Homesick

Homesickness is a physical problem for me, not a mental problem.  I actually feel it.  For me it’s a dull ache in the stomach, with a tinge of nausea. It spreads from there, to a weakness in the knees and a spacy feeling in the head.  It’s hard to get things done when I feel homesick.  Everything seems like too much effort.  Staying in bed is the best option, just counting the days and hours until I get to go home, wishing the present would go away.

Home isn’t perfect.  America has lots of problems and my regular working life can be stressful.  But still, it is home.  I know my way around.  There is no language barrier.  I’m comfortable there.  I can get the food I like and I’m more in control of my time.  The strong infrastructure makes it much easier to get things done and I feel healthier and more powerful.  And I have the woods and my beloved trails.

Going to Germany was disorienting (more on that in the next blog post), but returning to India was even harder.  I’m happy to be back in the warm bosom of Dhrupad at the Gurukul with my amazing teachers and wonderful friends, but that dull ache of homesickness has hit me again.  I know it will pass, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  I’m deeply grateful for the Fulbright experience I’m having here and there are many things I love about India, but when I’m feeling homesick all I can focus on are the things that bother me.  I wish people would stop staring at me.  The pollution is abominable.  The conservative social mores and the public racism in this country are ridiculous.  The corruption is frustrating.  I wish there were real mountain biking options in Bhopal.  And where or where are the trails?  Ugh.

But then I realize once again that home is where I make it.  I watched a documentary a few weeks ago about the folks living in refugee camps in Syria.  I can’t imagine how they must feel.  That is real struggle and real suffering.  So I shift my thinking.  I think of all the things I love about this place and all the incredible opportunities I have.  I feel gratitude that my family is here, my precious girls and wife that I love above all.  Being with them is the greatest blessing, no matter where.  I focus on how lucky I am to explore this ancient music with no distractions, guided by the best teachers on the globe.  I also think about how much I’ve been able to positively impact the students at the Gurukul through my teaching of Western music. And I think about all the genuine friends we’ve made with our neighbors.  I feel something nice spreading from my heart to the rest of my body and slowly, slowly that dull ache fades away.  I’m back in the center again.  I’m home.

Half way point part I: The Music

Next week I’ll hit the half-way mark for my Fulbright experience in India.  It has been life-changing in so many ways.

When I showed up I knew I wanted to go much deeper into Dhrupad singing, but I didn’t know exactly how deep.  I knew I wanted to improve my voice and get to a point where I could sing a bit with my various creative projects.  I also wanted to just learn more about the pitch side of Hindustani music to broaden my vocabulary as a composer, improviser, and teacher, but I didn’t have any serious ambition to perform as a Dhrupad singer.  I didn’t think it was possible given my age and my background as a percussionist.  I was wrong.

My guru, Ramakant Gundecha, thought otherwise.  He told me earlier this year that he thought by the time I left I’d be ready to start performing.  Of course, I trust him 100% as a teacher—he knows what he’s doing—but I figured maybe he was being a bit over-ambitious, perhaps eager to show off one of his foreign students.

However, after nearly four and a half months of intense, focused practice and instruction, my singing has indeed improved by leaps and bounds.  My pitch is much more precise, my voice is more stable and even in all registers, and my basic sound has opened up considerably and is more consistent than ever.  I still have a long ways to go, but the second half of my experience here will be even more productive than the first half, so I believe Ramakantji is right: I will be ready to perform and I very much want to do so.

I can’t imagine my life without Dhrupad now.  Singing Dhrupad every day has made me realize how very mechanical my life as a Western percussionist is.  I’m not being critical of Western music or the percussive arts—after all, I do love them—but most of my time in that area is spent striking keyboard instruments that are based on the world’s most mechanical (and harsh sounding) tuning system (Equal Temperament).  And on keyboard instruments there is no way to slide between, say, a C and a C#.  But as I know very well now, there is a UNIVERSE of music in those microtones.  And if I’m not playing keyboard instruments, I’m banging on drums and cymbals, which are noise-making instruments in the literal, scientific sense.  And all of that is with sticks that are outside of my body.  Singing long tones in just intonation for hours at a time has sensitized me to a whole world of pitch nuance and phrasing that isn’t possible with my regular instruments.  Practicing Dhrupad is a calming and centering activity, and one that has opened my heart and my mind in myriad ways.

