Gabriel Dharmoo's Anthropologies Imaginaires, on at the Fox Cabaret through this evening, is the second co-presentation by Music on Main at this year's PuSh Festival. Like last week's An Evening with A Roomful of Teeth, it is also an a cappella vocal performance. But Dharmoo, an acclaimed composer and improviser from Montreal, is solo on stage and the piece is as much a work of conceptual performance art as it is a stunning live concert.
For the conceit of this hilarious and wickedly satirical send-up of the academic pretensions of some of the more outmoded versions of ethnomusicology is that Dharmoo is a composite anthropological specimen, channeling various vocal techniques of so many cultures and tribes you've never heard of as a group of scholarly experts convened by the mythical "Memory Museum" explains their social and aesthetic significance to us on screen with mock seriousness. There is, for example, the nomadic desert tribe known for its aquatic singing, a symphony of gurgling and burbling we are told is a sign of their abundant delight in discovering a resource of such scarcity in their lives. Or the mountain folk who sing through clenched teeth while they work so as not to attract attention to themselves.
Dharmoo is a thoroughly charming and seductive performer. It helps that he has a totemic visage, long and angular, almost like a Picasso mask; when he launches into a possessed demonstration of Tribe X's penchant for hypnotic choral signing, enchanting the audience into three overlapping refrains, it is impossible not to follow his commands, even though he comes across as less a terrifying mesmerist than a petulant conductor. Of course it is not lost on me that in describing what is so compelling about this show, and about Dharmoo as performer-creator, I have fallen into the very tropes of exotic excess that have been the stock and trade of so much unreflective Western ethnography. Such is the intelligence of this show that it invites our laughter at such presumption even as it catches us out in succumbing to it.