If you’re a living, breathing American this topic has been on your mind a lot lately. Racism takes a lot of different forms and it is so hard to remove from your thinking because whenever you notice it somewhere it has a way of creeping up in some other form somewhere else.
Just to be clear this isn’t about my own experience of racism here. Although I am a little discriminated against people generally assume I’m rich, harmless, and clueless rather than poor, dangerous, and stupid. I can also leave this place any time and go back to a country where my color and social status afford me opportunities denied to most. What I can say is that my experience of mild discrimination and animosity here has given me a much deeper insight into what it means to be an ally and how it can feel to be an outsider.
The first week of this Hindustani vocal workshop was very hard for me because I was incredibly out of my element. I’ve gotten used to this feeling in social situations, at the gym, on the street, and in private lessons with guruji. But I hadn’t yet experienced it in a classroom full of musical peers. In school I had kind of gotten used to the feeling that I was sort of OK at music. I could hang. I could read and I could play changes. But this was a classroom full of Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists interested in learning Hindustani music. For most of the first few days I timidly patted my thigh as solfege syllables (sverras) and increasingly rapid subdivisions passed me by. I mumbled along tunelessly as I tried to keep up.
A big part of me wanted to just quit and go back to my room and practice saxophone. I said “this isn’t helping me at all! I’m getting worse! I want to play long tones I know how to do that!” I felt pretty miserable because not only was I terrible I was also embarrassed in front of the rest of the class who could do the work that I couldn’t.
And then the second day Donald Trump got elected and I went a whole night basically without sleeping. At 5 in the morning I got up and went on a run because that’s what I do when I go a little nuts. On my run this big dog jumped at me and I felt terrified. I went to the gym and I was the only one there except for the television and the guy opening the place up. There was a Tamil kids program on TV and I ran on the treadmill and started to feel better…. Then he turned on the news and the headline “Japan hopes for stable, healthy relationship with Trump” screamed at me from the TV. That afternoon Guruji said that I looked tired. When I got home I looked in the mirror and realized that I looked awful.
But I kept going in the class and took some time off from playing the horn and I practiced all night each night. By the second week I could keep up with the morning exercises and by the third I was making it through the pieces we learned. I still have no grasp of the phrasing and I was still by far the worst in the class but at least I could hang. I could read the sverras and keep the tala. This was hard but not as hard as my first few lessons when I arrived. I feel like I’m getting more resilient and each time my ego is taking less of a firm hold. To be hones though I still don’t know if it was really worth it. I feel some great benefits and I’m really appreciative of them but I’ll never know if I would have gotten better with three more weeks of intensive practice on sax. But either way I’m glad I did it because I’ll never have these opportunities again.
On the first day of class the teacher Arijit said that “it’s a common misconception that Indian music doesn’t have harmony. But harmonic principals are central to the way melody is constricted in Hindustani music.” Perhaps seeing a look on my face he said, “what do you think about that Max?” I paused, privately thinking that he was disrespecting harmony and said, “it depends on what you mean by harmony, I guess.” Seeming annoyed Arijit replied “yes if you mean Western chordal movement it is not harmony but if you mean principles of multiple notes sounding at once then it is harmony.” I nodded and remained silent, privately resenting him and all of Indian music in general.
My ego was feeling hurt because I couldn’t keep up in the class and here was this Indian guy trying to come and take something that is mine! Harmony! White people music!
But after a month of singing and listening I know that he was absolutely right. In fact I might go further and add that “Western” harmony is no more rich or even less rich than the harmony in Indian music. The microtonal inflections and the depth of the sound are just as much a study of multiple resonances as Bach or Beethoven. When listening to Arijit sing I repeatedly had the thought “his sound is so deep that the melody note sounds like the root.” This is my conservatory-trained brain trying to make sense of sounds I’ve never experienced before and can’t quite put into words. The best that I can say is that what I was experiencing was harmony. Harmony in a universal sense. The movement of his melody was the chord change.