This will have a profound impact on the future direction of my career.  Of course, I could just practice Dhrupad and not worry about performing it, but I want to share this music with people and having performances lined up definitely helps motivate me on a daily basis to practice better.

I’ve already made some changes to open up more time for singing.  I resigned from full-time percussion playing with Alarm Will Sound (though I’ll continue working with them in other capacities) and I’ve stopped commissioning solo marimba pieces from other composers.  I still intend to tour as a solo marimbist and I am involved with several chamber groups as a percussionist, but singing will become a big part of my work over the next decade and that will by necessity require less time on my percussion instruments.  This is all a bit risky, especially since it will make me less marketable (presenters have a hard time understanding polymaths . . . ) and I’ve already built a lot of momentum in my other areas.  But I’m not going to worry about all that too much.  I’m just going to focus on the music.  It will all work out in the end.  It has to; I must sing Dhrupad!

12 Things I Love About India

  1. The Classical Music

I think India’s classical music—especially Dhrupad—is some of the most perfect music ever created.  It has everything: the depth, refinement, and seriousness of Western classical music, the structured improvisational rigor of jazz, the tunefulness of pop music, the deep grooves of folk music.  The Raga system has endured thousands of years and it will endure a thousand more.  It is truly one of India’s greatest gifts to the world.

  1. The People

Like any country, India hosts the whole gamut of humanity, from the very best to the very worst.  But the best Indians are some of the best people on the planet.  They are as cultured, intelligent, educated, creative, and honest as the best from anywhere else, but what makes them distinct is their depth of emotional sensitivity and the openness of their hearts.  I know that’s a generalization, but it’s true, and something Indians are justifiably proud of.

  1. Good Chai

It’s possible to get a good cup of chai in America at someone’s home or a fancy Indian restaurant, but the stuff they sell at Starbucks, et al, is pure nonsense.  And even if you do get a good cup of chai, it’s just not the same as on the side of a road somewhere, while striking up a conversation with a friendly person.  And the best of all experiences is enjoying a fine cup of chai in someone’s home while sharing a laugh and watching the kids run around.  Good chai is a powerful conduit to strengthening social bonds.

  1. Small Businesses

The large corporate businesses that have destroyed many towns in America are making inroads in India too, but thankfully they are still far outnumbered by small businesses.  It’s a marked difference that one feels every day.  The shop owners here generally care about doing good business with you because they aren’t paid by the hour.  They have to retain their customers or they won’t be able to survive.  So they work with you, they’re genuinely friendly, and happy to help you out however they can.  It makes shopping much more personable and meaningful.

  1. Commuting by Motorcycle

Motorcycles and scooters are ubiquitous in India, and they are a great way to get around.  They are much more fuel-efficient than cars, take up less space on the road, are easier to park, fun to drive, and are much cheaper to buy and maintain.  Everyone rides them here, from rich to poor, men and women. 

  1. Efficiency

People generally have less money here and so are more thrifty and efficient.  For example, in America the roads are taken up with giant SUVs that only have one person in them.  In India people pack into smaller cars.  People don’t run A/C here unless it’s really hot (like over 100 degrees), etc, etc.  The very rich are still wasteful, but the rest of the folks are not.  It’s something I’m going to try hard to bring home with me as a lifestyle change.

  1. Kid-Friendly Atmosphere

With the exception of some hard-core classical concerts or theatre productions, it’s fine to bring kids anywhere here.  In fact, it’s encouraged.  Family is at the center of Indian culture and people are used to having kids around.  It’s really nice to be able to bring the kids everywhere and not worry about people giving us mean stares or “tsk tsks” when they make some noise or touch something.  And people here will go out of their way to help you be comfortable with the kids.

