EOL 5: Professional Weeping (Greene)

4. A Performance Analysis 

Several days after the funeral, I meet M.G.R. again, and make arrangements for him to re-perform the funeral oppari at my hut near the center of the village. As a professional musician, M.G.R. is expected to be able perform oppari with conviction, regardless of whether he is at a funeral or not. His performance in my hut differs from his funeral performance in the sense that it is received in a more lighthearted way by villagers present, more as spectacular entertainment. In his performance he wails and shrieks in many intensely expressive and different ways, but throughout his performance he maintains a kind of professionialism by implementing a consistent and deliberate performative strategy--a performative compression--and by carefully developing elements of his wails and shrieks in patterned ways over time. 

MGR photo thumbnailUnlike most oppari performers, M.G.R. is a drummer, and he punctuates his oppari incantation by drumming. Audio 1 is the opening two utterances of M.G.R.'s performance. Most of his performance unfolds in this fashion. Singing centers on C above middle C and its neighbor notes. Audio 2 is M.G.R.'s first wail in the 15th phrase.


Opening of M.G.R.'s Oppari Partial text
Audio 1. Opening two utterances of M.G.R.'s oppari

Audio 2. M.G.R.'s first wail in the 15th phrase (see full text).

Eight varieties of rose flower,
eight varieties of rose flower,
I grew fruit for you,
eight varieties of rose flower.

You are going away,
the Yama's world has blossomed,
my dear parrot! Appa! [Father!]
for you, the Yama's world has blossomed,
I reached for ten varieties of rose flower in the land.

(full text)


In M.G.R.'s oppari, the verbal content of each utterance is only loosely connected to the utterances before and after it, and only in a few cases do the utterances begin to suggest a larger narrative. Each utterance is made very rapidly, and all on one breath. I find it impressive that he is able to perform such a long piece without faltering, never at a loss for words, for drum patterns, or for new kinds of shrieks and wails. The performance is an improvised assembly of metaphors and concepts, some taken from the life of the dead man, and others from "stock" oppari symbols. Recurring themes developed in oppari performances include references to the world of Yama, the god of death; the color black; tying bamboo, which is part of the assembling of a funeral bier; and the far side of the river, where funeral cremations typically occur. 

No two oppari performances are identical. In this performance, M.G.R. uses a structuring device of referring to stops on a train of time to invoke moments in the life of the dead man. He also mentions a stomach disease, which the cause of the man's death. He refers to the deceased as "my dear parrot," a term of affection. As is common in oppari, M.G.R. sings to the deceased as if a grieving member of his family. Sometimes his persona seems to be that of the dead man's daughter, sometimes the dead man's wife. Because "Appa!" ("Father!") is a common, general-purpose emotional outcry in Tamil, it may not necessarily indicate that he is taking on the persona of a grieving daughter. 

These incanted utterances, because they sustain and hover around a single pitch, have the function of building up melodic and rhythmic energy that calls for release. Moreover the rhythms of the drumming and chanting are very repetitive. M.G.R. then offers a musical release in the form of wails. Audio 2 is his first real wail, as heard in its immediate musical context. In wails like this one, he pauses, pulling his performance out of the established metric pulse, and breaks away from the incantation pitch center around which his incantation melodies have been noodling. Indeed, his wail is a continuous slide, and he therefore breaks away from distinct pitches altogether. Through rhythmically repetitive incantation, M.G.R. has created a musical texture which calls for the wails, and the wails thus emerge in his performance as a musical complement. 

M.G.R. performs ten wails in his performance. Figure 1 shows how he deploys these expressions over time. 

Figure 1. Deployment of Ten Wails

Figure 1 shows that M.G.R. spends considerable time performing incanted material before wailing, and that he reserves most of his wails for the latter half. He deliberately spends considerable time accumulating musical energy through the incantation material before offering releases. In an interview, M.G.R. comments that a good performer does not cry out or make intense expressions of sorrow until he has prepared his audience adequately through the metaphors and allusions of the song. A good performer does not wail until he has adequately explained to the audience the conditions that warrant such grief. The long gap before the first wail shows the careful preparation he makes before offering the sounds of emotional expressions. Following the first wail, successive wails occur with less and less preparation time. M.G.R. performs a process of compression, as wails get closer and closer together. 

A closer analysis of M.G.R.'s ten wails reveals the systematic, musical way in which he expresses and intensifies the sounds of grief. In the Table below, I analyze each wail in turn, providing sound samples and English translations where possible. Specifically, I examine how M.G.R. develops four of the sound qualities introduced in the preceding section: sobbing, raspy intake, gritty scream, and falsetto. 

Table 1. Musical Development over the Ten Wails

Sound Samples 

Transliteration and Translation Musical Qualities Introduced or Developed

Wail 1 

"Aaaahahahaha! Aamaaaaaaahahahah!" ("Yes!") Introduces: sobbing; gritty scream (on "maaaaaaah"); an intake is audible after the second shriek. 


