The lure of the East: ‘Manganiyar Seduction’ closes Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival

The Manganiyar Seduction performed. ()
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Last night, after visa snafus delayed the final performances a few days, Lincoln Center's inaugural White Light Festival came to a close at the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle with The Manganiyar Seduction.

Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president for programming, has said that she conceived the three-week festival in an epiphany of sorts during a yoga class. But beyond its personal resonances, the festival also advanced her years-long goal: increasing the visibility of Lincoln Center's "brand" beyond its eponymous summer festival, the vaguely defined "Great Performers" series, and some other events. White Light was, by that measure, a success. It's been on everyone's radar, and it had the mark of good programming: it felt natural. While subtly broadening the Center's offerings, it fit effortlessly into the fall season. (Allan Kozinn at the Times argued that it fit in a bit too effortlessly.) Not incidentally, the graphic design and marketing—eerie and elegant—were light-years beyond Lincoln Center's usual bland efforts. 

The Manganiyar Seduction captured both the strengths and the problems of the festival. The production was simple yet dazzling. The Manganiyars are, their bio explained, "a caste of Muslim musicians," schooled in Sufi mysticism, which values poetry and music as a path to God. About 40 of the players sat in booths, lined with red fabric and outlined with lights, in a large advent-calendar-like structure. For 75 minutes or so, they performed a flowing cycle of songs. String riffs, percussion ensembles, and chants wove together in a mixture both rousing and, well, seductive. By the finale, in which the musicians were all playing and the lights were moving in massive rhythms like a Times Square billboard, the effect was nearly ecstatic, in keeping with the players' Sufi tradition.

The initial "seduction" of The Manganiyar Seduction was of its director, Roysten Abel. As he worked on a play in Spain in 2001 that involved two Manganiyar players, they began to follow him around and sing to him: "They would sing and literally rock me to sleep, making sure that my day ended on a good note as well. This continued for a fortnight, and I could sense a strange physiological happening in my system but could not put a finger on it." After he moved on to Bonn, his German collaborators "thought I was on acid. Such was the impact these two Manganiyars had on me. I started to miss them, and so I would call them from Germany and ask them to sing for me over the phone. I realized then that I was totally seduced."

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It was easy from last night's performance to see what had so entranced Abel. Yet the music, brilliant though it was, was contextless; there was an essay in the program outlining the songs' content, but no supertitles or explanations. The intended effect, Roysten Abel said in an interview, was to mimick his own experience with the Manganiyars: an encounter not intellectual, but "very visceral."

It certainly was, but that doesn't really cut it; indeed, it introduces more problems. Time and time again in presenting "world music," the premise involves a patronizing romanticization of the musicians: they're purer, simpler, more spiritual than we are, and more in-tune with the things that matter. The hope is that, if we turn off our Blackberries and tune in to the Manganiyars, some of their quaintly, excitingly raw energy will rub off on us, and we'll become better, simpler people, too. We don't have to do much of anything, and we're certainly not expected to change our lives. But we get a little packageable burst of transcendence. The less we know about the players, their lives, their personalities, their politics, their context, and even what, exactly, they're playing, the easier it is for us to project what we need to onto them, to find them charming.

This is the prevailing idea of the White Light Festival, as it has been in much of the proudly exotic programming of the Lincoln Center Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM's recent opera A House in Bali, featuring an array of young Balinese men who remain ciphers, comes to mind). For a festival devoted to spirituality and religion, White Light seemed strangely devoid of politics. And of relevance: I kept wondering why there wasn't a program devoted to Christian rock bands, or some other reflection on the beauties and controversies of contemporary American spirituality, something we all might be prepared to understand and wrestle with. But it's much easier to go, be wowed, and feel, on some level, superior to Indian or Latvian performers than to deal with issues and emotions that hit closer to home.

The Manganiyars remain purely seductive: personality-less and smilingly bent only on pleasing us, not on challenging us or, really, even intriguing us. It was oddly appropriate that we had to exit the Rose Theater through the Time Warner Center's mall. The kind of seduction proposed by the performance felt transactional, cloying, even commercial: completely, almost disconcertingly, engaging but unenlightening.

But there was Jane Moss, her successful festival ending with a bang, bopping along in her seat. If that's not transcendence, I don't know what is.