Is music a universal language? A question quickly answered by all the Western piano students who have studied Balinese gamelan or West African drumming or Chinese opera. Not even close! And yet.
Music is most certainly a universal impulse, a universal need, a universal gift to human beings that not a single culture in the history of humanity lacks. This is beyond debate. It’s also true that every form of music shares common elements of beat, rhythm, melody, phrasing, texture form. Likewise, most every culture has some form of drums, strings, horns, percussion instruments and every culture some form of dance, some repertoire of songs, some use of music in sacred ritual or secular theater and storytelling. We may or may not like, we may or may not understand (often, the same thing) music from another culture, but we have no trouble recognizing that it is music, something apart from ordinary conversation, something that enters our body, touches our heart and stimulates our brain differently than talk, pictures, numbers. Something universal to people of all times and places.
The wall between the universal and the particular begins when we realize that the specific types of rhythms, melodic scales and shapes, way of phrasing, formal structures, are as varied and distinct as human language itself. We recognize that someone speaking Farsi or Thai or Swahili is communicating through nouns, verbs, adjectives the same kind of information that we are—“What’s for breakfast?” “Hey, gorgeous, what are you doing after work?” “Honey, the roof is leaking.” —but with an accent, vocabulary and syntax that we would need to study to understand.
Same in music. We need to learn how to produce the tones that are considered beautiful, understand the principles of tension and release, come to know how the music is felt in the body and where the music is felt in the body. And beyond the mere production of sound, we also come to realize that how a music is learned, what it means to the performer, what it means to the listener, what it means to the community, is part of the grand and difficult adventure of entering another people’s music.
So throw together a bunch of musicians from distinct geographies, biomes, climates, historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, put ‘em up on a stage together and invite them to play and you have some pretty interesting—and challenging—musical conversations. Welcome to the World Music Festival!!
For those of you in shoutin’ distance, treat yourself to this crazy confluence of cultures seeking some common vocabularies. (Sunday night, 7 pm at Jewish Community Center, San Francisco—tickets at www.sfworldmusicfestival.org) Each group will play some pieces from their own culture and here before your very ears, you will marvel at the stunning diversity of expression as the soul of an entire people sings through the individual performers. Many of the pieces come from a repertoire of epic stories, the living history books of oral cultures. You won’t know the stories or understand the words, but you will feel down to the bottom of your feet the power and beauty captured in tones both familiar and foreign. That experience alone is worth the price of the ticket.
But equally intriguing is to witness the stretch we all have made to take the threads of our individual culturally-specific pasts and start to weave some tapestry of our collective future. It has been so fun to meet folks from Kyrgystan, Azerbaijan, Tibet, India, China, Burkina Faso and beyond and figure out what we can do together. Of course, the percussionists and string players instantly recognize each other. Though the drums and fiddles and their respective sounds and techniques are distinct, the connection folks feel because their brains and bodies have been through similar motions is instant. And our general experiences in rhythm and melody allow us to jam in a variety of styles. In one piece, we all are playing a Bulgarian song that I am sure has never been played by this particular confluence of instruments—the above-mentioned drums and fiddles, jaw harps, Bulgarian bagpipe, voice and Orff instruments. Musically, we don’t know if it really works (you audience members let us know), but if nothing else, it’s a great model of beginning the long-overdue conversations as to how to create a world piece that leads us toward world peace. And it is fitting that this festival has children of all ages sharing the stage with adults. After all, they’re the ones that need to continue the conversation.
See you Sunday!