This was another amazing ten days. I am again floored by the depth and size of our world. Just a short plane ride away from India, Bangkok was like an entirely different planet than Chennai. It is a city of around 15 million--twice the size of NYC. It felt a little bit like coming back to the US and it was a relief in that way. I shopped in a grocery store without worrying about the quality of the produce, I ate in a restaurant that served hamburgers and French fries along with Thai fare, and the room I stayed in was a part of an apartment complex with decorations and amenities that reminded me a lot of apartments I have visited in New York and DC.
My hosts (huge shout out to Thanisa and her family for being so kind to host me!!!) were very friendly and just about every person I met was eager and willing to help me find my way around and experience Thailand. My teacher Klu Nuek was willing not only to meet with me for several hours every day but also to let me accompany him in his life as the baddest Thai woodwind/percussion player in town. I saw him perform in a temple ceremony (and I played gong thank you very much) and rehearse student and professional ensembles. I also saw him perform with a western style string quartet called JEEB playing pop-ish repertoire along with excerpts from the Brandenburg concerto and the like. I think the concert was trying to introduce audiences that mostly listen to Western popular music to European and Thai Classical music. It was set in a beautiful concert hall that reminded me of the one I saw Cecile McLorain Salvant in in Rotterdam. Just being in this space was like a huge breath of fresh air. People were engaged in the music, they didn’t get up to leave in the middle like the audiences in India, and the room was equipped with adequate sound reinforcement, lighting, and seating… it also was like an hour instead of three.
While it was only a short trip I feel I got a decent look into the East Asian aesthetic. Obviously this is a huge generalization and I still have no idea of anything but I saw the realization of the continuum of culture from Africa to Asia first hand and I heard some real similarities to the music of India. Ku Nuek told me that few instruments come directly from India with little alteration like the Piee the Thai version of the indian double-reed Nadaswarnam…. Equally badass… I learned maybe six or seven tunes and I got some circular breathing together. When there is a little seven-year-old girl doing it next to you like it’s normal it provides a little incentive to improve.
It struck me that this place has lost a lot of what distinguishes it from the West. There were so many Starbucks and KFCs that I could have been anywhere in Europe or America and I could go down most of the block without seeing any sign of where I ways. I am realizing that much of our world looks this way now and you almost have to go to a place as far removed as Chennai to escape that cultural colonization.
But after living in Chennai for six months I understand a little more why this shift towards wWstern culture happens. People just want those things. Western infrastructure means comfort, convenience and security. While there are big cultural casualties, this type of change wouldn’t happen if at least some people didn’t want it to.
Of course it’s more complicated than this because there are international forces that make people think that they want some things that might not be “best” for them because it is profitable for people in the West. For example the people in the advertisements everywhere I’ve gone look very white and that is not a realistic beauty ideal for people in Asia to aspire to. There are also people like my teacher who are working tirelessly to preserve their native culture. I can’t help but think that he was so welcoming towards me in part because there are few students even in his own country that take a serious interest in Thai Classical music. It really is tragic to think that this culture that is thousands of years old could be more or less extinguished by a couple of generations of McDonalds.
The other thing is the prevalence of Buddhism. About 95% of the population is Buddhist and they teach the doctrine in schools. I can’t help but think that the relative number of rules and rituals in Hinduism is part of what keeps India more culturally distinct. Buddhism seems to be more compatible with Western culture. But at the same time it is still an organized religion with strange inconsistencies and sexism. I think in the West we sometimes use Buddhism as a catchall for being spiritual on our own terms—but that isn’t quite right either.
This is a very under-developed thought but I’ve been considering the similarities between religion and musical genre. In a sense neither of them exist because each individual’s relationship to faith varies so widely even within denominations of a given religion that any categorization is virtually meaningless. But in another way they do exist because we use them as organizing principles for behavior and we refer to them constantly. If we take the relationship further I’ve been considering that it might be a necessary step to really study one religion to figure out your own spiritual convictions kind of like studying a style seriously before (or while) really trying to develop your own musical concept. Without understanding some of the formalities of religious structure maybe you’re trying to write a symphony without studying counterpoint? My attempts to read the Bible and study religion more seriously have always been driven almost entirely by discipline with basically no passion. One thing is that I’ve learned recently is that I have a good amount of discipline but that when you’re dealing with these highly emotional subjects like music or faith that discipline can’t be your only tool. Especially in the past month or so where I’ve been playing a lot less and doing more thinking about music and aesthetics instead I have been almost forced to appreciate emotion and lived experience more than I used to. These are the artifacts of passion and they are the content that all the technical facility delivers. When I see these predominantly religious places it forces me to consider my own spiritual convictions which –similar to aesthetic convictions—I think I have largely lacked for most of my life. I wonder if I’m cultivating the beginnings of a passion for spirituality. I’m not sure… When I hung out with Arijit the Hindustani vocalist he recommended looking inside for my religion and seeing what comes. Is that too easy? God? What do you think?
Headed to Ghana ;(