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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vijayanagara Kingdom and the Queen of Lithuania

Since I forgot to bring the memory card with the pictures from His Holiness's birthday to the internet cafe with me, we are going to get out of chronological order a bit and go on a pictorial journey through our adventures in Hampi, more anciently known as Vijayanagara, the former capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The Vijayanagara kingdom stretched from coast to coast in South India and had economic influence as far north as China (trading records and artifacts are extant).It's kinda the biggest deal that no one has ever heard of, and provided enough ruins and mystery to keep me feeling like Indiana Jones for the extent of our trip.
Fanny packs are absolutely indispensable. Just believe me. 
This picture combines three of my favorite parts of the trip - my lovely wife, fanny packs, and these rather hilariously redundant signs warning: "Illegal activities prohibited." So, are you saying that illegal activities are illegal, or that prohibited activities are prohibited? Hmm... Buahaha.
You can't tell, but this place is freakin' cool. It's known locally as the "Underground Temple." A foot or two of water permanently floods the floor, and several dozen bats have taken roost in the ever-dark sanctum. Ace Ventura would hate it, but he doesn't know anything. Also, you can see evidence of the special place Coke has taken in our lives - it's guaranteed clean and sanitary, and roto-roots one's intestines.
A view of the king's elephant stables from below. I'm working on my double chin. The elephants really had it made back in the day - the stables are absolutely palatial, and I'm guessing daily manicures and tusk-brushings were provided.
One of my favorite things about tourist spots in India is the incredible sheisterism. I honestly admire it, and I'm more than down with people trying to make a buck or two off the tourists. This brother on the right spoke no English except for the word "different," and said this repeatedly while pointing to the ceilings here in the Queen's Bath. Each of the ceilings in the sections of the hall we're standing in has a different design. After walking with us around the perimeter, he tried to get us to pay him for being a guide, perhaps trying to seem like a government employee. I liked him, and admired his sheister-iness, but we just kept on-a walking - this kind of thing happens no less than 10 times a day in particularly touristy areas. In Hampi, only two spots require any kind of entrance fee, and everything else is free unless you actually hire a guide like the brilliant man who introduced us to the temple elephant (a few pictures down). A word to the wise - don't pay for anything unless you asked for it in India.
The carvings at Vittala Temple are very well preserved, as you can see in this very cool example of a drummer. Some of the small pillars (like the one you can see to the left of my head) are musical and give a tone when struck. Sadly, the temple in this complex with the musical pillars was under restorative construction and thus off limits. I guess that's a good enough reason to come back in a few years!
Outside the walls of this Rama temple, said to be one of the locations he lived at for a time in the Hindu epic Ramayana, we met an old Sadhu. To the right of this picture is a small Shiva temple, and behind the photographer is a very cool cleft in the mountain surrounded by Shivalinga. Just past the Shiva temple is one of the best views in Hampi. I didn't take any pictures, and I won't go into description of what I saw and did, because I have this philosophy of simply experiencing a place, and not always worrying so much about "documenting" or "recording" it. In our digital, facebook, camera-phone age, I think it's important to live as many undocumented moments as possible while still recording some things for posterity. So, if you want to see something amazing, go to the Rama temple on the hill in Hampi, go out the gate in the back wall, and hike past the white Shiva temple, and don't tell a soul more than the barest outlines of what you saw. You won't regret it.
Another Sadhu, drying his lungi in the most peaceful way possible - standing in the breeze on the steps of an ancient mandapa alongside one of Indian history's most important rivers.
While waiting for our rickshaw buddy to some pick us up, we met this little dude. He has some kind of disability, and therefore has no fear. He came and played with us for twenty minutes or so, until we walked on to save him from getting in trouble for being naughty (he started taking liberties after a while, and though we just thought it was cute and funny, his grandmother sitting across the street wasn't so amused). I'm rubbing dirt off his head - he liked it when you held his hands and let him back-bend until his head touched the ground.  

This ginormous bull was very impressive and regal (and well-endowed, as you'll see below), and lungi are absolutely the most comfortable things to wear on a long day of hiking and seeing temples. As you see, they tie up into perfect shorts, and then let down into perfectly acceptable temple wear.

This one's for Dr. Keller and Nick - whoda thunkit, this bull is a fertility god!

