Welcome to Musical Geographies, a blog on writing, and listening to, music.
Welcome to Musical Geographies, a blog on writing, and listening to, music.
“Coastlines” is a word that encompasses more of the world than many people realize. About 2.4 billion people (around 40% of the world’s population) live within 100 km (60 miles) of a coast. And more than 600 million people (about 10% of the global population) live in coastal areas—places that are less than 10 meters above sea level… places that for millennia have served as important crossroads and cradles of life… places which are now experiencing sea level rise, a threat that links us, as it threatens the fabric of our lives.
“Our” lives… hm… I write this blogpost as somebody who was born by the sea, and cannot imagine life without a coastline to turn to. My affection for coastlines– as a reality and also as a metaphor for dialogue and a certain bravery—is fierce. Just as Walt Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” I often find myself hoping to stretch my voice from one shoreline to the next, letting my love for this particular ecology be carried by many tides.
Sometimes, when I am in Washington, DC, away from the ocean, I feel a certain restlessness… as if there is something about being close to the sea that is peaceful and reassuring, even when it isn’t. I cannot help but think that this feeling isn’t only personal, but also a reflection of the fact that the stories that tend to take place on coastlines have much to offer the rest of the world.
For this reason, I’ve long harbored a desire to have a conversation about coastlines in DC, and see what people in this different “geography” would make of it. At Shores of Exchange, this conversation at last began to take place!
Shores of Exchange was an afternoon of conversation, laughter and music, co-created by the half a dozen or so people who attended. Some of us had lived on one coastline or another; others grew up in land-locked places with diasporic lineages that took them back to the sea; still others had been brought to shorelines not by family but by their musical curiosity or their interests in social and environmental justice. We were a multi-faith ensemble (so to speak), and our lives had, at one point or another, brought us into close connection with geographies in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia, Peru, Italy, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Musically speaking, we brought to the space a guitar, an oud, and several voices.
With a subject as expansive as the world’s coastlines, and with such a diversity of experiences present, how does a conversation begin? And an even more intimidating question—how does it proceed?
The theme of coastlines resonated very differently for each of us. Some of us were interested in the lived experience of being closely tied to a coastline. Others were interested in history, or in music, or in spirituality, or in sub-themes of encounter and coexistence along the world’s shores. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the afternoon took us in each of these directions. Over cups of tea and sangria and fruit and chaat (a popular South Asian street food), we exchanged thoughts on a number of topics: the connections between geography and violence; the way that music can serve as a window into the details of how people interact in a given place; the striking similarities between musical cultures in disparate coastal regions, and the possible reasons for this; and, inevitably and of course, the difference between the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants.
Throughout, we listened to a playlist that included music from all of the world’s major coastal regions. Speaking and singing, speaking and playing, we multitasked our way through a jam that included musical elements from the Sahel, the Indian Ocean– and (for my part), the placelessness that I think will always be a part of how I regard and make use of my human voice. Singing songs I knew and humming songs I didn’t, I felt the ineffable universality that is sometimes present when cultures meet. It was a positive feeling, and it is affirmed now as I listen to my favorite soundtrack of all time, which I encountered far, far away from any coast ;).
Was Shores of Exchange a one-time afternoon? Probably not—the question of how to bring the realities facing coastlines into the political and social discourses of Washington does not feel resolved. If anything, it is a challenge that feels bigger now than it did twelve hours ago. At the same time, I look forward to seeing how the conversation we just had seeps into me, and into the others who were a part of it.
Perhaps in the music, and the chats, and the speculations about Miss World and Miss Universe, there is a certain humor, or creativity, or spirit that can help us in the challenging times that we live in. Can this city, DC, be touched by these sorts of conversations? Can such dialogues effect a change in the political climate, and lead people in power to make the right decisions for our planet’s coasts? People who have known me a long time will laugh at the “broken record” nature of this last musing, the way any discussion with me about Washington eventually comes back to this. But so it is.
This is part of my barbaric yawp for the world’s coasts. I look forward to hearing yours.
When I was six years old, I learned how to tell time. I had some idea of time before, of course—I knew the difference between yesterday, today and tomorrow, and I certainly know the difference between “now” and “later.” I suppose that when I say I learned to tell time, I mean that I learned how to process and express life in minutes, seconds, hours. I learned how we humans differentiate between moments, and how we express our expectations that things will happen sooner, rather than later; now, rather than then; and on time, rather than too late.
My homework was to look at the series of clocks that had been drawn in my workbook, write down the time, and indicate what one should be doing at that time. I remember looking at the clock that said 7pm, and determining that this was bedtime.
