When writing this piece, to be based upon Indian folksong, I cast a wide net for source material – I scoured the internet and my large collection of Indian music, listening to everything from Bengali Bauls, Rajasthani folk singing. I even tried to find songs from Goa and Gujarat, the places my parents are from in India, typing every conceivable search term into Google. 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 can be transmitted: through the generations of my own family.
This piece uses two folk melodies. The first is a song called “Ankhon vina andharon re”, which I found on a recording my mother’s father made long before I was born. Of his five grandchildren, I am the only one who never met him. But as I’ve grown up, I realize how much we have in common, including our deep love of music. My mother often tells me stories of listening to records of Beethoven Symphonies on hot nights in Kenya, where my grandfather spent most of his life. All the lights were turned off, and they would listen as a family, in the silent darkness, following his lead as he taught them to savor each note. 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 (who even our American friends affectionately called Mamma and Pappa) moved to the US the year before I was born, and lived with us for most of my childhood. I grew up speaking to Mamma only in Gujarati, a language that I spoke to no one else until she died in 2007. As a baby, Mamma would often sing me this lullaby: Jhula Jhule, Jhula Jhule / Reena Rani Jhula Jhule which translates: Back and forth, back and forth / Reena the Queen swings back and forth. It has been years since I have thought about this melody, but while working on this project, it suddenly popped back into my mind. I’m so glad it did – it is one of the few musical memories 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’ve 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.
In addition to the most recent recording, at the top of this page, with Vijay Gupta and Suzana Bartal, here are two more recordings of the work:
The very first recording, with Alissa Cheung and Paul Kerekes:
The first commercial recording of the work, with Dawn Wohn and Esther Park:
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.
This piece 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