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Multilingual UK - the power of Babel
Most of the musical examples we have just considered involve solo performers, or small groups. If you put together large numbers of solo performers and small groups, maybe adding elements of other performing arts, the result is often a festival. Festivals – sacred and secular – are an important opportunity for people to come together. Sometimes they form the focus for the language and culture of a particular group. On other occasions, they are inclusive events open to all comers. The presence of many different linguistic communities has certainly enriched the UK calendar of events.
The Welsh eisteddfod is a good example of a festival which offers support for a minority language and culture. Eisteddfod (plural: eisteddfodau) means literally ‘a chairing’. It consists of competitions in all aspects of music, literature and drama, but the chairing – or investiture – of the winning poet remains the high point. Eisteddfodau are held all over Wales with winners of local events eventually reaching the National Eisteddfod, the largest folk festival in Europe. It is held alternately in North and South Wales in the first week in August and, in addition to the competitions and performances, serves as a showpiece for Welsh cultural and commercial organisations. Very important, the sole language of the eisteddfod is Welsh. Parallel events for young people are organised by the Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh Youth League), a voluntary organisation with a membership of 47,000 children and young people. The Royal National Mod has much in common with the Welsh eisteddfod and serves as one of the showcases for Gaelic language, music, literature and culture.
While eisteddfodau target Welsh language and culture, the underlying philosophy is by no means narrowly Welsh, as is demonstrated by the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. Thousands of competitors from over forty countries converge on this small market town every summer, attracting an enthusiastic audience of nearly 100,000. Some 900 local people from all walks of life volunteer their time to work on the eisteddfod site or host overseas competitors. The spirit of the eisteddfod is summed up in the words of T. Gwynn Jones:
Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano. Gwaraidd fydd
ei gerddi fo.
Like the International Eisteddfod, WOMAD (World of
Music, Arts and Dance) aims to bring together music, arts and dance from
countries and cultures all over the world. The first festival was held in the
UK in 1982. Peter Gabriel, the original inspiration for WOMAD, sees the main
benefits of the festivals as allowing many different audiences to gain an
insight into other cultures through music: ‘Music is a universal language, it
draws people together and proves, as well as anything, the stupidity of
racism.’35 WOMAD has grown considerably over the years and is now
staged in Australia, North America, South Africa, Japan and several European
countries every year. The festivals are usually weekend-long, family-oriented
events, featuring simultaneous performances on two or three stages. There are
also workshops and special events for children.
Intense preparation leads up to two days of events organised around the five disciplines of Carnival: ‘mas’ (from masquerade) or costume; steel band; calypso (political, social and satirical commentary, set to music); soca (a fusion of soul and calypso, the traditional music of Carnival); and static sound systems. The event prides itself on reflecting the multicultural nature of present day UK, with groups participating from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Kurdistan, the Philippines and many parts of the Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America. While the procession of costumes, soca and steel bands winds its way along the three-mile route, static sound systems play selections of many different kinds of music. Street stalls sell art, crafts and food from all over the world.
According to the organisers: ‘Carnival aims to celebrate the cultural heritage of its founders and at the same time be open enough to take on board evolving contemporary culture with its multiracial, multicultural trends.’ This philosophy is neatly encapsulated in the Carnival motto: Every spectator is a participant – carnival is for all who dare to participate.36
The Chinese New Year
Colourful Chinese New Year celebrations in cities like Manchester and London also attract large crowds. The Chinese New Year is part of the spring festival which lasts for fifteen days. It takes place between 21 January and 19 February on the first day of the first moon of the lunar calendar. As is the case for all new year celebrations, it marks the turning over of a new leaf and is swathed in traditions and rituals. Decorations are an important feature, particularly ‘red couplets’ – four Chinese characters on red paper, often with gold trimming.
The New Year’s Eve dinner gathering is one of the most important family occasions of the year. It consists of symbolic foods, such as seafood and dumplings, signifying good wishes, and raw fish salad or yu sheng to bring good luck and prosperity. Hong bao (red packet) takes place on New Year’s Day when married couples offer children and unmarried adults money in red envelopes.
For the wider British public, the Lion Dance is the best known part of Chinese New Year festivities. The lion’s body is moved by two highly skilled dancers – usually acrobats or kung fu artists. The head is made of strong but light materials like bamboo and papier mâché, with eyelids, mouth and ears that move to express different moods. The tail is formed by a cloth attached to the head. A little Buddha teases the lion with a fan or a giant ball. A drum follows the highly skilled and stylised actions of the lion, while gong and cymbals follow the drum. Firecrackers, used to dispel evil spirits which dislike loud noise, add to the overall effect.
The climax of the Lion Dance is the Choi Cheng or ‘Picking the Green’. A red packet containing money is attached to vegetable leaves and hung on a string above the door of a house or business. The lion lies on the ground to ‘eat’ both the leaves and the red packet as musicians play a dramatic rolling crescendo. Suddenly, it springs back into action and spits out the leaves, a symbolic gesture signifying that there will be abundance in the coming year.
Television news coverage and children’s programmes like Blue Peter have done much to draw attention to the Chinese New Year. Many shops now stock new year cards in quantities much larger than would be required simply for the Chinese community, suggesting that the wider British population is now starting to actively embrace this festival.
Although Eid ul-Fitr (or the celebration of breaking the fast) is less visible than Carnival or the Chinese New Year, it is none the less an established event not only in the lives of Muslim families but also in the calendar of festivals observed by many British schools. It takes place on the first day of the tenth month in the Muslim calendar, to mark the end of fasting during the month of Ramadan. On this day, Muslims show their joy for the health, strength and opportunities which Allah has given them to fulfil their obligations during Ramadan. Believers wear their best new clothes, put old grudges to one side, and give gifts and sweets to children and money to the needy.
Eid parties, where Asian foods such as pakoras and samosas are found side by side with the more traditional crisps and biscuits, are an important event for many schools in Muslim areas. Mothers and older sisters are often invited to apply mehndi patterns to children’s hands. Mehndi – or henna – decoration is associated with special occasions such as weddings and parties in India, Pakistan and many other parts of the world. The style of decoration varies from one country to another, but Asian patterns tend to use fine line, lacy, floral and paisley patterns. Mehndi artists are now also found increas-ingly in tourist destinations and pop festivals in the summer. An art form traditionally associated with the hotter climates where mehndi grows has become very much a feature of British culture.
The range of festivals which draw participants from many different communities adds depth and texture to the cultural life of the UK. Whether Llangollen and Notting Hill in the summer or Soho at the beginning of spring, the celebration of other cultures not only increases the vitality of minority languages, but enriches society as a whole.
Interesting web sites
Chinese New Year and information on many other aspects of life in the Chinese community in the UK
Eid ul-Fitr and other Islamic festivals
Llangollen International Eisteddfod
Welsh National Eisteddfod
WOMAD (World of Music and Dance)
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