Centuries after Old Goa’s soaring and spectacular churches from the
16th and 17th century fell silent, amid the city’s decline to
near-total abandonment, two ambitious festivals are investing new
energy to revitalise India’s oldest and most significant Western
classical music tradition, at the exact locations where it first

Showcasing deep-rooted collaborations between foreign artistes and
burgeoning local talent, the Monte Music Festival and the new Ketevan
World Sacred Music Festival feature performances of international
calibre, at stunning heritage spots.

The trend began with Monte Music Festival. Hosted by
Lisbon-headquartered Fundação Oriente, in partnership with the hotel
Cidade de Goa, the Monte Festival is now one of the premier cultural
events on Goa’s crowded calendar. Every year, the three-day concert
features both Indian and Western classical music along with dance
performances held at the spectacularly situated Capela do Monte, high
above the old capital of the Estado da India. The modestly
proportioned chapel is a first-rate venue, with terrific acoustics,
but what is truly unforgettable are the sunset performances in the
courtyard – with the magnificent sweep of the river valley as it
reaches the sea on one side, and the ancient Mandovi islands on the
other, fading to purple as they yield to the foothills of the Ghats.

Earlier this month, the 15th edition of the Monte Music Festival was
programmed by Fundação Oriente’s Inês Figueira to feature strong
women’s voices from India. The line-up included brilliant young
talents – Sufi singer Ragini Rainu, Germany-based Goan soprano, Joanne
D’Mello and the powerful, soulful fadista Sonia Sirsat. But the
showstopper of the evening was an extraordinary recital of
contemporary and sacred chants by the London-based diva who grew up in
Mumbai, soprano Patricia Rozario.

Much of the credit for the revival of classical vocal music in Goa is
due to the direct intervention of Rozario – since 2009, she has
regularly returned to her homeland (and also Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore,
Pune and Ahmedabad) to conduct vocal music classes as part of a
personal initiative called Giving Voice to India. Several of Rozario’s
students have gone on scholarship to study abroad, including D’Mello.

Few people realise that Western classical music was firmly established
on the West coast of India, long before the Mughals created their
kingdoms in the North and centuries before, say, the sitar was
invented. In 1510, Portugal’s Alfonso de Albuquerque seized control of
the vibrant, cosmopolitan port city now called Old Goa and structures
like the Capela do Monte were built almost immediately afterwards. The
two largest churches in Asia, the largest convent in Asia, a Cathedral
and a Basilica plus several other religious spaces, grand and small –
all of them needed choirs and musicians and the colonialists
assiduously set about producing them en masse.

By 1543, it was deemed that all-Goan choirs would sing at church
services. That year, local boys sang at the inauguration of St Paul’s
College, the first University outside Europe. By the end of the
century, Konkani converts were famous throughout Christendom for their
proficiency with both vocal and instrumental music in the Western
idiom. Soon after, the Vatican granted the Goa diocese unique rights
to use instruments such as the violin, clarinet and bass while
celebrating Easter – no other place in the world was ever granted
similar privileges. Eventually, the descendants of these very early
musical prodigies trooped out of Goa to play dance music in British
India, then jazz in the early 20th century eventually seeded Indian
cinema with its wide-ranging “Bollywood sound”.

This rich legacy is the primary context for the intriguing start-up
Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival, the brainchild of long-time Goa
resident (and skilled concert pianist) Rudolph (Rudi) Kammermeir, with
the boundlessly dynamic “Maestro” Santiago Lusardi Girelli, who
occupies the Anthony Gonsalves Chair in Western Music, at Goa
University. Their efforts have grown organically from the remarkable
Goa University Choir, which started from scratch and grew to startling
excellence under Girelli’s tutelage.

Since 2014, the Seville-based Italian-Argentinian conductor has
kindled tremendous enthusiasm for choral music in the state. Like a
controlled tornado, his efforts have radiated positive effects in many
directions. Last year, the first edition of Ketevan festival brought
superb concerts right into the heart of Old Goa’s extraordinary Monte
Santo at Holy Hill, on the ruins of St Augustine church.

This location gives the concert series its name. Ketevan the Martyr
was queen of Kakheti (modern-day Georgia) in the early 17th century.
She was killed in Shiraz (modern-day Iran) for refusing to convert to
Islam. Her remains were spirited away by Augustinian friars and were
rumoured to have been hidden at their Goa stronghold. After the Soviet
Union dissolved, the Archaeological Survey of India was tasked with
recovering the saintly relics, and – highly improbably – DNA testing
on bone fragments indicate they succeeded last year. Rudi Kammermeir
said, “Ketevan’s story is boundlessly fascinating. It combines worldly
power, religious belief and conversion, and hints of an evergreen
story between a man and the many women in his harem. What a backdrop
for concerts in Old Goa!”

This year’s Ketevan Festival schedule is spread over two weekends and
includes many creditable corollary events, including a scholarly
symposium to test the limits of collaboration between Eastern and
Western musical practicioners, workshops with local musicians, and
social concerts at schools and colleges. Participants include the
Saint Ephraim Male Choir from Hungary, Vandalia Vocal Ensemble from
Spain, UK-based pianist Karl Luchtmayer, Australia-based soprano
Roberta Diamond, and musicians from Iraq, Portugal, Germany, Argentina
and Austria, besides several others from Goa.

Last weekend’s highlight was the debut of The Ketevan Cantata, a piece
of music composed exclusively for the festival by its resident
composer in 2017, Vasco Negreiros of Portugal. This Thursday, on
February 16, is an evening of Baroque instrumental music at the
exquisite Penha de Franca church. Other upcoming highlights include a
candlelight concert at the superbly renovated Chapel of the Weeping
Cross at Santa Monica convent, Sonia Sirsat exploring The Sacrality of
Fado, and Goa University Choir’s The Routes of Faith and Sorrow.

“This is only the beginning,” Girelli said. “Goa’s heritage is barely
emerging from dormancy. Soon we will establish a Ketevan research
centre, and seriously set about reviving these cultural traditions
year-round, hopefully in a way that everybody gets involved.”

Reply via email to