Of course, 7pm is a very early bedtime, even for a six-year-old. But somehow it felt right, and it was a time that I strictly observed for two years afterwards. In the Caribbean, 7pm is around sunset all year-round, and perhaps this is why this time made sense to me. Sunset marked a deep transition from day to night, from clear sunshine to mysterious darkness. While industrialized life would later school me out of the idea that there is a fundamental difference between night and day, at the time the utter opposite felt true. I wanted to be asleep when ink had fallen over the sky—not because I was afraid of the dark, but rather because I was in awe of it. Its silence seemed to carry a deeper meaning that works itself out as humanity sleeps. I felt as though at night, the universe moved in a different way, and it felt wrong to be awake during this process. So, on the week I learned how to tell time, I also decided that from then on, I would go to bed at 7pm, wake up at 5, at the rhythm the cosmos intended us to.
This resolution horrified my parents. My mother consulted pediatricians, psychologists and friends, determined to find out if something was seriously wrong with me. Their social life came to a crashing halt, as neither they nor their peers subscribed to the “rhythm of the cosmos” theory that had so captured by neurotic, six-year-old heart. Our already-strained relationship with our downstairs neighbor worsened, as I took to spending my early mornings riding my bicycle in tight circles around our apartment. The creaks and strains of the bike no doubt disrupted the deep calm of early morning, but I was too caught up in my bliss about the silence and tranquility of life at 5am to notice.
Around the same time, my parents brought a new CD into the house. They were always bringing new music into our home, and it was—to use a word I never use—an eclectic assortment. In the mid-90s my favorites were Sergio Mendes’ Afro-Brazilian album Brasileiro, a tape by Trinidadian reggae star David Rudder, the soundtrack of a Bollywood film called Aashiqui, and a John Lennon compilation CD. This latest CD was called The Best of Van Morrison.
Van Morrison is a Northern Irish singer-songwriter who first rose to international prominence with the upbeat number “Brown Eyed Girl.” Many decades later, he is still best known for this song. But for those who are familiar with his other work, he is beloved for a rather different style altogether. Van Morrison has been described as a mystic, whose music connects nature, spirituality, wonder, and humanity’s yearning for answers that may never come. His music is open in a way that is difficult to describe; though now that I am trying to, I would say that its melody, instrumentation, and lyrics are filled with open questions. These questions carry us easily from the music, which evokes at every turn the land and skies of the Celts, to our wonderings about the places where we might find ourselves.
I fell in love with this album, though it would take almost a decade for me to understand why. I remember listening to some of its songs—“Sense of Wonder,” “Enlightenment,” even the patently Irish song “Coney Island” (of which I did not understand a single word)—and looking out the darkening window of my bedroom. I felt as though, with the silence of night, I was entering into some sort of mystery. Maybe we all were. Maybe we all still are.
Growing up, my favorite Harry Potter book was, without question, the third: The Prisoner of Azkaban. It introduced some of the coziest and most sophisticated elements of the series: the quaint and magical village of Hogsmeade (with its owl-filled post office and its iconic and signature drink, Butterbeer); the Marauder’s Map, the ingenious creation of a few teenagers; the Firebolt, a broomstick of unparalleled performance; and the Time-Turner, a delicate hourglass that allows you to turn back time, and ends up playing a key role in the story. The Prisoner of Azkaban is also when we are first introduced to Dementors, and to the brilliantly beautiful magic that repels them: the Patronus Charm.
Until recently, none of the other books came close to The Prisoner of Azkaban in my estimation. That is, until I re-read The Order of the Phoenix, and was floored by the parallels between its storyline, and today’s unfolding journey of the world’s young climate activists.
A friend of mine hypothesized that Harry Potter has a real-world counterpart in Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who is taking on the world’s richest, most privileged, and most complacent elite. I think this is true, but really to me, the parallels go much deeper.
HP5 (dork speak for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) is stunningly allegorical, helping us to understand the complex reasons and levels at which an impending disaster (be it Voldemort or increasing greenhouse gas levels) can be denied by world leaders, and confronted by the young, whose futures are most vulnerable to the threat at hand.
For those who are unfamiliar with the book, or have not read it with an eye to climate politics, allow me to summarize.
A dark force is on the rise. It gathers power incrementally, until it is becomes impossible to ignore and impossible to reverse. The least privileged and most vulnerable are affected first, and its most ardent support comes from people of profound power and influence, who believe the world exists for their benefit and have no problem supporting a force that will make injustice even more pronounced and cruel.
Harry Potter, a brave teenager, insists that people recognize what is happening, and act. He spends the summer before his fifth year at Hogwarts consumed by anger at the fact that this threat is not being reported in the papers. It is not appearing in the news, and the government—the Ministry of Magic—is acting like it does not exist. Furthermore, the Ministry is not only denying the problem, but is also demonizing and pathologizing the two people who refuse to keep quiet: Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore (a long-term mentor to young people with positive ideals).