The old steps up Matanga Hill - very fun, and I'm very glad it wasn't raining. Barnes is braving it here with her flip-flops - I recommend going barefoot for better traction and a better pilgrimage vibe.
Near the top of Matanga Hill, Lori was craving salt water. I happened to have some.
This one's for you, Mama! Unspeakable horrors await her should she fall... :)

My favorite mechanical contraption on the planet so far. This Rube-Goldberg-esque machine (Wikipedia Rube-Goldberg if you don't know) is an automatic temple worship music player. Flip it on, and the beaters whack the drum while the bell rings at intervals. One priest can do the work of three!
Now THIS would be a favorable rebirth, for sure. The temple elephant (I think her name is Lakshmi) lives the life. She has been trained to give blessings if you give her a ten rupee note. She gets to wear jewelry, fancy make-up and all kinds of temple regalia on special occasions. Otherwise, she eats her fill of the best leaves in town and lives on temple grounds with the priests. Our guide in this complex got us a special audience with her after her official duties were over and the crowd was gone.
That's an actual look of "HOLY GIANT STATUE BATMAN!" on my face. I thought we had seen all the impressive things in Hampi already, and then I turned a corner in this hillside temple. This Ganesha statue is something like 18 feet tall and made out of one piece of stone. The gravity of the thing floored me, and still gives me the chills.

This huge Shivalinga (again, Wikipedia it if you don't know) has a mandapa all to itself, and the base is permanently in water due to some ancient rainwater channels. Legend has it that a poor widow commissioned the construction using all of her savings.

Standard Hampi. Intricately carved walls, heavy stone everything, and bare feet. I love this place.
Remember Matanga Hill from earlier? This is the shrine at the top.The craziest thing to me about Hampi wasn't how old or beautiful everything was, or even the amount of work that must have gone into the dozens of temples and so forth, but that almost all of the temples we visited are still active temples. Incense is burning, the deities have new clothes, and it is completely normal for the temple to be inhabited by the Brahmins whose families built the temples 600-1000 or more years ago. I love India, if for no other reason than that it hasn't forgotten the mystery and truth in the divine.

Inside the shrine, looking up.

Landrum (the Britney in the middle) has this thing with meditation pictures, so the girls decided to get one of all three of them meditating on top of the temple on Matanga Hill. I squatted to get a better angle, forgetting that I was wearing the lungi tied up to knee level still. This resulted in the girls getting a better angle on my family jewels, nicely nested in the biker-short style garments (they're basically see-through). Knowing a genuine photographic opportunity when I see one, I snapped about fifteen pictures before standing up. This shot shows nicely the three reactions: Lori looked straight at me while cracking up (she is married to me, after all!), Barnes (on the right) slightly averted her eyes while cracking up, and Landrum completely freaked, laughing hysterically while craning her neck as far as possible to the side, then sneaking a peek to see if I was still squatting, then throwing her head to the other side to laugh more.
I had no idea the girls were taking these pictures, but they are probably the most majestic pictures I have ever seen of myself. This is probably because they feature my best side.
The view from Matanga temple, and Lori using her doctoring skill to diagnose something Landrum had wrong with her.
Another of these cool "surveying the land" shots that the girls took while I was off in my own little/huge world. I felt like Marco Polo. But really, every man should wear a lungi on a pilgrimage up a mountain at least once. I didn't know what it meant to be a man before this.

If "Bo knows baseball," then "India knows bugs." This most-of-a-centipede found its final resting place behind a Nandi (Shiva's mount) statue. My hand is on the ground for size comparison.

On our way down the mountain, we found out that the other side has a much easier staircase. I stand by the efficacy of the way we took up the mountain by virtue of its pilgrimage qualities (Gregski, only you understand me), but it was pleasant to walk down this way. It was much easier to appreciate the view. Pay attention to that banana grove in the center of the picture, because...
we walked through it. Or, rather, we walked through part of it, decided it was going to eat us, and found a better way out of the jungle to that road you can see in the last picture. We only had to ford one river, so it wasn't too bad.

We have a sorta, kinda, half policy that any picture that gets taken has to have a member of the adventuring party in it, so you get me in this picture that is really of the coracle - that little black hat floating upside down in the water is actually a boat, and we went across this river as a party of six (the four of us and two boatmen) in the middle of the night. It was another one of those "coolest thing I never planned on doing" things.

