On a beach, a fisherman pours his heart into a love song for his wife, taken by the sea. A worn but beautiful woman, at first shy and retiring, sings an unexpectedly passionate welcome. A couple selling trinkets to sun-hungry tourists opens an arresting trove of traditional instruments and plays them with astounding zeal.
On the shores of great tragedy and destruction, the sounds and images of the Laya Project (EarthSync; July 13, 2010) reveal an abundance of life-affirming music made by ordinary villagers, sounds from coastal communities affected by the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, India, and Myanmar (Burma). Recorded on site during impromptu sessions over the course of more than two years in dozens of overlooked areas, the interwoven songs and tunes that became the Project span national, ethnic, and religious boundaries and reflect a unifying triumph of human resilience and creativity.
Envisioned as a response to the tsunami, the epic journey of the Project—envisioned from the start as both a 2-CD set and a documentary film—was initiated and entirely supported by friend and patron of music arts Sastry Karra, who along with the many dedicated members of the multi-national team behind the Laya Project, felt they needed to do something more than simply provide material relief. “While the massive aid that came in addressed the basic crisis of food, clothing, and shelter,” Project director and producer Sonya Mazumdar recalls, “there was little assistance for music or the local performing arts, which form the cultural spine of villages in rural communities of the region.”
Putting together yet another compilation of big names or international celebrities for a cause left them cold. The EarthSync crew longed to capture the depth and breadth of ordinary people, their extraordinary songs, and to pay tribute to their resilience, their celebration of life, their joy.
The team opted for one of most difficult and exhaustive approaches imaginable: to research, record, and work with material from everyday people most directly and devastatingly affected by the tsunami. This meant tackling a tangle of visas, permits, and paperwork before they even arrived on the ground. Once they landed, they travelled difficult roads to remote places. They made recordings using a car battery to power their portable studio, and faced the toll the tragedy had taken on often threatened local cultures.
What they found when they began working with people, however, was joy, strength, and a wealth of music, some of it never before documented and recorded. Guided by indefatigable Indonesian researcher Ernest Hariyanto and a plethora of knowledgeable locals and music lovers, sound designer and engineer Yotam Agam, music producer Patrick Sebag, film director Harold Monfils, and their tireless crew captured hundreds of hours of performances by people who came forward to share their music.
“Part of what became ‘A New Day’ was a song sung by a fisherman in one of the first villages we visited in Sri Lanka as part of the Project,” recounts Agam. “He was singing a love song for his wife, whom he’d lost in the tsunami. It was deeply moving.”
It wasn’t just the crew who were moved, however; the local people they encountered felt moved to come forward and bring their music. There were the Jarasathusorns, husband and wife who sold soap flowers on Phuket Island, Thailand’s tourist hot spot: “We didn’t expect to find much traditional music there,” Agam notes, “and yet here was this couple who could sing and play all sorts of Thai instruments, as you can hear on ‘Water Side Tales.’”
Then there was Shaheema, the Maldives woman whose experienced and striking face graces the Project’s cover. “While recording a group of male percussionists on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, a woman approached us from the bush and requested to sing us a welcome song. This was surprising because the women had been in the background most of the time,” Agam remembers. “Once she started singing, though, the song she sang was so pure and beautiful.” That rare moment became “Farihi.”
The team had an embarrassment of riches garnered from such moments, and Agam and Sebag, returning from the field faced the formidable task of transforming gorgeous music recorded in less than ideal settings into a whole. They judiciously mixed, remixed, and added gentle infusions of keyboards and other instruments to gems from various sessions and locations, making sure to honor the spirit of the people and places involved.
In their careful work, Agam and Sebag strove to create a framework and a context for listeners outside of the communities where the music originates, in hopes of creating a link across cultures. “We really wanted to spark the emotional reaction appropriate to music,” Mazumdar explains. “That meant adding some production, to help people connect.”
Fusing beautiful yet disparate moments lies at the heart of the Project’s motive and mission. “‘Laya’ is a really resonant and rich Sanskrit word with many contextual meanings,” Mazumdar muses. “It can mean fusion; the union of song, dance and instrumental music; time or a pause in music; rest; embrace; the supreme being; destruction; to set in motion, among other things. It’s a word that best encapsulates the essence of the project.”
What started as an epic journey has taken on a life of its own, and the Laya Project has unfolded in several other media, in an effort to continue the efforts to provide sustainable exposure and outlets for local creativity.
The award-winning film, directed by Monfils and available on DVD, reveals the lush visual side of the sounds uncovered during the crew’s many travels, with post production by Arturo Calvete, Henrik Silkstrom and Jose Garrido. Artists Agam and Sebag first met in the middle of nowhere have become new and important collaborators. And a live show featuring Laya artists has begun to tour internationally, spreading the vibrant music of the South Asian coasts from India to Israel.
“The tsunami did not differentiate between cultures, races, religion, or economic backgrounds,” reflects Mazumdar. “Neither does music, except that one destroyed and the other heals.”