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A musical journey

Thoughts and stories about musical encounters...

Along with nature, people, language and food, music is for me one of the best aspects of travelling. As the French saying goes, "la musique adoucit les moeurs" (~it makes people better) and as far as my experience goes, it does have this peculiar ability to transcend personal and cultural differences - that is, if the beat is good...

So quite naturally my goodbye party was a mix of all these things; dozens of friends and relatives gathered around a bonfire in the Valley of the Cross, in Jerusalem, jammin' and eating together. The next day, i was flying out without any instrument with me, not even my dear violin. For the next 12 months, I would have to wait for occasions to appear, instead of creating them myself.

Here are the most significant anecdotes I've gathered so far. Just a bunch of short stories, apparently unrelated one to the other, but somehow all these tunes are all playing together in my head, and this is what I want to share here.

Story #1
1st week of travelling, on my way from Srinagar, Kashmir, to Leh, Ladakh. 15 hours in a jeep over one of the most beautiful and dangerous roads of the world. Playing oh so loudly through the speakers and the subwoofer, located right behind me, Bollywood music, full blast. Non-stop. 15 hours. I confess, at that time I had serious trouble tuning in.

Story #2
3rd week into my journey, and Im back in Kashmir, this time with my close friend Doron, who just joined me for a couple of months. We'd escaped hectic and rather unfriendly Srinagar for the haven of a small village lost in the mountains, close to Pahalgam. We had originally planned to stay there only 2-3 days, instead we ended up staying the whole week - an eternity for me :) The Kashmiri family owing the place made it so special, we just didn't want to leave : Gulam, the father, Jon, Kursheed, Rafi, and all the other brothers/sons/nephews/cousins (men only, the women would not work but we'd see them around their own house, next to the guesthouse.
They all were very familiar with the Israeli mindset (so much for the islamist kashmiri leaders who called Israelis "unwanted" in his state), and the atmosphere there was just amazing, one of the best places i've ever stayed at, some of the best people I ever met.
A-n-y-w-a-y. Here comes the day before our departures. Some other israelis just got there, and some other travellers too. Yael, a friend from university, happened to be there also, so we had prepared some banofie pie from scratch, cooking in the guesthouse's kitchen. People started to gather there, chatting and laughing. And then it started : someone put some music on his phone, then we put some more, still cooking and laughing to the rhythm of the pop songs, and before we knew it we were all in the darkened common room, spotlights and dance-lights flashing (phones and headlamps hanging on the walls), making up gibberish lyrics to Hindi songs ("chamak chello chamak chello" became "shabat shalom shabat shalom" and no one shouted it louder than Massud, Gulam's 40 y.o. brother).
But the highlight of the evening was on a different scale : after jumping and dancing to all the Hindi/RnB songs available, it looked like the party was over. The light came on again, everyone took back their phones and flashlights. Then Massud and one of the younger boys took out traditional kashmiri instruments, sat down on the carpet, and started playing and singing Kashmiri folk songs. The thing is, they were planning a small concert in the following days and I had been really disappointed about missing it, so that was their parting present to us. After a few notes I started humming tunes I had never heard before, on and on into the starry night.
Even months later, my memories of that evening, sitting and singing there all together, so different yet so alike, are still among the best I have.

Story #3
I had been Resting in Manali After a 8-day trek from Leh to Tso-moriri, in time for the Hebrew New Year.
Amit, my trekmate and also a drummer, had found a small music shop still open despite it being the end of the season, and he had been whiling hours away jamming with Johnny the owner.
So I join him there one rainy afternoon, and surprise! a violin!!! Now, it's probably the worst violin ever made. Crappy wood, twisted chevalet, plastic sound. And dont even get me started on the bow. My teacher would probably pass out were she to see it.
Still, after some effort, I do manage to extract a couple of decent sounds. Within 10 minutes 8 more people, attracted by the music, have joined us and crammed in the 4 sqm room filled with instruments. British, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, Israeli and of course Indian. Sounds like the beginning of a joke.
Vova, a russian-israeli guy, has picked up a guitar and is playing a mix of russian folk songs, classic international rock, spanish and israeli hits. We're having fun. But then Johnny gets a phone call, goes out and comes back, very agitated: his mother has been hospitalized, he must go. We all get up to leave, but he asks us to keep playing while he's away. We hesitate, no one really knows what to do. He insists, so we sit back down, and after he's gone we keep on playing, a little less merry, but hoping and playing for his mother's recovery.

Story #4
A Thursday evening in Delhi, sometime in October, Nizammudin shrine. Im sitting on the floor in front of the mosque, surrounded by a mix of foreigners and locals, mostly Muslims. When asked where Im from, i answer frankly : Israel. Hasalaam aleikum - aleikum hasalaam. No tense jaw, no hardened look, no turned back. Slowly, I understand: why should there be any ?
The much awaited-for weekly performance of the Sufi singers, supposed to start at 7pm, is delayed til 7.30. 8pm. 9pm. I hesitate, most foreigners have already given up and left but I decide to wait. Wise decision : a few minutes before 9, a group of men appear and sit in the middle of the courtyard, with instruments very similar to those of my Kashmiri friends. Everyone become silent at once, expecting. A voice rises, falls, and rises again, a plea, no, a prayer. A cry maybe ? Or is it a blessing ? I don't know, I can't even say if it's Arabic or Urdu, but it gives me chills.Quickly the Muslim crowd can be heard murmuring the sacred words, while others, Hindus, Christians, Jews, just hum and listen, moving their heads to the beat, enthralled. The music that evening is so beautiful, full of piety and sincerity, a humble offering from man to God.