Ok, I have to get going again, this time to get some tasty shakes with my beautiful wife, but there is a pretty good description of the kind of things we were up to on our expedition to Hampi. There are many more picture where these came from - I'll show you when I'm back in the U S and A!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dreams, Wings, and Other Things

This stone building, nestled in a not-so-quiet corner of the Tibetan Children's Village between the mess hall and the sports field, is home to two wondrous little rooms filled to the brim with those magical implements we call instruments. Pardon me if I wax sentimental, but music rooms are to me what stadiums are to athletes, flea markets to hoarders, back alleys to crack addicts, and churches to the faithful. They are homes, sometimes literally, for stretches of time filling months and years. They are places of joy and pain, highs and lows, friends and frienemies (I never had any, but I saw the phenomenon in the music room regularly). The sound space is singular - what other rooms spend most of their time above a sound pressure level of 90 dB, in an at least semi-musical din?

The four main Tibetan instruments, with parts labeled. Notice the Tibetan, Western, and Indian scale degree equivalency chart in quadrant I (for those of you who forgot which quadrant is I, Descartes' fly on the ceiling is about to give you some terrible disease). The doors on either side lead to the two music/dance rooms.

The soundscape of the room is made more interesting by the pedagogical style I have observed when full classes are taught. The first half of class is spent learning some specific song, technique, or instrument, all by rote and call-and-response. The second half is a kind of free time, where students are meant to practice what they learn while the teacher moves from student to student assisting. Exploration is encouraged, and the result is the very loud, dissonant, and beautiful sound of twenty-five kids messing around on different instruments simultaneously in a small stone room. I noted to Dawa-la, the head music teacher, that I deeply appreciate this teaching method. Music is often taught in a painful way, with no spontaneity or exploration allowed. The focus is usually on not making mistakes, rather than on making music and making connections to the instruments. Some of the most fun and educational experiences I have ever had came from wondering what all the sounds are that a snare drum (etc.) can make, and going on to properly break all the rules I knew and trying my darndest to break rules I hadn't yet heard of. There's a special joy in bending the sound palette of an instrument past sane boundaries, if only for the mental image it conjures up of shock and disgust on an old fuddy-duddy music teacher's face.

Some of the concepts I threw at my drum class the other day. The cascara took a little while to lock in, but they were impressive in the speed they picked it up. Today, I noticed that someone filled the empty space in the top right corner with "Save Tibet!"

In this spirit, and with the injunction from Techung to share more of the best that Western music has to offer with the Bylakuppeans, I have embarked on a very fulfilling mission of reciprocity to my hosts. As I think I have mentioned, I teach drum lessons. There is one class of about 15 students, and two one-on-one classes with students who had the gonads (I have to use the generic term, because Nyidun is a girl) to approach the Inji-Mi and ask for lessons. We have been listening to funk, jazz, prog rock, pop, dance, Afro-Cuban stuff - you name it. It's fun to watch the look on kids' faces when they vibe with something that isn't Justin Bieber (J. Biebs, I love you man, but J. Coltrane is more my kind of cat).

One of the boys who digs on hanging around the music room in his free time. Some of these kids school me on dramyen. It's awesome.

In the spirit of the mission Dawa-la has entrusted me with, I also make sure the kids see me practicing their native music and singing in their mother tongue. For one thing, he told me, the teachers are always trying to convince the students of the richness of Tibetan culture, especially music and dance, and sometimes use as an illustration the Westerners (Injis) who come to their communities to learn Tibetan music. The injis, they say, wouldn't spend so much money and time to travel halfway around the world unless there was something very important and beautiful to uncover. The thing is, the students in Bylakuppe never actually see these injis, because Dharamsala in the north is the normal pilgrimage site for interested musicians. Dawa-la has tried to impart to me the impact of having a real, live inji in their midst. Forget about any musical aptitude I may or may not have. I have come from the land of Taylor Swift to learn dramyen. Dawa-la's hope, and I've seen some small evidences of his hope being fulfilled, is that the excitement of a Westerner learning dramyen might help some of the students take another look at their own musical tradition (without necessarily losing their interest in Metallica, Green Day, and The Eagles). The dream, for me and for the teachers at the school, is for the students to be able to have a resting point, a foundation, in their own culture, and an appreciation and applied aptitude for it, while also exploring, understanding, and experimenting with the musics of other cultures. It's a little like Sanka's speech in Cool Runnings - if I dress Jamaican, talk Jamaican, walk Jamaican, and is Jamaican, then I damn well better bobsled like a Jamaican. I don't see a thing wrong with a refugee picking up a guitar and learning "Hotel California," any more than I have a problem with an American college student traveling to India to learn dramyen, but I dig on the whole thing more if a native flair, fire, and spirit is retained. As another illustration, I was expressing some worry today over the accent I am using to sing the Tibetan lyrics in the song I will be performing at His Holiness' birthday (less than 35 hours from now!), and Dawa-la told me (and I'm paraphrasing),

"You are a Westerner. You won't sound Tibetan. It doesn't matter. You being there, up on that stage, and participating in our celebration in your own way - that's what people want to see. They'll love it. Just focus on the song."