Wail 2 

 "Aaaaaahaha!" [Drumming]  


Wail 3 

[Drum strokes] "Ammaaaaahahahaha!" ("Yes!") New element: falsetto. M.G.R. begins this wail in falsetto and then shifts to normal voice, allowing his voice to "crack." 


Wail 4 

[Drumming] "Appaaaaahahahaha! Ammaaaaahahahaha! Aaaah." ("Father! Yes!") Develops falsetto (in first two wails) and deepens the gritty scream quality (on "aaaah") introduced in Wail 1


Wail 5 

"Appaaaa! Ayaaaahahahah!" ("Father!") Develops the falsetto/normal voice contrast further. 


Wail 6 

"Ammaaaahahahaha! Ammaaaahahahaha!" ("Yes! Yes!")  Develops and emphasizes low, gritty scream even more than in Wail 4


Wail 7 

"Ayamaaaahahahah! Aamaa! Aamaa! Aamaa!" ("Yes! Yes! Yes!") Combines gritty scream (on first shriek) with a new use of falsetto (three high "aamaa"'s), and develops/emphasizes the raspy intake of air by rendering it very slow and raspy. 


Wail 8 

"Aappaaa! Ayappaaa!" ("Father! Father!") Develops the falsetto quality by "cracking" his voice in both possible ways. 


Wail 9 

"Aappaa!...[?]" ("Father!") Develops the raspy intake of air by exaggerating it and slowing it down even more than in Wail 7


Wail 10 

"Yamaaaaaaa! Yaamaa! Yaamaahahaha!" ("Yes! Yes! Yes!") Combines all four elements: gritty scream (on first shriek), falsetto repetitions, sobbing, and raspy intakes of air.


By listening to the succession of wails, it is possible to observe how sonic elements introduced in Wails 1 and 3 are gradually enhanced, amplified, exaggerated, and combined, culminating in Wail 10. Sobbing, gritty scream, and intake are introduced immediately in Wail 1 to undergo development later. Falsetto is introduced in Wail 3, developed through repetition in Wail 7, and developed further in Wail 8 in which M.G.R. mirrors a shift from falsetto to normal voice with its obverse. Gritty screaming, introduced in Wail 1, is deepened and exaggerated in Wails 4 and 6. In wails 7 and 9 M.G.R. slows down and exaggerates the raspy intake of air introduced in Wail 1. Each element, after it is introduced, is developed and combined with the others. Wail 4 combines falsetto with gritty scream; Wail 7 combines all elements; and Wail 10 also combines all elements in a highly elaborate and dramatic performance: a musical climax involving the inhaling and exhaling lungs, vocal cords in both falsetto and normal modes, and the resonant cavities of his throat and mouth in a wide variety of configurations. The musical development from Wail 1 to Wail 10 is one in which the singer's performing body comes increasingly to the fore in the listener's awareness. 

Figure 1 above shows that the oppari performance is a gradual buildup of the trappings of emotional expression, moving toward a sudden rise in incantation pitch at about eight and a half minutes, and culminating in an extended drumming and dancing section which lasts an additional six minutes. The performance, which begins as a chiefly musical rhetorical expression (explaining to the audience the conditions of grief), culminates in body movement, dance. M.G.R.'s performance therefore evolves gradually from a verbal and musical expression to one involving the whole body. Although his performance bears repeated icons of crying, he has deliberately developed his expression according to a calculated musical plan. Moreover, he steps up the intensity of his crafted emotional expressions only after he has prepared his listeners musically and rhetorically.  

Listeners who champion M.G.R. as a professional not only hear the increasing emotional intensity he performs, but also the self-control, and the deliberate musical planning that lies behind his performance. It is because he is able to develop highly emotional expressions so deliberately that he is valued as a talented oppari professional by many. M.G.R. succeeds, in part, in distancing himself from the intense emotions, death, and widowhood evident in his oppari through the deliberate, patterned, musical nature of his performance. He seeks to perform the sounds of spontaneous, intense crying--or exaggerated variants of them--yet distance himself from death, widowhood and the intense, spontaneous emotions he enacts. Because his performances typically involve climactic buildups of performative energy, his oppari is a spectacular distraction. Women performing oppari do not build up toward such climaxes, perhaps because they have different expressive goals. 

During the actual funeral, I observe no one laughing at the musicians or their performance, although the performers do sometimes verge on buffoonery, dancing, grinning, and waving their arms as they sang. But in the oppari re-performance, analyzed here, the listening audience sometimes responds to M.G.R.'s exaggerated emotional display with laughter. This audience backchannel can be faintly heard in my field recordings, and is perhaps most audible in the background of Wail 10. As mentioned in a passage in Section 3, as icons of crying are stylized and transformed, sobbing can be made to sound like laughter, and other wail features can be exaggerated so as to become mocking expressions of grief. Through careful sonic artistry, M.G.R. can do his job of expressing the sounds of grief, yet distance himself from the emotions, and show himself to be a talented professional. 

Concluding Remarks

"Professional Weeping" | EOL 5 | email Author