  1. Respecting One’s Elders

In Western cultures the respect for elders has eroded completely away.  I see millions of young people in Western countries who are adrift, and whose lives would be greatly improved if they would simply tone down their ego and open their hearts and minds to the wisdom of the elders in their society.  This is something I figured out on my own in my early 20s.  It made my time at university and beyond much more productive and enjoyable.  I’m enjoying spending an extended time in a culture that still values its elders.

  1. The Historical Monuments

Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Sanchi, Sarnath, etc, etc, etc.  India has incredible historical riches.  I feel so much wonder at the gorgeous art, architecture, and the colorful stories that surround them.  It is simply mind-blowing to look at a sculpture that was made 5,000 years ago.

  1. Rooftop Culture

Earlier today I was practicing my drum on our roof while enjoying a sunset.  My kids came up and played for a while and my neighbor came out on his roof and said hello.  Some boys were flying kites on their roofs a few houses down.  It’s a party up there every day and it’s really fun.

  1. The Food.

It’s such a basic part of my life I take it for granted, but I do love Indian food.  I marvel at the way a good cook can coax so much subtlety and nuance out such simple ingredients.  And the variety as I travel around the subcontinent is astonishing.

  1. The Smile and Head Bobble

Most of the time it means “yes.”  But sometimes it means “no.”  And sometimes it means “thank you.”  And sometimes I have no clue what it means.  But it’s really endearing and infectious.  My own head bobble is getting better and better.  I’m pretty sure I’ll bring it home with me next year! 

First Dhrupad performance

Last night I gave my first Dhrupad performance.  It was at a small house concert we organized.  Several of the neighborhood families came over.  They each brought some food and  drink.  Image

We gutted the dining room area and laid down a rug and pillows.  We lined the back walls with chairs for folks who preferred to sit up a bit more.

I sang alaap, jor, jhala in Rag Todi, as well as a composition I wrote that is based on a Walt Whitman poem.  The performance lasted about 25 minutes.  My friend Roman Das accompanied me on pakawaj.  He’s a fabulous player and a great person.  After I sang, one of my fellow Gurukul students also performed.  His name is Vic and though he’s much younger than I am at 23 years old, he’s been studying Dhrupad for four years and is thus a kind of senior student.  He gave a nice performance.

I felt a little keyed up before we started.  Even though it was just a casual house concert, I viewed it as a kind of “midterm” test for the last three months of work here in India.  I think I passed with good grades, though.  When I listened to the recording today I heard a lot of good things.  My voice has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year.  There is still much to do, but of course it’s infinite.

Our neighbors were just wonderful.  All of them have been so nice and welcoming.  Indian hospitality is alive and well here in Lake Pearl Spring and I’m honored to know them. Curiously, though, none of them knew anything about Dhrupad.  So there I was: a white man foreigner from Idaho, U.S.A., explaining the basics of this ancient Indian music to native Indians.  That’s the 21st Century for you!!

Jessica took pictures and managed the kids.  We put the little ones upstairs in front of a movie.  Nonetheless, there were frequent squabbles and crises.  All of which she managed with her characteristic grace and intelligence.

I’m looking forward to more performances down the road, but for the next few months it’s back in the woodshed for lots and lots of practicing.

Camels and Touts

This past weekend our family visited Agra and saw the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, “Baby Taj”, and Fatapuh Sikri.  It was both an exhilarating and exhausting two days.

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Tourism is hard in India, especially for white foreigners.  Once you’re inside the gates of the castle or mosque or whatever it’s great, but getting there is difficult.

What makes it especially hard are the touts.  Touts are people who are trying to sell you something.  This ranges from guide services to necklaces to postcards to camel rides to whatever.  They’re poor and they’re desperate for business so when they see you they latch on to you like vultures on a carcass.  They are unbelievably tenacious, and even if you’ve already hired someone to guide you around they still swarm around you.

