand the words or culture.”

In short, we are looking for the roots of the music.

Fouad Achkir: If a language is not used, it disappears. So we sing to save it. Why? Because a language is really rich in culture, and when we lose it, we also lose culture, a lot of memories, even a time in civilization.

Loraine Machado: We want to enhance the dying languages. That’s why we sing it. It exists and it has to exist. We want to preserve it. We blend two languages together in one song. For example the use of Mandarin sand French in the song Caminata.

Ravi Shankar changed the way Mika Fernandez (left) plays his music.

Mika Fernandez: I don’t sing; it’s too difficult. Instead, I play. First, we love the music. Then we choose the songs that we sing. I like traditional music because it’s sometimes rare and very rich, reaching infinitum. I was in India to practise percussion. I came across Ravi Shankar’s book, who talked about tradition, colour and emotions in music.  After reading that, I switched from classical music to find my own music. I play the percussion all the time; it’s like cooking. Add the right ingredients to get the right tune. We represent the tribes and indigenous communities. We can’t change the world, but we certainly don’t want uniformity. Modern songs are about uniformity, which is dangerous. When we sing Komi, we participate in the memories to live again.

Lilia Ruocca: In traditional languages, there is a particular sound. In modernisation, it’s different from the other sounds. In the mouth, it sounds different. Richness in the voice and exploration in the voice. Komi for example. The rhythm changes the timbre in the voice, and changes the body. Reaching deep, it speaks to you. Like a language from the people. The song engulfs me, possesses me. It’s a phenomenon! When I go wow, then I know I got it.

Is it like an out of the body experience?

Lilia: Yes!

Mika: Polyphonic sounds, with up to four different voice parts, can help make that happen. We take off in a different way. We sing until we get the symbolism and we get the meaning, learning from different people, like a journey. We come to the music with a different kind of sense - not an intellectual sense.

Chet Nuneta strikes the bamboo instrument. Percussion features strongly in their polyrythmic renditions.

So when we conduct workshops, we often take this approach. And we give them a song, ask them to take a song with their body. Work without text, oratory. This impresses even with the music professors. Oral tradition passed from old to young. We love the old songs, but we don’t forget where we are today, and we try to make the marriage. And we have an effect on the voice and our traditions, makes us what we are today. First we have to respect traditions, after that we are free. We can go wherever, we can do anything.

Anne: We use different influences like jazz and rock and roll…

Mika: … and sound painting plus lots of improvisation. Listen to A Vus Bassin from Ailleur album, which is an example of a Turkish dialect that’s quaint. We sense the song first before knowing it intellectually.

What are the percussion instruments that you play?

All: We use our voices mostly and some percussion using instruments, certain objects and our body. We have the bamboo, which we strike; the drum called Napolean tombo; rototom; thunderplate; dagong; kutu wapa and others.

Are you intrigued by the Borneo music and chant delivered at this festival? Like the native chanting by the indigenous tribes of Sarawak?

Lilia: Oh yes. Maybe I can learn it at this festival!