Thursday, February 24, 2011

Remember to Flush—Or Else!


Last night I went to meet a school family now living in Singapore in the neighborhood called Little India. Little India, indeed! An elaborate Hindu temple right on the street, a simple restaurant light on décor, but heavy on delicious dhosa. The streets filled with the buzz of people, Indian pop music playing (somehow much more palatable than the Western disco fare), and electricity in the air. A nice contrast to the mall area, a human proportion to buildings and though heavy on the food side, light on the sex and power (see Chutes and Ladders entry).

After dinner, went to a Balinese gamelan rehearsal run by a Canadian woman with a mix of men and women typically Singaporean—that is to say, a mixture. After the striking homogeneity of Korea, Japan and South India, Singapore is its own unique blend of culture—some 75% Chinese, 14% Malayasian, 8% Indian Tamils and 3% others. Over 40% of Singaporeans are foreign-born and the city has four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay (the national anthem is in Malay) and Tamil. Despite Little India and a neighborhood called Chinatown, there seems to be a fairly harmonious blend of culture, many different ethnicities living, working and studying together—as in the gamelan group. Likewise, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are amply represented (my driver Ali is a Chinese Muslim and we passed a sign today advertising an Islamic Montessori School).

Fun to play a bit in the gamelan and realized it has been 25 years since I used to play with Gamelan Sekar Jaya! I tried to learn the melody of the piece they were working on, a sequence some 64 beats long that had just one short fragment that repeated. I was working hard and it reminded me just how elaborate and complex this music is, all the more impressive because none of it is traditionally written down. The faster kotekan elaborating patterns are exercises in mathematical complexity that are mind-boggling.
I remember doing okay as a member in Sekar Jaya, but I don’t think I have the true gamelan-mind. But it was a lively group rehearsal and fun to be back in the mix of folks enjoying each other’s company and the pleasure of playing music.

Today was my last day at the school, worked with kids all day. The highlight was working with the jazz band, getting them away from their music playing one-note riffs while I backed them with some 12-bar blues. We choreographed some Count Basie-style movements while playing and they were in heaven. I gave homework to check out the Count on Youtube and forget about the Lady (Gaga) for one night.

In another class, the kids formed groups of seven to create a simple dance and one kid refused to join. The single whispered word from the teacher—“autistic”—turned my reaction around from “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Join the group!” to noticing him in the corner by the bass drum and bringing a mallet to him. “Here’s your part—two beats when everyone claps.” He was in heaven. That’s all it takes—enough compassion and understanding that not everyone can follow the main plan, so instead of dismissing them, find out where and how they can contribute.

And speaking of following social ethics, I asked about kids in high school here experimenting with drugs in a society like Singapore. Apparently, there is some testing done within the school and kids are immediately kicked out and sent out of the country. Singapore is indeed what most would call a repressive society—one writer described it as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” 400 people were hanged between 1991 and 2004 for drug trafficking, many crimes are punished with caning, and minor offenses can include failing to flush toilets, possessing pornography, selling chewing gum and carrying durians on mass transit (look up durians on Google if you already don’t know about them!). But Singapore also has one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes in the world. Most Singaporeans are glad to be protected from the havoc, violence and harm that drug trafficking causes. When you see what is happening in Mexico, it makes you pause and wonder. There’s something to be said for clarity—“Hey! We’re serious about this. Pay attention. Choose wisely or face the consequences.” 

Well, too big a topic to get into here—I’m busy enough trying to remember to flush the toilet. And a little nervous that someone on the bus might plant a durian in my backpack. 

Tomorrow, Hong Kong.

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