And carcass is about how we felt by the end of each day.  Not only did Jessica and I often have four or five touts on each of us, shoving various junk in our faces and pushing us extremely hard to buy it (“Just 200 rupees, sir!  Just 200!  . . . Okay, just 100 rupees!  I no cheater!  Good quality!  Just 100 rupees!”), but we were dragging two young, bewildered children with us, neither of whom had the faintest interest in the subtleties of the carvings on the pillars in Agra Fort.  Their primary interest was the ice cream we used as bribes to get them through the day.

And we were determined to see these magnificent sights so we were liberal with the ice cream.  On Saturday they devoured no less than THREE ice creams, as well as various toffees, chips, cookies, and other assorted junk food.  By the early afternoon I could see that all the sugary crap was sending them into a crack cocaine-like downward spiral of cravings and quick fixes and aberrant behavior, but we had no other choice.  It wasn’t like fillets of salmon and quinoa were going to suddenly appear at the food stalls.  The other food offerings were spicy and hygienically dubious.

So we got them through hour after hour with bribes of junk food and lots of reassurances of how well they were doing.  And all in all they did quite well.  I mean, it was HOT.  Over 100 degrees with a fierce sun.  Considering the touts, the heat, and all the walking, our girls did pretty well.  Mom and Dad were completely burnt by the end of the day and fed up with India in a way that only a white tourist here can understand, but glad that we had seen the sights.  The beauty of the Taj Mahal is simply astonishing.  And there really is nothing like seeing it in real life.  I was also blown away with the Agra fort, which at various times served as a military garrison and a castle for the ruling elite.  The feeling there is truly one of timelessness.  The amount of detail–balanced with simple but sturdy large designs–created a true feeling of wonder in my heart.

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But our next trips will include very little sight-seeing and much more doing.  We realized that with two young kids no matter how fanciful and fun you try to make the monuments (“Madeline!  Let’s pretend this is your own magic castle!”), they’re just a bit too young for this sort of thing.  The part of the day they enjoyed the most was when Madeline got to climb up and ride a camel.  It’s all about active learning at their ages.  My guess is that in ten years will Madeline will have no memory of the Taj Mahal, but a nice one of riding that camel.  Fortunately I’ll remember both quite fondly, and most probably the heat, the touts, and the exhaustion will have faded away.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bieber

There are a few things I didn’t expect to be doing while in India.  Teaching the music of Justin Bieber is one of them.

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Some background first: As part of my Fulbright grant I’m doing a little teaching at the Gundecha Brothers’ Gurukul.  I offer a lecture every few weeks or so.   I’ll be covering a variety of topics throughout the year, including an overview of Western classical music, some basic Western music notation, tuning (including Just Intonation and Equal Temperament), and basic orchestration.

This has put me in the curious position of being an ambassador for Western music to the Indians.  I say “curious” because back home it is the reverse: I am often an ambassador for Indian music to my Western students and colleagues.  Misunderstandings abound on either side.  Many of my Indian friends believe that all Western classical music is in equal temperament, that there is no improvisation in our tradition, our music is entirely technical and devoid of feeling, and there is no melody.  All false.  My Western friends believe that Indian classical music is out of tune (actually the reverse is true, it’s often more in tune than most Western music), that there is little variety in Indian music, the voice culture is unrefined, and that Indian musicians don’t use notation at all.  Again, all false.

Indeed, it seems that my career has more and more taken the shape of being a kind of negotiator between the two traditions.  I’m even building a major non-profit organization right now with my brilliant colleague Reena Esmail, in which we will focus on artists who have created a whole new kind of music that brings together the two traditions in meaningful ways.  We are planning festivals, educational experiences, etc.  More on that later.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to Justin Bieber.

