Interview by Keith Waits. Photos courtesy Sulh Ensemble.
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Jon Silpayamanant is a cellist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist who lives in New Albany. A versatile musician, he has toured and performed extensively as a soloist and chamber musician and has worked with Grammy Award winners Yo-Yo Ma, Ray Price, Hazzan Mike Stein, and Bobby Flores. He has also appeared with late Miles Davis’ tabla player, Badal Roy, and his Jazz combo as well as a number of world music, chamber ensembles, and multi-media music projects. He is the founder of the Sulk Ensemble.
1. What is the next performance you are/were scheduled to do?
If it doesn’t get canceled, Sulh Ensemble will be at Worldfest on the Belvedere. We’re scheduled to play Sunday, Sept. 6 at 5:30-6:30.
2. How did Sulh Ensemble come about?
For years I’d wanted to play more music from the Middle East. I used to play regularly in Ahel El Nagam, a classical Arabic group in Louisville from 2008-2011, and I really missed playing that repertoire regularly. Over the years since I’d occasionally talk to musicians to gauge their interest in being involved in an Arabic Orchestra, mostly a lot of string players as I really wanted to have that full Arabic strings sound for the group.
It wasn’t until January 27, 2017, that I formally founded the group. What prompted it was Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the “Muslim Ban,” and I thought, now more than ever we need to share music from the countries/regions included in Executive Order 13769. So I touched base with a number of the musicians I had talked to over the years and pulled together a few who were otherwise free enough and we started rehearsing in March of 2017.
3. How much of the group’s mission is socially minded?
Well, as you can tell from the group’s origin story, pretty much started out as that type of organization. The word ṣulḥ itself is Arabic and means “reconciliation.” It’s sometimes considered another word for “Peace” in Arabic, but whereas salaam implies “Peace through the absence of conflict,” ṣulḥ is “Peace through reconciliation”–in other words, an active problem-solving or bridge-building process. About a year after we formed I came up with the perfect tagline for the group to reflect that connotation: “Sharing the world through music.”
Over the past two years we’ve been focusing on music from many other countries and regions, and the last year I’ve been doing a lot of research to find music by women composers from those regions. So the vast majority of the music we perform is by under-represented composers, composers of color, and women composers.
4. When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I’m still not sure that I want to be a musician, but I am sure that I want to use music to connect to other cultures and connect people to them!
5. When did you first start to discover the musical heritage of your birthplace, UdonThani?
I grew up listening to music from Thailand through the cassette tapes my mother brought with us when we immigrated here. The first songs I learned to sing were in Thai, mostly phleng luk krung (เพลงลูกกรุง) and Thai language versions of other popular tunes in Asia during the mid 20th century like Kyu Sakamoto‘s “Ue o Muite Arukō” (otherwise known as “Sukiyaki” in the US).
As far as exploring the music from the region of Thailand I was born in, it was probably when I was in music school that I really started to explore the history of it. Udon Thani is in Northwest Thailand which is part of the Isan Region. The Isan region overlaps the country of Laos and there are many shared cultural and musical ties, everything from the instruments (like the khaen/แคน bamboo mouth organ); to the styles and genres of singing (like mor lam/หมอลำ); and even the folk-operas that my mom adores watching (e.g. likay/ลิเก).
I’ve only recently discovered there was a style of Shadow Puppet theater in the Isan Region which is one of the things that led me to compose my own Shadow Puppet Opera based on that style and Ramakien (รามเกียรติ์) character, Hanuman (หนุมาน), the monkey warrior companion of Pra Ram (พระราม). The Ramakien is the Thai version of the Indian epic, Ramayana, and the characters are treated significantly differently in Southeast Asian versions of the story.
6. What is the most important thing to know about Southeast Asian music?
I think it’s important to remember that there’s a ton of variety and diversity of music in that part of the world, as it is in any other part of the world. I was actually working on a database of genres from Southeast Asia a few months ago and naturally started with Thailand. After a couple of hours that list had already grown to well over three dozen distinct genres. I was nowhere near close to finished and hadn’t even started looking at the modern Thai-Western fusion pop genres.
Other than that, I think the coolest thing about Southeast Asian music, in general, is all the Gongs and Chimes! Ethnomusicologists refer to the music as Gong-Chime music. Many Westerners are familiar with Indonesian Gamelan, but most aren’t familiar with the dozens of other types of Gong Chime ensembles throughout the whole of Southeast Asia!
7. On your web site, you describe yourself as a “dancer’s musician”, how did you come to have such an affinity for dance
Over the past 15 years about half of the shows and events I’ve played are with and for dancers. While living in Indianapolis I started to regularly play for belly dancers and other styles of ethnic and modern dancers. After moving back to the Louisville area I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work regularly with the Louisville Ballet, Kasar Dance, and the Moving Collective as well as the local belly dancers.
Over the years I’ve formed dance/music groups in Indianapolis and here. Raqs Maqom is a collaborative project between Sulh Ensemble and the Crescent Moon Dance Company which focuses on dances from Central Asia. My project Camera Lucida is an interactive video and music project which regularly works with modern and ballet dancers, and performance artists.
With Sulh Ensemble, one of our other goals is to collaborate with dancers from various regions and styles. In addition to the Central Asian dance, we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work and perform with a Bharatanatyam dancer; with Flamenco Louisville; and obviously, the local belly dancers.
8. Besides Louisville, what other places have you worked?
I used to live and gig regularly in the Indianapolis area. For a few years I was actively touring around the continental US with a couple of groups. I’ve also performed and toured a bit out of the U.S.
9. How is working in Louisville different?
Coming from Indianapolis, most of the regular dancers that were regularly performing were the belly dancers in the Greek and Middle Eastern Restaurants. When I first moved back to the Louisville area I was actually surprised by the number of Flamenco groups in the area. Since I regularly work and perform in ethnic communities, it was interesting to see what the differences were in the ethnic make-up here. While I was in Indianapolis, I actually didn’t regularly gig in the Classical Music circles, so moving back here was an adjustment in networking back into those kinds of events and gigs.
10. What’s your quarantine playlist?
Mostly tons of Southeast Asian Shadow Puppet theater in addition to the things I post to my #NotBeethoven project.
11. What book is on your bedside table now?
Since the Sulh Ensemble performance of my Hanuman Shadow Puppet Opera was canceled I’ve actually taken the opportunity to do some heavy reading of relevant literature. I’ve probably read a few dozen articles about the story and Shadow Puppet theater and am in the middle of a handful of dissertations on the topic.
However, the actual books I’m in the middle of reading (or re-reading, as the case may be) are:
James Brandon “Theatre in Southeast Asia”
King Rama I “Thai Ramayana”
Various authors, Paula Richman (ed) “Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia”
Theodora Bofman’s “The Poetics of the Ramakian”
And local musicologist, Doug Shadle’s “Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise”
12. What is the first thing you will do when you can come out of quarantine?
Going out for food and drinks with friends!
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.