I sat down to see Nömadak Tx on DVD with little expectation, only knowing that it was a film about traveling percussionists. It is a road movie documentary of Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Mtnez. de San Vicente of the Basque Country of northeastern Spain who take their ancient txalaparta percussion instrument to India, the Arctic Circle, Mongolia, Algeria, and the Saharan Desert, looking for native peoples in remote areas with whom they could build relationships while integrating their talents through music.
The txalaparta is a traditional wooden or stone percussive instrument said to be up to six thousand years old. Deeply resonant, it was used millenia ago as a means for villagers to communicate. Long boards are beat using sticks (makilak) by two performers (txalapartaris), one of whom maintains a fixed binary rhythm representing balance, while the other tries to break that balance with zero, one, or two beats in between. Reminiscent to me of the classical Indian sawal-jawab question-answer dialogue between tabla players, there is often some friendly competition with increasingly fast rhythms in an improvised musical encounter. Txalapartaris were becoming increasingly rare before a resurgence of interest by folklorists in the 1960s. Contemporary musicians such as Otxoa and de San Vicente started experimenting with materials besides wood and stone, such as metal or even blocks of ice.
The film's title, I learned from correspondence with one of the musicians, is simply a combination of the word meaning "nomadic" or "nomads" in the Basque language, along with the first two letters in the name of the instrument. And so we have a journey of this fascinating instrument, or at least its concept for it to be constructed anew on-site. During the opening credits, an interesting quote is presented that playing this instrument "and travelling are very similar. You do not know what will happen in either case."
The film moves quickly and keeps your attention right from the opening credits with dramatic photography. Interspersed with the credits we see the musicians creating a txalaparta, with closeups of saws cutting, sawdust flying. Throughout the film we hear txalaparta sounds. As soon as the credits end, the film abruptly switches to Mumbai, the first stop on the road trip. As in each stop, we experience visuals and sounds of the local scene.
That the instrument is played by two is not incidental it is an inherent part of the sense of "encounter" in the project that the film is part of, that of traveling as nomads with their traditional instrument in order to share, build bridges spanning communities, and form a meaningful cultural exchange, as well as experiment with new materials for the instrument. The whole is greater than the parts and, it is posited, one plus one ends up being greater than two, but the actual value cannot be predetermined. Adding to that mixture, the intent was to collaborate with traditional local artists, learning from each other in the genesis of compositions.
After working with Mumbai musicians and giving a concert, off the musicians go to the tribal lands of the Adivasis. The film lingers briefly when it needs to, but keeps on its nomadic quest. The editing reflects this combination of positive restlessness and purposeful striving from a scene of traditional Adivasi music accompanied by singing of their cosmological ideas, we cut right to the nighttime catching of a train and then immediately to the bright daytime snowscape of the musicians on skis, creating music out of ice and performing for the Sámi (Laplander) people of northern Scandinavia. If nothing else, the film is an exciting travelogue accompanied by the unique rhythms of the txalaparta. It's "cool" to see them clowning around in the Arctic and jumping into near freezing water after partaking of a sauna, as well as to watch them cutting ice blocks and shaving them just so in order to tune them. In the Sahara, it's amazing to see them make their music out of desert stone.
Whether on the Mongol steppe, driving through Algeria, in the Arctic, or in urban or tribal India, seeing the musicians engineer versions of their instrument out of local natural materials and hearing the magnificently resonant sounds from it all is a feast of the senses. The musicians have a lot of fun on their travel and bring smiles to their co-opted performers, their audiences, themselves, and, no doubt, their film viewers.
But the film is more than a travel film. We hear notes that strike both our ears and our hearts there is an ancient wisdom that is being transmitted. One could argue that it is a gently meandering film of peace, an exercise reminding us that we have so much in common and yet so much to learn from each other.
The sharp editing cuts; mixture of human activity with that which is in nature; everyday sounds as well as those, sometimes haunting and primordial, that we hear from the txalaparta; and subtlety through which the film gently presents itself, all effectively further the goals of the work. In less talented hands, such artistry can actually backfire and result in a trivialized production with techniques being exposed for the sake of themselves and not to further a story or feeling, but it works superbly here.
I fully enjoyed this unique documentary film and am delighted that I had the opportunity to see it. Nömadak Tx is a joyful ride showing how music is universal and brings happiness and shared understanding. As enchanting as it was to see, I was delighted to have the opportunity to experiencing it on the large screen when it was shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival locally in mid-April 2007.
8 stars out of 10
--Dilip Barman, March 21, 2007 (version of a review I published)
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