(original program notes from 2013)
When I was first asked to write a piece based upon Indian folksong, I cast a wide net for source material, listening to everything from Bengali Bauls to Rajasthani folk singing. However, the material I felt most connected to in the end didn’t come to me from a distant corner of India, but in the most common way folk music has historically been transmitted: through the generations of my own family.
This piece uses two folk melodies. The first is a song called Ankhon vina andharon re (meaning, “without eyes, it remains dark”), which I found on a recording my mother’s father made long before I was born. Though I was his only grandchild who never met him, I certainly inherited his love of music. We still have recordings of my grandfather singing songs in many languages – English, Marathi, Konkani, Portuguese and others – which I listen to from time to time, imagining what it might have been like to know him.
The other song comes to me from my grandmother, my father’s mother. My father’s parents lived with us for most of my childhood, and I grew up speaking to my grandmother only in Gujarati, a language that I spoke to no one else until she died in 2007. As a baby, she would often sing me this lullaby (jhula-jhule is the sound of a swing, rocking back and forth) — it is the only musical memory I have of her.
Working on this piece was very special for me. I spent most of my childhood as a first-generation American unconsciously trying to separate my home life from my outside life. I became aware very early on that there was no real resonance for my Indian culture in my American surroundings. As a composer, I’ve often quoted from pieces I love (mostly by other western composers, and more recently from Hindustani bandishes). But this is the first time I ever felt able to bring songs from my own family into my music, and into the western concert hall. I think – I hope – I’ve finally found a point of resonance.
(see video at top of page)
Here are the source recordings of the two folk songs used in Jhula Jhule:
Special Performance Requirements
This piece is usually played by both performers off the score. Alignment is difficult with a part because the majority of the score has no barlines. We recommend that you perform with an iPad if possible. Even the ‘part’ for each transcription of this piece mostly contains the full score.
The viola and piano version of Jhula Jhule was created in collaboration with Leah Ferguson, and premiered on November 6, 2022 at the Perlman Music Program’s Stires-Stark series on Shelter Island.
The original version of this piece (for violin) was commissioned by MuSE (Multicultural Sonic Evolution) in 2013, and was premiered at Kaufman Music Center in New York City. Since that time, it has been performed many times across the US and abroad, with versions for multiple instruments (see other versions in sidebar).
“Jhula Jhule (2013) by Reena Esmail was next and this piece was described as a “fantasia on two Indian folk songs.” Opening with a quiet, ethereal trill in the piano, the violin soon joined with slower phrases that invoked a warm and wistful feeling. An Indian lullaby was clearly one of the inspirations for this piece; the violin supplied the singing voice and the piano line gave a sense of nostalgic distance. The contrast between the piano and the sweetly light melody in the violin was especially effective – Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending came briefly to mind. The playing, especially in the violin, was strongly expressive resulting in a beautifully peaceful sensibility. Jhula Jhule is restful and tranquil – music that sits comfortably in the listener’s ear.“ – Sequenza 21