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Umakant Gundecha’s son is named Nirant, though everyone calls him Niru.  Niru is in his early 20s and he LOVES popular music and wants to learn more about Western pop music.  So I’m teaching him the basics of Western notation so that he can learn to read a lead sheet.  I’m also encouraging him to learn some different software so that he can be more effective in a studio.  I’ll eventually teach him some drums if we can find a drum set.  Finally, he wants to learn more about songwriting.

My area of specialty is classical music, but I’ve done some work with singer-songwriters, so I have an idea of how things work in that world.  The first step to learning how to write a pop song is to see how other people have done it.  So, pretty soon I will have Niru transcribe some Justin Bieber songs (his favorite artist) and we’ll analyze them.  We’ll use both the Indian Bhatkande notation system that he knows, in parallel with Western notation.  That way he can reinforce his Western reading skills.   After we’ve analyzed a few tunes, he’ll try to make some of his own.

Again, something I NEVER expected to be doing in India!

Walt Whitman and Dhrupad???

In traditional Dhrupad music the performance typically follows a fairly standard format: alaap, jor, jhala, and then a composition.  The first three sections are sung with syllables like “ree, ruh, nuh, toom,” etc.  Some scholars believe these have roots in an ancient Vedic mantra, other scholars disagree.  At any rate, they don’t mean anything any more.  (Though learning to use them in the most beautiful combinations to bring out the essence of the raga is quite difficult.)
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Following those sections the musicians typically sing a composition with words.  (And this is where the drum usually enters as well, to mark the time cycle and provide additional color for the text.)  The texts are usually in some dialect of medieval Hindi (e.g. Braj, Brij Bhasha, etc), modern Hindi, or even Sanskrit.

That’s great, but the problem is I didn’t grow up speaking Hindi.  And while I can learn to speak and sing the words well enough that my accent isn’t a deal breaker, it will never feel entirely natural to me.

I’ve been working on Rag Todi with Umakantji.  After working on alaap, jor, and jhala for the last few months he sent me off to find a composition from one of the senior students.  But none of them had one.  So I wrote my own, using an English text: a Walt Whitman poem.  Several of the other students at the Gurukul though I was being a bit bold since Indian musicians usually don’t compose until much later in life, but I disagree.  After all, I’m a professional composer back home.  I know how to analyze a genre and produce music within that style.  So that’s what I did.  I transcribed a bunch of compositions from Gurujis’ various recordings and modeled my composition after them.  But I used some distinctly Western ideas of word painting.  Why not?  I’m an American!

If I do say so myself, it’s pretty good.  I sang it for Umakantji and he was receptive to it.  I told him that although I was working hard to improve my voice to the point where I could perform some day, I don’t have any delusions about becoming some great Dhrupad singer.  I would have to drop everything and move here for a long time and I’m obviously not going to do that.  Nor am I interested in throwing away my cultural heritage as a Westerner, like many Westerners have done who become involved in this music.  So I have to find my own way with this.  He seemed to understand that.  He had a few good little tips to improve the composition, but otherwise he was open to it.  He indicated that he doesn’t think English (or any of the Romance languages) are really appropriate for “traditional” Dhrupad, mainly because of the cultural ties between Sanskit/Hindi and the music.  I don’t disagree with him.  But as I said, I have to find my own way with it.

The fact is that I have the basic raw ingredients to become a fine Dhrupad singer: a good natural voice, an intense work ethic, and a lot of creative energy.  But I wasn’t born and raised over here.  While the music resonates deeply with me, the culture only partly.  There are many things about India’s culture that I love, but many other things will always feel very wrong and foreign to me.

America has its share of problems, but it’s also got some incredible strengths to it.  Our natural wilderness, our independent nature, our spirit of innovation, our intense work ethic, and so many more.  I can’t let go of those things, nor do I want to.  I’m an American who sings Dhrupad.  And sometimes that means singing some Walt Whitman!

Dog Days of Summer

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That dog looks pretty cute, right?  You might want to reach over and give him a little pet behind the ears.  But that would be a VERY bad idea.  He will bite you and he’s crawling with disease.  He’s a stray dog and there are about 50,000 of them in Bhopal, India.