That kind of embracing of two cultures simultaneously while recognizing one as your own is what I am coming to love and believe in more and more.

Words in Tibetan script, music in do-re-mi notation (1=do, 2=re, etc. A line under a phrase doubles its speed)

Back to the building, and the title of this post. I have this thing with physical space and environments and the ways they influence, enable, and inhibit artistic expression. For example, I have never been told more times in my life to play and sing louder. These dudes and chicks have serious pipes. I was practicing in the empty music room today when I heard a group in the other room start singing. It sounded like there were eight or so people singing. There were three. My theory, and maybe one day I'll prove it, is that coming from a physical space like the one in the Himalayas influences the cultures that inhabit it to fill the space with their music, and also uninhibits/never creates the volume sanctions that city-dwellers develop so as not to step on their neighbor's sound space. The alpenhorn in Switzerland are a similar case of huge instruments filling the forever-space, and the didgeridoo of the Australian Aborigines is another. (in a reverse example, electronic keyboards with headphone jacks took off in relatively cramped suburban America).

Focusing down to the microcosm of my current subject, music rooms are perfect spaces. They are made sacred by noise, sometimes disjointed and sometimes polished, and also make sacred and untouchable the noise-making desires of their inhabitants (untouchable, that is, by the normal workings of the outside world. If the students in the math building next door are taking a test, to hell with them, but if there is a performance on the stage above the music room then the music room's sacred space is extended and its internal system of governance applies). Music rooms are canvases for the painting of soundscapes. Returning to sentimentality, they are places for the realizing of dreams, and for the dreaming of new ones. They are vehicles for expression as vital and vibrant as the instruments they house.

[Similarly, for any interested parties, musical instruments are perfect objects embodying an infinite realm of possibilities, and make great gifts for all your poor friends who just spent all their money on trips to India]

Without a space where noise and experimentation are unrestricted, or at least are governed by a very different set of rules than the outside world, there can be very little in the way of musical learning. In this particular case, cultural preservation of a diasporic people depends on the existence of such a space. Further, the cultural interaction that takes place when one kid is playing an electric guitar and the kid one chair over is playing dramyen is unlikely without a space that houses both instruments and allows for the necessary noise. I believe this kind of interaction is vital to the way modern cultures progress - not vital in the sense of "needed for this good thing to happen," but in the sense of "foundational and integral to a natural process," and not progress in the sense of "improve," but simply in the sense of "moving forward." In other words, the tide of cultural change in the world is propelled by the existence of two or more distinct cultural implements (physical or otherwise) in shared spaces where they are allowed a degree of use. This may seem rather obvious and even mundane, and perhaps it is, but there is something stirring about watching the fluidity with which these students switch between and mix cultures, and there is something true about letting go of ideas of "Western" and "Tibetan" and watching the students simply live. This particular space has created a venue for this fluidity and unique way of creating identity. Other venues, for further exploration another time, include the pirate shops that sell mp3 cds of Bollywood and American music, the internet cafes with headphones at every stall (by the by, the internet cafe Lori and I frequent plays "All I Want for Christmas is You" over their speaker system every time I'm there), cell phones the monks use to play music while walking, and parties with music blasting. These places house and juxtapose music available to and popular in the community, and give some clues as to what music is housed in the hearts and brains of the people. While not quite as perfect a space as a music room, as they are all based on consumption rather than creation, they are indicative of and drivers of musical cultural exchange.

This ends my post. The pictures here are for general interest and for you, Dr. Grimshaw. There are more where these came from. Credit goes to Lori for agreeing to be my photographer for a few hours.

You know a student is serious when he shows up to a lesson wearing a v-neck t-shirt with a drum set and the word "ROCK" emblazoned in classic heavy metal font. This kid is good, and plays a mean guitar too.

A common sight - three dranyen chilling on the ground next to the kit. The one in the middle is using a kata, or Tibetan Buddhist blessing scarf, as an improvised strap.

Me with one of my teachers, Tsering Palden. This guy blows me away. I'll put up a recording when I get a chance. Yes ladies, he is single. And good with kids.