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Tropical Beat


Written by David Fanshawe

We followed the story of tropical music and experienced the effect that climate, geography and raw materials have in the making of this exotic music from the world's equatorial regions. We discovered a common humanity; and examined important 'musical links' that were certainly no accident. So what makes tropical music special? Our ambitious quest: to circumnavigate the globe - this time travelling west (always west) from the sun's rising in the Torres Strait Islands, to the sun's setting over Fiji, some 30,000 miles and one year later. This film represents some of the highlights:

From the northernmost tip of Australia, our musical explorations continued through South East Asia up the mighty Mekong river to Laos and Thailand, where we celebrated the Buddhist New Year in the fabled city of Luang Prabang. In the hills of Northern Laos, we filmed the Hmong people, playing their distinctive Kaen, possibly the ancestor of the Scottish bagpipe!

From the Golden Triangle to southern India, we researched the classical, folk and tribal traditions of Karnatic music, dominated by the Veena, that venerated instrument of Saraswathi, the Goddess of learning and wisdom. The tradewinds were favourable to East Africa. We landed on the spice island of Zanzibar and discovered a polyglot of musical styles: Taarab, Beni, even Bombay film music, amongst the alluring strains of Ganoon, Ud and Violin. On the mainland of Tanzania, where tribal life is much less influenced by foreign customs, we recorded the renowned Malimba exponent Zawose, near Bagamoyo; and in central Tanzania the Wagogo tribe performed their Moheme initiation ceremony and Musunyunho courtship dances.

Overland to Senegal. Here we got a great 'Stand' (calling for the unity of Africa), from the celebrated musician Bu-Baca Diop, who chose to escort us all around his country from the deep south in Casamance, where we filmed instruments like the Balafon and Kora; to Darou Mousty, the religious centre, coinciding with the annual Maagal festival of the Bai Fall sect of Islam. Off Dakar, we went to the island of Gorée, Bu-Baca's family home, where we savoured the sights and sounds of Assiko rhythms, dating back to the times of the slave-trade, a poignant reminder, as we departed for the New World.

With the Tama talking-drum and Djembe drums ringing in our ears, we followed our tropical songlines to the Caribbean - to Cuba, where African musical traditions fused with Spanish. Bongos, Congas and the mellifluous Trés guitar formed the basis of Son, the ethnic root of Cha Cha Cha and Salsa. Not all music in the tropics is inspired by heat. High up in the Andes, we encountered a lovely blend of American Indian and Spanish music with hardly a trace of Africa. Filming Justo Diaz and his band Papalote, with their mesmerising Moceños bamboo panpipes, was definitely a highlight of our tour.

Completing our westward journey around the earth, we finally returned to the Pacific Ocean - our last port of call being Fiji. Like most indigenous cultures, Fijian music is utterly unique. Here, we were honoured to record an historical Meke Seãseã standing dance and Vakamalolo sitting dance with uninfluenced vocal harmonies, accompanied by Derua bamboo stamping tubes, complex clapping and hypnotic choreography. At sunset, the Lali, slit-log gong, resounded as the encroaching darkness enveloped us.

Tropical Beat is dedicated to all the musicians, singers and dancers, who keep their culture alive. Many fragile communities are now actively involved in the revival of their traditional cultures, thereby propagating the flowering of new musical forms. Throughout the tropics there is a big cultural renaissance. The tropical belt has survived centuries of change through wars, slavery and migration; it will continue to survive, because music is the universal heartbeat of the human race.