Harry is eventually taken in by the Order of the Phoenix, a group of long-term activists who recognize the problem. When he returns to school, he is ostracized for a while, but then more and more of his classmates, his generation, recognize that they need to organize and confront this threat themselves. The school has been co-opted by Ministry staff who wish to repress such activity. To implement this policy of denial, they resort to violence—because injuring children is less dangerous to their interests than the much more straightforward and ethical course of action: admitting the truth.
The plot of HP5 proceeds in this way, at each turn offering important insights on the dynamics between young people and the political elite in the face of cataclysmic change. Until recently, this story was not so shockingly similar to the “real world.” Yet due to the surging courage of children and teens, and the recalcitrance of the rich and powerful in our own, less interesting but no less turbulent “Muggle world,” the parallels are becoming more striking by the day.
… Perhaps this post has only served to expose the fact that I am a Harry Potter dweeb who will never grow out of it. But maybe also, for those who love this series, this post will move you to revisit this book, and see if there is anything that you, that we, can learn from Rowling’s world of complacent and self-serving leaders, and the brave kids who seek to challenge them.
The first time I watched The Red Violin, I thought that its story was intensely ominous, and laced with menacing superstition. But lately, I’ve begun to believe that it is also achingly beautiful, and as searing a testament to the importance of an instrument as ever there was.
The Red Violin tells the story of a small violin, crafted and painted red by Niccolò Bussotti in the late seventeenth century. Widely considered Bussotti’s masterpiece, stories of the violin circulated for hundreds of years, as the instrument passed hands from player to player. By the late 1990s, which is when the last part of this film is set, many people in the world of classical music know that the violin exists, but have no idea where it is. The film traces the heretofore untold story of the violin– where it traveled, what stories unfolded around it, and ultimately, why and how it is painted red.
The story begins in 1681, in Cremona, a small city in northern Italy, situated on the banks of the Po River. Cremona was home to some of Europe’s most renowned luthiers (makers and repairers of stringed instruments), including Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. In the film, Niccolò Bussotti, the maker of the Red Violin, also lives here. As the film commences, he is in the process of making his capolavoro– his masterpiece. Meanwhile, his soft-spoken wife, Anna, is pregnant and anxious about the future. She seeks counsel from Cesca, one of her servants, who makes a long and rather confusing prediction, a story that far better resembles the life of an instrument than a human being.
Anna dies in childbirth, and broken by grief, Niccolò stops working. His last instrument, his masterpiece, the Red Violin, is given to a monastery in Austria, where it remains for one hundred years. It then travels to Vienna, the steady companion of a young orphan with exceptional talent. The boy loves the instrument almost as he would love a mother he does not have. He sleeps with her next to him, talks to her, and needs her. When a terrifying prince threatens to take the violin away from him, he dies from heart failure.
After the boy’s death, the violin is stolen by a band of gypsies, who over the course of several generations, travel from Austria to the shores of England, and eventually to Oxford. There, the violin is bought by a selfish, libidinous violinist who history will call “England’s only virtuoso” but whom Cesca refers to as “the Devil.” His possession of the violin is violent but short-lived. After he takes his own life, the violin travels to China with an opium trader.
Now in Shanghai in the 1930s, the violin is welcomed with open arms by a young woman with a thriving musical career. She passes the violin on to her daughter, who stays in Shanghai as an adult but nevertheless finds herself in an utterly different world: at the cusp of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution. Forced to surrender her mother’s beloved instrument or face dire consequences, she gives the violin to a music teacher– who, unbeknownst to the authorities, has vowed to safeguard dozens of violins in his attic.
Thirty years pass, and the music teacher dies. By now the political climate in China has changed, and so when this reservoir of instruments is discovered, they are transferred to an auction house in Montreal, to be bought by those who can afford them. The film ends when an appraiser who has been, quite literally, in love with the story of the Red Violin for years, steals the instrument from under the eyes of a host of people who are desperate to acquire it. Having discovered that the red varnish on the violin contained DNA of Anna Bussotti, the appraiser feels left with no choice. He switches the real violin with a copy, and takes it home to his wife and young daughter.
Most people see this as the story of a cursed violin, and with legitimate cause, given all of the death and sadness in this film. Yet lately I have started to wonder if the story is not at all about a sinister instrument and the ill-fated people who play it, but rather about the immortality of a kind-hearted woman who was not able to live herself. Yes, the film is filled with sorrow. But it is also filled with numerous moments when the violin gives comfort and joy to the people around it– or rather, the people around her.
Without her, the young boy from the monastery would have died of his heart condition long before. Without her, the gypsies would not have had the joy required to live out their wandering, itinerant destinies. Without her, the musician in Oxford would have offered nothing whatsoever to the world. Without her, the daughter of the violinist in China would not have had reason to question the lines drawn out around her. Without her, the appraiser in Montreal would have lived out his career gruffly, never humbled or awed by the way an instrument can carry so much humanity.
