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A whole world of music


Panpipes, hip - hop, throat singing and the value of enjoying music

Academics, choirmasters and performance art

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For me writing about 2007 in music means simply writing about 2007, almost all of it, and for that reason this review (or whatever you wish to call it) is going to be a long one. I apologise in advance. Very little of my year was focused around anything else.

And so this was my 2007 in music; a few of the things that I studied, performed, heard, and learnt.


At the start of 2007 I was a third of a way through a masters in ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is the study of world music, more or less. Although a masters in ethnomusicology mostly involves a lot of talking about how to study world music rather than actually studying the music itself; theory and ethics and fieldwork strategies and how to write about 'others' without calling them savages. During January I developed my hatred of the word 'representation'. Philip Bohlman, a particularly well-known and well-respected ethnomusicologist, came to England and gave a lot of lectures and talks in association with our University; I didn't understand a word he said. I began to form a suspicion that while I may be too boring for a lot of things, I am simply not boring enough for academia.


Our University used to have a wonderful chapel choir which was sustained by the noble belief that anybody who wants to sing should be able to; despite this we were actually quite good, and during my degree I loved, really loved to start each day with a hymn and a psalm and perhaps a bacon roll, and I loved singing evensong and Sunday services and concerts besides. But during my gap-year our choirmaster retired and he was replaced with a bastard, who seemed to care about the choir's reputation but not the choir itself. I simply didn't want to sing for him and so gradually gave up going altogether, and I missed it hugely. And so in February Jenn and I cooked dinners together and drank wine and said 'wanker' a lot and moaned about the state of our choir.


2007 was my third year playing gamelan at Royal Holloway. Gamelan is an Indonesian tuned percussion ensemble, and I've always found it really fun and relaxing to play. Partly because of the music itself, partly because of the sort of people who play it, partly because it simply involves hitting a lot of pots and gongs and chimes with mallets, and partly because you have to take your shoes off to play. It's impossible to get uptight about performing when you're only wearing socks.

In March my friend Rob organised a gamelan concert at the Royal Academy of Music. It was perhaps not the best place to host a gamelan concert ('world' music just can't really belong in such a place), and certainly not the best place to have an interlude of performance art, which we all decided afterwards was perhaps a mistake. They called themselves the 'No Rehearsals' and it was quite obvious as to why; never again will a Royal Academy of Music concert involve a man wearing duck-covered pyjamas waving children's toys around above his head, and I think Rob should have been proud for this reason alone.


In March one of our lecturers also flew in some hip-hop and rap musicians from Cuba and organised a series of conferences and performances for them around England. In London the audience for the question-and-answer session was partly made up of academics but mostly made up of Cuban women who hollered and laughed and got really empathetic and I loved the buzz that it created. I loved the fact that people seemed so passionate about the music. I've never come away with the same impression from, for example, the Latin American Music seminar, where academics sit in silence throughout a paper before they put their hands to ask intellectual questions and never interrupt anyone. And this is perhaps the thing that I hate the most: the way that academia sucks all the life and passion and love out of music.


In March we also had our ethnomusicology dinner in London, which turned out to be rather good fun despite being full of academics. Our lecturer Tina wanted us to discuss 'ethnographic representation' but instead people had chilli eating contests. Thank God.


In April I should have been writing essays but instead went to Eastbourne to hear a folk fiddler called Ben Paley. The old man's folk club included among other things bad jokes, bad combovers, bad sweaters and bad poetry, and Karen and I felt distinctly out of place. But Ben Paley was absolutely fantastic, and so it was worth the effort. He played some wonderful Swedish and Yiddish stuff, and completely reinitiated my desire to learn folk violin (adding to my already sizeable list of jazz piano, Indonesian kendang, African kora and Andean charango - oh dear).


