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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.

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.


  1. I love the black and white of this post - and how interestingly the concepts of culture and preservation and acceptance of others and adding culture to your own while keeping your own etc. etc. is so similar to the ideas on language I am writing out at this very moment. I love the Tibetans! Rock on! ;)

  2. Oh, p.s. his voice is amazing and his kindergarten class is the most adorable thing I've ever sad through.