Niccolò Bussotti painted the violin as he did so that he could give the woman he adored a life beyond death. And I wonder if in some ways, that is what this story is about, too. What lives on, beyond the starts and finishes of historical eras, geographic borders, and the journeys of individual human beings? What would happen if we asked questions about immortality in this way, and celebrated what endures beyond us before it is too late? What if The Red Violin were to bring not only tears, but also a wonder at how a single instrument can survive the turmoil of the stories it passes through? What elements of the world around us– especially in nature– have quietly, gracefully done the very same thing?
Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. (John Lennon)
For most of my life, I thought that original music was an imaginary concept, something that couldn’t possibly exist and that the people around me were making up. Since I was a teenager, and possibly before, my adoration for soundscapes has, metaphorically speaking, taken me around the world many times over. There isn’t a single region of the world whose music has not captivated my imagination and stolen my heart in some way. And by some miracle, each of the songs that I’ve fallen in love with– and often taught myself how to sing– were distinct from each other. Of course, most of them fell into one or more of the broad currents that have shaped the world’s music. And they also often touched upon similar themes, ones that we all recognize and need to make sense of every day. But by and large, they formed a tapestry of emotion and ideas that made original music utterly unnecessary to me.
Why do we even want to be original, I would ask myself, when every opportunity to empathize with others already exists? For years, I did not even begin to try to write my own music, because I firmly believed that all had already been said. I also believed that if you are blessed with an instrument, or even an open and compassionate ear, you can partake in that vast world of music as deeply as you would ever want to. I didn’t even harmonize to the music I listened to– I felt its original state was too precious for me to corrupt with even that.
Recently, though, these thoughts have been replaced in my head by little “snapshots” of music that often do not add up to complete songs, but are also intriguing enough that I want to see where they might lead. But the idea of doing this, of considering the possibility of being a songwriter, terrifies me so much that… well, I really have no clue why I am blogging about it right now, sharing these feelings with strangers and (maybe) friends. (I really don’t.) It’s a fear that I’ve kept private for longer than I realize. What will happen, I now ask myself, if I see myself as a writer of music? The thought is still blasphemous to me. But also…
What if the songs that I come up with in no way match up to the reason I love music in the first place: the beauty of it, the depth of it, the complexity and the simplicity and the way that it all hits you, with an elegance that displaces even the most persistent thoughts? And also… I revere music, possibly more than anything else in the world… so irreverence, my usual means of finding peace with challenges, is rendered hopelessly inadequate. How can you laugh, even at yourself, in the face of something you utterly adore?
“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me.” John, what a good thing of you to say. As I embark on this journey of writing original songs– and perhaps equally daunting, of sharing them as if this is something that is totally natural to me– I remind myself of this quote. Perhaps songwriting does not have to begin with the sort of reverence that paralyzes you completely. Perhaps it does not need to start with the feeling that music is everything, that is expresses everything and explains everything, and is therefore so sublime that it needs nothing from you…
… Perhaps it makes sense to think of songwriting in the opposite way: not of trying to commune with heavens, but of working out the ways that the world gets under your skin. Perhaps the best way to think of it is not in terms of what it will add to that incredible repertoire that already exists, but rather in terms of communing with the “devil,” as it were, within you… the part of you that cannot stay silent– not because it is shimmeringly original, or because it contains the key to our emancipation, but because it is making it hard for you to fall asleep.
That’s a perspective I understand very well. Maybe you do, too.
I listen to the title track of a Scottish detective series called Shetland, and recall what Europe must have lost. It’s a world that I cannot actually recall of course, having never lived in it. But as the violin reaches up towards the sky, I feel a deep inquiry stir within me– the kind of inquiry that can only take place under leaden skies. This violin (or perhaps I should call it a fiddle?), it is like a fine blade, cutting across my spirit and wordlessly revealing the questions that I usually keep inside. Perhaps others feel the same way. It opens our souls up to the sky, creating a relationship within which we can ask for clarity amidst our despairs.
Shetland is set on an island of the same name, located between the Scottish mainland and the southern coast of Norway. It is a grisly show, filled with devastating horrors that can only be perpetrated by, and upon, people who know each other a little too well. It is profoundly lonely while at the same time being one of television’s most close-knit stories. But the title music lets go of all of that… or rather, it invites us to take the burdens of living with others, and living with ourselves, and cast them off to the sky, or to the sea.
I feel like it must be the music of people who know great expanses of nature, be they above them or ahead of them, and also know what it feels like to be unquestionably alone in that expanse. And yet, in that relationship, life does not feel so utterly lonely after all. Or if it does, it is in the company of a mysterious presence, a mysterious force.