Story #5
Im now in Nepal, in Langtang valley, together with Mor, another good friend who's joined me by surprise for a few weeks. We're at 3000m, and are getting ready to cross the Ganja La, a somewhat technical 5100 pass which the vast majority of trekkers avoid by backtracking. Mor and I are trekking without porter nor guide, but for this bit Pema, the Tibetan owner of our guesthouse, is gonna take us over the pass. He came to India together with his parents as a two-year old boy, fleeing the Chinese invasion.
The day before the crossing, Mor and I are sitting in the common room, next to the stove, while Pema is packing. A Tibetan song is playing on the old radio, the tune fills the room, a strange silence falls upon us all. Suddenly we hear sniffling : Pema is obviously crying. In his culture, doing so publicly is a big deal. We ask him if he's okay, and he explains simply, in his broken English, that this music reminds him of his home, his country, and that makes him sad. We stay silent, and listen to the song together with him.

Story #6
my 1st day in Beijing. Im having a hard time, going through a crisis in my journey. The way I travel is so that I'm mostly by myself, always in the low season, often off the beaten track. After 7 months, it is very hard, especially in China where one can so easily feel cut off and isolated, misunderstood or even not understood at all, surrounded by people staring (out of curiosity) and sometimes even laughing. As I'm leaving the park of the Temple of heaven, i see a group of elderly music players, bathed in the golden sunlight of a wintry afternoon. They play strings, my favorite, my own musical universe. I listen a little while, but afraid to be spotted and asked for money (since im an obvious foreigner anywhere in East Asia, I've been feeling and treated like a walking ATM for a while), I slip away before the song ends. But after a few steps, I turn back, I want to listen more, I need to. My instincts are right : these old men are not basking nor asking for anything, they just play for pleasure, just for the love of music. And as their leader spots me, tapping my foot and swaying to the rhythm of the slightly oriental folk tune they're playing, he doesn't ask me for money at all, on the contrary: he turns to me and starts playing for me, smiling back at me, a smile straight from his heart, with these "sunny wrinkles" at the corner of the eye I like so much... This kind of contact is not very common in China. I'm beaming, and explain with signs that I'm a violin player. They play some more, the crowd around them is growing bigger: an old man wearing a Red Guard fur cap, young couples, women stopping on the way back from their afternoon walk. When they stop playing, the leader looks back at me again, gives me another of his smiles, and asks - without words, only gestures - "violonist, ah?" I answer - without words - "yes. Beautiful music, thank you", and I leave.

Story #7
Kolaveri di. Even as i write this post, im listening to that Hindi song that got stuck in my head 6 months ago. In Hampi, 3 weeks after i had gone back to India, i managed to infect 2 Austrian friends i had been traveling with. We'd turn to each other in the middle of nowhere and start singing, making all the indians around look stunned -and then laughing with them.
In a bus, on the porch of a shop (the cashier even played the song twice for us)... And then one evening, in Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India, a group of girls working in the hotel we were staying at joined us on the roof of the building, the best sunset point over the three seas and oceans. We started singing that song, they played it on their phone, then some more Tamil songs, and after they stopped being shy (which took them at least 10mn) they started teaching us some wild bollywood/mollywood dance moves :) Laughter is just another kind of music...

Story #8
Today, I was walking down from Emei Shan, rather exhausted, when I reached a rather isolated monastery, perched on a cliff in the middle of an incredibly green and dense forrest, on a little-used side trail. I had walked up and down the 3076m mountain in 2 days, whereas most people take a bus or cable cars uphill. Despite listening to Led Zeppelin, I had heard voices singing and could soon see a small sunny courtyard through which I'd have to pass filled with a group of Buddhist pilgrims, nuns and monks. I removed my earplugs, out of respect and curiosity. I guess the tiredness was obvious on my face, because as I was walking down the stairs the leader looked at me for a long time with peaceful, soothing, smiling eyes. Unlike the habit I had developed over the last 10 months, I returned his gaze, and his smile. Our eyes locked for a split second, as they all kept singing softly, and I silently mouthed "Amidofu", the Chinese Buddhist greeting I had just learned on that day. He gave a slight nod, just before I looked away. As I quickly exited the monastery, still having a long way to go but still smiling from that shared moment, I lingered another instant, glancing back up at the shapes in the courtyard and skipping Led Zeppelin to put on some Erhu music. I could hear hands clapping, people laughing. This was not a psalmody nor a traditional prayer, like the ones I had heard through closed doors the night before, at the monastery in which I had spent the night near the summit. No, this was a Buddhist jam session.

So now here I am, 10 months within my journey, and i am actually listening to the very same songs the driver from Srinagar to Leh had played in that jeep. People say it grows on you, the sounds, the smells, the tastes of Asia. People are right. And as expected, Music has definitely given me some of my most cherished travel memories.

Posted by clemhadd 11:42 Tagged people music

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