Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Misunderstanding the musical language

So, as the geek I am I must admit that one of the things I found most interesting, from a cultural anthropological view, about our stay with the Gandhi Ashram kids was the way in which the songs that were introduced to me as great examples of great Nepali/Gorkha culture sounded a lot like western pop music. I remember thinking to myself, before I was inserted on a plane with a funny guy, bowing with a turban on the door, how excited I was to go to this far-away land and to experience their music. As a music major at Colby I have a quite keen interest in music history and theory and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to go and get a first hand impression on how "music" works in the foothills of the himalayas - moreover, in a school that provides all its students with a violin and a crash-course in western classical tradition. I have not been completely oblivious to the fact that in this region there exists a variety of western pop influences on "music"; the Global Popular is after all global by definition, I knew that Michael Learns To Rock are undeniable stars in the region, and through Greene's article I furthered my understanding of how an array of musical genres get a second life when introduced into Nepali culture. However, I still maintained a somewhat romantic idea of how the folk songs would be of another musical world. I thought that there would be a division between the western influences and the traditional music. In my head the western influences had surely permeated the culture, meaning to me that there would be a lot of new and old western pop music around and that the kids would likely put on Akon when the lights got dimmed Saturday night, but this influence would somehow stay distinct from the traditional musical culture. In other words, the western influence would unfold, and be explored and manipulated as Greene explains, side by side with the Nepali musical tradition and only crossover at a more abstract level. Therefore I imagined that when I was going to be exposed to great examples of Nepali/Gorkha songs, the musical language would be distinct from the western language. In my romantic ideal of "cultural purity and pride" I imagined that the peoples of the region would reject, more or less consciously, the western musical language when singing songs about the pride of their culture. But no... The first day we got to the Gandhi Ashram School we were put in the assembly hall, nicely seated in front of the stage and given a show by the border students. I must admit that I was so tired and spaced out and overwhelmed and mentally exhausted that I don't remember most of what happened on the stage that night. There was a dance and I remember that I was really impressed by the lack of shyness and "teenage-I-don't-want-to-do-that"-syndrome in the kids. They were proudly presenting themselves and who they were, culturally, on stage in front of 30 foreign, older, scary, people. And then there was the song Kha Timbro Mayalou Lei. One guitar and a group of adolescent boys, beautifully harmonizing and heartfeltly singing about a lost love in Nepali. But the sound, the musical language, sounded strangely western to me. Later I asked one of the students to show me another Nepali song, and though I don't remember the lyrics for this one it was the same - western musical language. And this went on and on. Every time I asked them to play a song for me that was a great example of Nepali/Gorkha culture they would play these songs that had beautiful nepali lyrics and to some extent non-western vocal phrasings, but they would all surprise me with their overwhelmingly western harmonic foundation. By western harmonic foundation and western musical language I mean the very basic ideas of western classical tradition from which we get the ideas of tonic and dominant, chords and the way they are used to communicate and direct action in the songs. However, just like I am quite sure of the fact that these kids do not really understand where this culture of wearing big t-shirts and flat baseball caps comes from and what this style of presenting oneself represents to people from the US, I am also sure that I do not really understand where the way in which the western musical language has been transformed to mean and represent something entirely different in the Gorkhaland context. And my romanticized ideal of how this "exotic and pure" culture should identify itself through its music was terribly wrong and left me embarrassed. But it was a very important lesson for me in understanding Chakrabarty's subalterns and understanding that things such as a musical language can gain new value and meaning as it crosses cultural borders.

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