In May Tom and I cracked and started to make ethnomusicological hand puppets. The idea behind this was quite simple: we simply wanted to try to bring things down to our level. We believed that by introducing hand puppets into the disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology in order to discuss important theoretical issues and concepts life would automatically become much more easier and understandable. Thus I spent my Easter making the 'Other' in hand-puppet form and shortly afterwards Tom made a post-colonialist from the French Caribbean. His puppet was black and white to signify ambiguity of belonging (not because Tom didn't have enough felt), and looked like a hunchback in order to symbolize the weight of neo-colonial repression lingering on in the Caribbean (and not just because Tom is a quite frankly crap sewer).


In June Tom, Tanya and I went to a Tuvan throat singing workshop in a jazz club in London. It was a rather surreal experience. You have to give throat singing a chance or two because on first impression it just sounds like grunting (see for example The Simpsons Movie, which took it as exactly that), but it can actually be incredibly impressive to listen to. It consists of a deep hoarse sound from the throat, which makes a sort of continuous bass note, above which an independent melodic line of thin, clear harmonics is produced nasally. It's like singing two notes at once, a voice making harmony. Although when we attempted it we just sounded like a room full of women giving birth. The workshop however was followed by a concert which, unlike us, was absolutely amazing. It was wonderful to sit on the floor of a dark, dingy, smoky jazz club and listen to this traditional Tuvan musician perform such otherworldly and beautiful and peaceful music with complete dignity and reverence.


As part of my masters course I learnt how to play salsa piano, and I did no practice at all until the week before my recital in June, when I got to perform with my very own salsa band. I think that to date this has been one of coolest moments of my life; I have to admit that there haven't been that many of them.

That afternoon of recitals also included Iranian drumming, Irish folksong and Scottish bagpipes. It was very enjoyable. I love the fact that someone can learn to play the bagpipes as part of a masters course.


July was mostly spent writing a dissertation on pan-Andean music in London. It was a barrel of laughs.


Out of all the ensembles that I've played in Andean Band has been by far my favourite. We play rural music from the Bolivian countryside - different types of panpipes and flutes - sing songs in silly high-pitched voices, dance about like fools and get to dress up in colourful costumes. I love it. During a performance high in our January concert - when we were all prancing around at the back of the hall while our bemused audience sat sedately in front of us - the idea of going on tour was suggested for the first time, and we all thought that this would be great. But practice always takes more effort than theory, and so because nobody else would do it I thus took it upon myself to organise the first ever Andean Band tour.

We went to Cornwall for a week in the summer, and it was wonderful. We played in little parish churches, to audiences consisting mostly of OAPs, and they loved it. We played in the Heligan gardens and danced around barefoot on the grass. We played on the quay at Mevagissey, where it smelt of fish and chips and seaweed, and my Power relatives made me proud by dancing around like idiots for the entire concert. We did an impromptu performance in a little country pub, winding our way around the bar with our panpipes and tarkas, and sang song after song with two alcoholics, who were amazed that we could actually sing in tune. It was a week filled with great friends and music and sunshine and beaches and lots of laughter, and I've never had more fun on a music tour.


Although the masters was stressful and boring and disappointing in so many ways and not worth all the money that I (my parents) spent on it, it really did teach me some valuable things, and these things will stay with me for the rest of my life. It left me with more than I first thought (an inability to laugh at 'ethnic' jokes, a desire to use semi-colons in every sentence and irritable bowel syndrome).

To begin with, it opened up a whole world - literally - of exciting and interesting and beautiful music to me.

It taught me the importance of an open mind; the importance of not judging solely through your own standards; the importance of trying to understand as much as possible about another person or culture before speaking about or for them; the importance of representing others truly and fairly.

It taught me that all musics can be equally valued, and that beautiful can be the complete opposite of what you first thought, and can additionally be construed in so many different ways that it's worth giving everything a chance. It's worth listening with an open mind and ear. It taught me that music can mean so much and so many different things to people around the world. In Europe music is largely entertainment; in other places music is religion, music makes the rain come, music communicates with spirits, music helps the crops to grow, music defines the year, music is what everyone does. Music can be for far more than just listening to.

