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Refugee Redux

Neelamjit Dhillon Quartet & Isaura String Quartet: Komagata Maru, REDCAT, Nov.24th

The stories of people migrating from place to place on our planet are as old as the human race. Through ancient history, bible tales, perhaps immigrant narratives of our own families, we know that individuals, tribes, even entire populations of towns and countries can move–or be moved—to new, faraway places. Reasons for packing up and leaving are diverse: wars, weather, a need for food and water, religious beliefs, better-paying jobs, et al. Sadly, fear or hatred of The Other—humankind’s ingrained “us versus them” mentality—has often complicated and at times thwarted migrations. This is not new. Today, refugee camps around the world are filled with millions of people, desperate to get out, to move on, to be safe.

Many U. S. political leaders are currently (and adamantly) opposed to accepting any refugees from the conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the mid-east. In recent decades, “boat people” sailing to American shores from Haiti and Cuba–people who risked their lives attempting to flee oppressive rule—were turned away. An earlier, notorious example of this took place in 1939, just prior to World War ll. A book and a film about that tragedy were both aptly titled Voyage of the Damned.

The SS St. Louis, an ocean liner in Hamburg commanded by a conscientious German captain, took on 937 Jewish refugees who hoped to escape Nazi persecution. Arriving in Havana’s harbor, passengers were told additional money was needed to enter Cuba, even though they had proper visas. Days later, quickly revised laws insured that the Jews would not be allowed to land on the island at all. In short order, both the United States and Canada, at the highest levels of government, also denied entry. After two months of wrangling, the ship returned to Europe and docked in Antwerp, Belgium. Once within a few yards of freedom, 254 of the passengers did not survive the war in Europe and/or the Holocaust.

On Nov. 24th, REDCAT presented Komagata Maru, another sad tale of a ship whose passengers were denied immigration—this time into 1914 Canada—for clearly racist reasons. The multi-level performance piece gave the sensation of actually being inside a broadcast documentary.   Black and white photos of the ship and passengers, mocking cartoons and vintage newspaper accounts of the voyage were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. Flashes of color, the work of contemporary artists, sometimes suggested the blue sway of ocean waves or the red swirl of violence. An on-stage narrator, Rekha Sharma, read brief passages, written by Shana Mirambeau, during the nine segments of the work. (More spoken facts, instead of trite phrases like “Smell the scent of courage sail away from British rule—the tyrant”, would have been helpful.) The best thing about this compelling, little-known historical episode was the music played by mostly Cal Arts graduates. Two groups, a jazz quartet and a string quartet seated casually across the front of the stage, gave admirable, often intertwined performances. A lengthy, well-deserved standing ovation followed the conclusion of the 80-minute event.

Photo by Ashwin Vaswani_IMG_4080 2

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steamship that sailed from Hong Kong, with stops at Shanghai and Yokohama, en route to Vancouver, Canada, in 1914. Its 376 passengers were all British citizens—from Punjab, British India—but Canada’s refusal to admit them was clearly based on their ethnicity: a dozen were Hindus, 24 were Muslims and 340 were Sikhs. And all of these Indian passengers knew there would be conflict when they arrived in North America.

A showdown with officials was planned under the leadership of Gurdit Singh Sandhu, a wealthy fisherman; he was determined to bring the unfair immigration laws to light. For example, in 1913 over 400, 000 Europeans were welcomed into Canada , but the written laws excluded immigration to anyone who did not “come from the country of their birth…by a continuous journey”. That ruling applied almost exclusively to ships that sailed from India since the great distance to Canada virtually assured stops in Japan, Hawaii or elsewhere.

The ship sailed on April 4th but was delayed in Vancouver’s harbor for weeks and weeks while legal appeals were filed and tempers flared. Passengers relieved the Japanese captain of duty, Royal Navy ships with armed soldiers were summoned and a tug boat finally pushed the Komagata Maru out to sea on July 19th. An angry riot on deck was reported by a newspaper: “Howling masses of Hindus showered policemen with lumps of coal and bricks”. When the ship at last arrived in Calcutta in August, British authorities, considering the passengers to be law-breakers and political agitators, boarded the vessel and attempted to arrest the ringleader, Gurdit Singh Sandhu. Another melee ensued, 19 were killed, a few escaped, but most of the Indians were imprisoned for the duration of the First World War. Sandhu, the instigator, slipped away and lived in hiding until 1922. He was convinced to give himself up by no less than Mahatma Gandhi and ultimately served five years in prison. Sandhu was considered by many to be a true patriot despite his doomed voyage to Canada in 1914.

The printed program for Komagata Maru as well as the CD with the same name featuring (half of) the music heard at REDCAT weren’t very clear about the origin of the show. Some on-line searching has given me what is likely the correct creative timeline. Neelamjit Dhillon, a native of Vancouver, is a young composer who has performed all over the world and recently completed his doctorate at California Institute of the Arts. He’s a professional musician, too, who excels on alto saxophone, Indian tabla drums and bansuri, a bamboo flute. Dhillon wrote a nine-movement suite of music for the centennial of the the Komagata Maru incident. On the CD, he plays the instruments listed above, joined by a pianist, double bassist and drummer.

That said, Dhillon’s quartet at REDCAT used three different, excellent musicians: Dave Tranchina, acoustic bass, Trevor Anderies, drums, and the brilliant pianist, Cathlene Pineda. The CD features easygoing East/West jazz of a high order. But on stage, with the addition of the Isaura String Quartet, the music blossomed into something magical. Isaura is made up of several Cal Arts grads–Madeline Falcone and Emily Call, violins, Melinda Rice, viola and Betsy Rettig, cello—and they can play anything! (This reviewer saw them fearlessly play the west coast premiere of a difficult Gloria Coates String Quartet recently and they made it look easy.)

On the good sound system at REDCAT, the musicians who took part in Komagata Maru made an unforgettable combination of sounds. Dhillon’s sax was soulful, his tabla playing was subtle and his bamboo flute was serene. The strings gave strong, modern, clear support to the jazz foursome. Pianist Pineda deserves special credit for excellence. Overall, the score sounded like Bill Evans Meets Ravi Shankar, With Strings. At times, it was sublime.

Many capable hands were involved in the REDCAT production of Komagata Maru. The projected visuals were combined fluidly by Eric Singleton although the screen was simply too small to contain them at proper size. In front of and slightly below the main rectangle were two, small triangular screens. The effect, before anything was even projected, was of a boat’s simple shape. But once the images appeared, they were separated onto all three planes. It was a bit jarring and made reading projected words really difficult. (Perhaps it was effective if one were sitting in the exact center of the audience.) Half a dozen contemporary artists contributed to the involving visuals, many of which were Indian images or designs motifs.

Two final quibbles: good as it was, the music score became repetitive after a while and might benefit by cutting at least one section. And the section to cut, I suggest, is the final one, called “Reconciliation: Evoke the Fallen and Persevere”. Showing the faces of civil rights leaders, noble American Indians, Harvey Milk and others over soaring music is simply overkill.

Finally, and happily, Canada has made several public admissions of its wrong- doing in the century-old rebuke to Indians. Starting in the late 1980’s, for the 75th anniversary of the Komagata Maru refugee trip, “our Neighbors to the North” commissioned memorials and statues, produced radio plays, gave speeches, funded documentaries, opened a museum, introduced a postage stamp and, most important, made official apologies to the Indo-Canadian community. Better late than never.

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