Africa

Africa, Indonesia, India…New Orleans

When I jump on a new instrument for the first time, it feels how you’d expect: alien, not quite comfortable – maybe like I’d imagine a hip or knee replacement would feel at first. It’s my third week in African ensemble after a several year hiatus of playing (and building) African drums, and I’ve settled on the dunun as my axe for the semester – specifically, the samba. My spirit loves playing it. This past Monday, a “click” happened somewhere in the land of ambidexterity (left hand on bell, right hand on the head) and instead of following the instrument, I was leading it – (yes, I mean in a spiritual-hippie-granola-crunchy- kind of way). It felt natural and no longer alien – more of an extension of any inherent rhythm I might possess (I know it’s in there somewhere!). I felt its dance.

Along those same lines, in gamelan, we’re performing Baris – I chose an instrument that acts as an intermediary between the colotomic structure and the interlocking parts that exist at the highest densities. I wanted something technically “simple” this time so that I could actively listen to other parts and put it all together like a puzzle – you know, like you’re supposed to. I’ve been playing the gangsa polos part on other pieces which is too fast for me to think realistically about the multiple stratifications happening around me. Yesterday’s rehearsal (and my repetative 4-note cycle) became a meditative exercise for an hour or so – I found myself, after having the part on auto-pilot, paying close attention to the height of my hammer, my grip, the exact placement of the hammer strike on each slabbed key, the space my arm occupied in the air after each strike and whether I was in rhythm with the air itself, and how my body alignment felt in relation to the instrument – as if it were my spine.

In short, it was lovely. Afterwards, we switched to Puspanjali and I tested my spatial knowledge of the gangsa by trying to play sections with my eyes closed or glued to my professor’s hands on the kendang (drum). I had no trouble at all with the phrases that moved step-wise. Once it skipped two or more keys, I found myself striking the air between the slabs – it’s probably best for the ensemble’s sake that I stop intentionally trying to screw myself up. I do enough of that with my eyes open.

(Skyping w/ Viji)

Regarding India, I’m at a standstill in my sitar purchase, or potential purchase. It scares me too much to spend $900+ on an instrument I’ve never touched without having its quality backed by a friend and not a salesman. Speaking of India, an hour ago I sat in a world music room with my “Music of India” class as we skyped with a Karnatik vocalist in Chennai – she taught us a song text and its corresponding tala, a few easier ragas, and workshopped ornamentation. I love technology.

In four hours or so I’m driving to New Orleans for the first time since I started this program and I’ll be there all weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, eating, seeing some of my old students, and doing a bit of fieldwork. Saturday night I’m heading to see Sissy Bounce artist Big Freedia. I can’t wait to get home – some ethnographic notes to come! 🙂

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Bill Summers

Yesterday, in a clinic with percussionist Bill Summers, some strong points came across.

He treats his drums as a family, and the people playing them give voice to the family as a functioning thing. The drums themselves represent the family members: the mother (the one with the womb who speaks of wisdom), the father (the one carrying structure and discipline – the clave ), the child (the novice, the apprentice)… and that they should never be split up. Once they are – they aren’t played correctly. They have familial conversations. They have fights. They make up. They play.

Secondly, he lingered on the idea of african improvisation: specifically the fact that there’s no such thing. You can always tell a “real drummer” from a hippie banging a drum… a real drummer knows the rhythms, knows the discipline, knows the rhythms for each ceremony (each morning, each afternoon, each season (much like an Indian Raga), each wedding, each funeral, each birthday)..and only plays those rhythms when appropriate.

We spoke about the beginnings of man and the first instrument: the idea of an ancient guy hunting in the forests of Africa and a piece of fruit (a modern-day shakere) falls on his head, he brings it home, he’s sitting there bored, he starts shaking it – it becomes percussive, it becomes entertainment, it becomes a vehicle for ceremony… well …maybe not quite like that 🙂