When I was younger I used to think that classical music was boring, and then I did a music degree, and now I feel like I've gone full circle and come back to where I started from but with a slightly more informed view. A lot of classical music really is boring - it's stiff, and uninspiring, and feels like it's been put into a straight-jacket - and this I find true of classical performance, especially. Having discovered how the rest of the world moves and dances and reacts to music, I find now that there's something quite unnatural about sitting through a concert perfectly still and silent on the edge of a chair, being able to express how you feel about the music through a quick clap at the end - only at the end - of each piece. I don't like the formality, the pressure, the nerves created by that sort environment. Music should want to make you move and dance and tap your feet and I like having the freedom to do that; to express how the music makes you feel. As a performer I like to be able to see that people are enjoying themselves. I like concerts which don't demand your attention right from the off, so that in a way when everyone gives it - when there is silence when before there was chatter - it makes it all the more special.

But I think that, most importantly, my masters made me realise that music, more than anything else, is to enjoy. It might seem ridiculous to think otherwise, but honestly, a classical music education doesn't make you realise that. Classical performance often seems to be about perfection, or as close as you can get. About getting the notes right, about achieving technical excellence, about not making mistakes. A music degree turned me into a snob; I used to condemn crap amateur choirs and choral societies out of hand - warbling sopranos, out-of-tune altos, deaf tenors, plodding basses, the lot of them - and had a good laugh. But my masters made me realise that perhaps if people are enjoying themselves then anything else doesn't have to matter. A classical music education places so much emphasis on technical assurance, on getting the notes right, that you could perhaps never realize that music should be - and in so many places is - about so much more. And so this is something that I feel grateful to have learnt; I've always loved and enjoyed performing music, but I suppose I never realised before that music can be enjoyed in so many different ways, each of them equally valid, and that getting the notes right is perhaps not the most important way either. If a bad primary-school choir can feel proud in putting on a concert that gives their parents a glow, if you can want to dance to a drunken, stumbling panpipe group from the Bolivian countryside, if a group of friends can get together for a terrible-sounding impromptu jam session and have a good laugh, then what else matters, really?

October - December

In September I came out to Bolivia with my lecturer's family, to live in Sucre for half a year and look after their two boys. It's funny how some things happen. In October I joined an ensemble called Los Masis, a group of around 40 people (from the age of 4 to 30) who play panpipes and flutes and sing. They rehearse six evenings a week, and in a way those rehearsals have given me a reason to be out here in a different country where I can't really speak the language and have to look after horrible little boys and don't have any proper friends. At times I've been jealous of the community, and security, and support that my Christian friends find from church, but I've recently realised that I get exactly the same things from playing music, and I always have.


Hence it was 2007 that found me in church for the first time in my life on Christmas day, to play panpipes in mass. Afterwards we wound our way back through the streets, still playing, with our families following (my parents were visiting for Christmas), to the Los Masis courtyard, where we played some more and danced and drank hot chocolate together. It was all very jolly. Henry got out his bagpipes and was immediately captured on video by everyone that had a phone on them. The director Roberto got me up to dance with him because, obviously, being a white European I knew all the dance steps to Macedonian bagpipe music or whatever Henry was playing. It was really lovely to get together to play music and dance about on Christmas day, and I'll always remember it for how different it was and how much fun, too.


P.S. If you have read this far, then I love you, and I hope you've enjoyed it.
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Comments about this review »

supersexycoolchick1 16.04.2008 17:04

an enjoyable read - made me laugh out loud in a coulpe of places - gerat op

Silverback 16.03.2008 12:03

And not a mention of the Spice Girls reunion. Marvellous! Paul

law3 28.02.2008 00:31

That was thoroughly enjoyable to read, nicely done! Sounds like a pretty packed year, I'm somewhat jealous!

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Review Ratings »

This review of 2007 In Music has been rated:

"exceptional" by (38%):

  1. Silverback
  2. law3
  3. marymoose99

and 5 other members

"very helpful" by (62%):

  1. supersexycoolchick1
  2. Calapine
  3. larsbaby

and 10 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.