Notice that the way we think about music is colonialized because that the guys in wigs have a monopoly on a whole element of music. The rhetoric goes something like "Sure, that spicy, rhythmic ethnic music is great but it has no harmony." In saying this the musical hegemon denies to most of the people in the world a whole THIRD of the musical trinity (melody harmony rhythm). Harmony signifies intellect, and study. At Oberlin our pedagogy has words and numbers for harmony but rhythm is just something you feel. Well I’m realizing that that is a whole load of BS and even more importantly it is racism! The real lesson is what Sullivan Fortner so wisely said which is that “Melody, Rhythm, and Harmony are one.”
Hafez Modirazadeh has a nice article called “The Convergence Liberation of Makam X” (http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/943/2393) in which he talks a little bit about this expanded notion of harmony. I’ve returned to this several times but only at the conclusion of this workshop did I actually read the entire thing. I highly recommend you read it but I know you won’t. It carries the unfortunate tone of verbose academic writing. While I think the ideas are wonderful they are presented in a way that seems to say: “I’m smart so I must be right. If you don’t agree you’re probably just dumb.”
So I’ll give you the highlights: Modirazadeh names the Harmonic series “Makam X” and talks about achieving a sound that is beyond any one culture and expresses the universality of human experience. The “Convergence Liberation” principle extends beyond music and posits that through a combination of cultures in art we can actually be freed from our perceived differences. This is a lofty ideal and one that I had contemplated before I cam to India but it’s the sort of thing that I would kind of think about and then pass over. It sounds nice in theory but after three weeks of looking really stupid I think it resonates more with me. He makes a few detailed pointes that are interesting:
The first is that achieving this universality requires vulnerability and friendship from the participating musicians. This is something I experienced in this workshop. I had to be willing to sound really really bad in front of new people. But these people became my friends and I feel a connection with them that I never would have had I not played music with them. Maybe more interesting though, I feel a deeper connection with them than I do with any jazzhead who said “yeah man” to me at a jam session. We really dealt with our differences and both learned. That is a whole different kind of relationship than what I’ve experienced before.
The second is that letting go of “personal ambition” and more interestingly “sacrifice” are what makes this type of collaboration possible. While he doesn’t say this explicitly I think sacrifice means giving up some of your time and effort to something that maybe you don’t really want. Frankly a lot of the stuff that I’m learning now doesn’t interest me. I might even dislike it a little. But that was true in Undergrad too I just didn’t question it as much. I think this was at least in part because it was mostly white people telling it to me and I was in a circumstance that was familiar and comfortable for me. When I’m here and totally out of my element I think I get a little more why a lot of students fail Music History 101… But if I want to learn this music I should learn it in it’s own terms. Sure I should focus on what interests me most just like I do in my study of jazz but that doesn’t mean that I get to just take what I want and ignore the rest.
The last point I really liked is just a quote from John Coltrane that I think says more than the whole article “If you want to look beyond the differences in style, you will confirm that there is a common base . . . take away their purely ethnic characteristics—that is, their folkloric aspect—and you’ll discover the presence of the same pentatonic sonority, of comparable modal structures. It’s this universal aspect of music that interests me and attracts me; that’s what I’m aiming for”
Maybe this is corny but we are all one people. We need each other now more than ever. Trump won because we were afraid and our egos were hurt. Music can really do this if you do it right. I don’t see a world where we need more efficiency and computer programming. I don’t see a world were we need another great invention. I see a world where people’s hearts are sick. I see a world where there is enough to go around but there is a family of four sleeping on the floor of my house. Some people aren’t sharing.
I was going to finish up with Trane but I’m going to end with a Modazariah quote because, even though it’s verbose, it’s twisty and it makes you think. I needed to counterbalance that touchy feely paragraph I just wrote anyway:
Is it possible then for improvisation, as a study inherently subversive towards the very parameters that set such up, to carry enough empowering potential to usher in an ultimate finality for institutional boundary altogether?