Photograph below by courtesy of St Cross College Archives
Celebrating the life of
Hélène La Rue after 10 years (1951-2007)
This is the tenth year after losing Hélène, a
wonderful musician, humanitarian,
academic, very unique person and an
amazingly loving and lovely human being.
I have put together my personal collection
of reminiscences and memorabilia in
honour and celebration of Hélène
because I miss her dearly and without her
I would not have had a wonderful 15 years
or so of my life at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Balfour Building, every Wednesday
to run, supervise and teach interested tabla students in a glorious location. I am also very thankful that Neil, who became a fellow member of the new Hindustani singing group, has put together these wonderful pages in celebration of Hélène on our website. This singing group, which arose from the Javanese gamelan and Indian tabla Wednesday classes, was inspired by Hélène, who had been involved in early plans for forming it.
On 10th December 2007 the life of Hélène was celebrated by a memorial concert in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Ten years on since that memorial concert I decided to write about her and her achievements and to share my collection of memorabilia connected to Hélène.
I have tried to list as many of her roles in Oxford as I could and my researches have turned up the following to be included:-
Fellow of St. Cross College
University Lecturer and educator in ethnomusicology and organology
Post graduates’ supervisor for the music and anthropology faculties
Curator and developer of the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in the Music Faculty
Curator and developer of the Musical Collections in the Pitt Rivers Balfour Building
Promoter and supporter of choirs and church bell conservation
Nurturer and champion of musical instruments from all over the world and of the musicians who played them, some of whom she invited to perform in Oxford
Nurturer and champion of local musicians and their instruments
Talented musician in her own right
Author of academic publications such as a chapter entitled “The Ethnomusicologist in the Wilderness” in “Anthropologists in a Wider World” (2000) and of other erudite writings and publications, e.g. articles for “The New Grove Dictionary of Music” and “Dictionary of National Biography”
Researcher of musical instruments and associated cultures, engaging in fieldwork in China and Japan as well as in Europe
Many professional posts such as consultant on the Southern Arts music panel and for the National heritage Lottery Fund
Regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 4
Hélène’s achievements were many. Perhaps at the forefront of them all, she made the museums of which she was curator come to life with live sounds of some of her treasured curated exhibits and also with all sorts of live music from across the world and she was the instigator of many concerts and workshops.
A special interest of Hélène’s was participation by families and the community in museums, by using the museums as an educational tool, and this was not restricted to music as I gather she ran fun hands-on workshops for the young in history, culture and science. One of the things I remember she did was to entertain and educate children by making toy musical instruments out of cardboard and grass and suchlike and encouraging them to join in with her.
It was Hélène’s ambition to make museums become a popular resource for public interest and public interaction and involvement and in this venture she succeeded. She had a fascination for world music and interactive music making, was drawn to local Oxford musicians of western and eastern traditions and to musicians from abroad such as the Rajasthani Langas and Manganiyars, whom she invited to Oxford at a time when there was a growing interest in world music and in fact she made Oxford into a focal point for world music. Other performers who came from abroad to Oxford, to play at the behest of Hélène, included Maori musicians, Senegambian drummers and balafon players, Nigerian flute players, a Slovenian folk music group and a Burmese musical drama group and so on… Also of note was a khatak dance performance in the Denis Arnold Hall by Ravi Shankar Mishra, with accompaniment by Trilokee Nath Mishra (vocals) and Deepak Sahai (tabla) – all of whom were invited by Hélène and were visiting the UK from India at the time.
I remember that Hélène encouraged Indian tabla students or small music groups to go and practice in the museum, while members of the public visited so they could “walk around us” and so “see some of the instruments behind the glass live”. She also organised “Pitt Stops” for small musical family events and workshops. She herself was a brilliant storyteller and would often take both adults and children for a tour of the instruments in the gallery. She knew who had played the instrument behind the glass and what he or she was like and what their life was like and why they gave that particular instrument to the museum and why that particular instrument was so special and how it fitted in with the history of things and where it came from and why it was being played. She loved watching children pick up a new instrument and have a go at playing it alongside a professional musician.
In the summer months musical events happened in the garden at the back of the Balfour museum, which had been planted with musical plants, such as maybe Thyme and Lyre Pod, Viola and Scarlet Bugler, Drumstick Primula, Triangle Palm, Bell Heather, Bell flower, Fiddlehead, Sea Trumpet, The Trumpet Vine and the Musical Note Plant! I doubt if all of them thrived but some of them did and the intention was there… it was Hélène’s musical garden. One lovely event which happened there was a children’s concert featuring Latin American music. Those days were described recently to me as “exciting times”. Hélène was also a keen photographer and was often seen quietly witnessing and recording events with her camera such as in the Barn of the Old Rectory in Islip.
In 1992 when I told Hélène that I played Indian tabla and wanted to set up classes in Oxford, she strongly encouraged me to get a tabla group going in Jericho and told me that when I had enough people wanting to learn she would move us all to the Pitt River’s Museum, Balfour Building, No. 60 Banbury Road and this happened and we remained there for 15 years.
I remember her as a wonderful, kind and unique person. I was not a student of Oxford but Hélène took me on as an honorary student to help me with my tabla studies - she told me that she treated me just like one of her students. When I wanted to do an Indian degree in tabla, and one day showed her what looked like to me a very long and formidable reading list, she decided that I would never find my course books except in the Bodleian Library so she nominated me to become a member and I got my books. Automatically, because of Hélène, I received the Pitt Rivers newsletter or magazine, which of course I completely took for granted until they stopped coming.
It was a glorious time to be in Oxford under Hélène’s aegis, with so much going on, and there were occasions when H would invite me and visiting Indian musicians, who were performing in one or other of her projects, to St Cross College for lunch, which was a delight.
There were a few rules to be observed but none of them were onerous. They included that I always had to address her as H or Dear H, when writing to her, which everyone else did so we did not have to remember to put in the accents for her name and that also after every Wednesday tabla class we had to pack up and get out of the premises very promptly because of the security alarm times and at the beginning of term our instruments and carpets had to be put into the deep freeze for de-bugging if they were being housed at the museum.
Hélène asked me to provide or organise occasional tabla workshops for Pitt Stops or undertake or arrange small concerts, which of course were always a pleasure as well as hard work. It was really a terrible time for us all when the Music Makers Gallery was shut down. Hélène with her usual loving enthusiasm offered us her own cramped study as a space during the turmoil of packing up and then moved us to the main Pitt Rivers Building. It was not the same as the Balfour but I have no doubt that had she not fallen ill Hélène would have turned the new place into a wonderful place to be in with further ventures in which to include us but sadly even our time in the main Pitt Rivers museum was about to end.
I miss the Music Makers Gallery and my connection to the Pitt Rivers and the sounds of Indian tabla sounds magically interwoven with Javanese gamelan sounds. I will always very greatly miss Hélène. I remember her quietly waiting for us all in the Balfour Building making lace and she showed me the bobbins she was using – of course each one had a story. I also remember her apple computer – the first I had ever seen and how she told me how wonderful the Oxford Mac User Group was and that she went to their weekly meetings and all computer problems regularly were solved as a result.
Without Hélène finding a grant for my private project PLAY TABLA, a video way of learning the instrument, it would never have happened. Luckily it became an Oxford project with the ETRC (Educational Technology Resources Centre) and many people world-wide have benefited from it.
Hélène told me that she sometimes encouraged her students to go to SOAS or to Edinburgh to study ethnomusicology where she thought they would perhaps prosper better in their studies. But there were diehards who refused to go away because they only wanted to study with Hélène and so they stayed. Hélène took on board struggling musicians and people with musical interests and projects but with little or no academic background, and found them grants and ways to study, which tipped the balance in their favour and in some cases helped their survival.
Before her untimely death in 2007 Hélène was supporting a wide number of local musical interests, for example:–
Indian tabla, Javanese gamelan, Northumbrian small pipes, Japanese shakuhachi, St. Cross choir, hand bell ringing to name but a few.
During the last ten years I have been wondering how these groups have fared since we lost Hélène? Javanese Gamelan is thriving at the Faculty of Music and hopefully all the other groups are extant and thriving too. Indian Tabla suffered a big set-back by losing the Pitt Rivers venue for its classes. As to the rest, I am keen to hear what has happened to them. Also could someone please tell me if I have missed any groups or indeed individuals from my list above and then I can amend it?
How should I end this tribute to and celebration of Hélène? One way might be to invite you, dear reader, to please take a look at our News and Events Page, where we describe the One World Festival held recently by the Ashmolean Museum on 18 and 19 November… This festival is something we are sure Hélène would have enthused over greatly and in a way it keeps her flame burning because it was partly about live music being in museums so please Oxford museums and societies add to this good work in the future.
Please take a look at the other Hélène pages:-
2007 Memorial Concert, Memorabilia and Music Makers Gallery.
29 November 2017