Yep, you read that right.  50,000. The newspaper had an article about the stray dogs the other day.  Every day in Bhopal about 40 people are bitten by stray dogs, and most of the bites result in rabies.  It’s rarely fatal, but the treatment is painful and for the very poor it’s prohibitively costly. It is against the law to exterminate the dogs, but the city does have a sterilization team that goes around and tries to spay and neuter every dog they see.  The problem is that the team is only a few people and they only have one vehicle.  They are completely overwhelmed with work.

Dogs here are a nuisance and they are everywhere.  You literally can’t walk more than a few meters without seeing several stray dogs.  And they don’t look good.  Their fur is mangy, they’re underfed, their teeth are rotting and yellow, and many of them are lame in at least one leg.  The rich often have nice dogs as pets, but the ones on the streets are a different manner.  They yowl and scream all night long, even in our gated colony (they get in from the sides, which aren’t sealed off yet), they carry rabies and anthrax and other diseases, they wander around the streets and cause traffic problems, they urinate and defecate everywhere, and they stink.

I actually like dogs, though since I’m allergic to them I have to keep my distance, but here it’s a matter of survival.  And we have to constantly remind the girls not to get too close to them.  The LAST thing I want to do is deal with a rabies case with Madeline or Maia!  One more reminder of how very far from home we are . . .

Process versus Product

Today wasn’t my best day.  I slept poorly last night and woke up exhausted.  The motorcycle commute to Gurukul was wet and sloppy.  I was happy to see my friends at Gurukul, but I didn’t sing very well for Ramakantji and I left the lesson feeling like I had stepped back several months.

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I had to ask: why am I here?  Why am I doing this?  I already have a busy and successful life as a Western musician.  The possibility of becoming a first-rate Dhrupad singer is pretty slim given how difficult this art form is.  Yes, I have a good raw voice and natural aptitude for it, but can I really commit the time necessary? 

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I’ve derailed again.  This happens a few times a month, here in India and at home too.  The reason?  I’ve started focusing on the PRODUCT rather than the PROCESS.  It’s easy to do as a professional musician.  After all, I am in the business of selling my creative work to people.  I can’t completely ignore the marketplace if I want to continue working.

But Dhrupad (or Western classical music, or any great classical music) is an endless ocean.  One lifetime isn’t enough for even a 1/10th of this music.  It’s so deep and so complex that the only way one can cope with the overwhelming difficulty of it is to simply give oneself up to it.  Release the ego.  Don’t worry about the product, just enjoy the process. 

Once I remembered these feelings I felt that familiar glow come back.  I felt a purpose, a higher calling.  I was in a groove.  I can’t wait to get up tomorrow and start practicing and composing again.  I’m back in the game.

Teaching in India!

I recently taught my first class here in India.  My primary work here is to improve as a Dhrupad singer, but I’m also doing a bit of teaching.  I was SUPER nervous about the class.  I didn’t know how the Indian students would react to learning about Western classical music, but they loved it.  They even clapped at the end of the class!  The Indian students are much more reserved than my American students.  It’s nice not to be challenged on every single point, though I wouldn’t mind if they shared their thoughts a little more.  I’m not sure if that’s a general cultural difference or something specific to this population.Image

I teach the class about every other week, just for an hour or so.  Eventually we’ll look at musicians like Terry Riley, Rudresh Mahanthappa, etc, who are working with one foot in India and one foot in the West (which is also much of my work).  But to get there I need to give them an overview of Western music, including some basic theory and notation.

So the first class we looked at chant and early polyphony.  Gorgeous stuff.  Next week we’ll get into some Renaissance polyphony and start discussing harmony a bit.

It’s a little weird being the teacher when Gurujis are sitting there.  I’m in a bit of a limbo here since I’m a professional musician and expert on Western music, but still a beginner/intermediate Dhrupad singer and very much a student.  But it’s working out okay.  The other students are already asking me about the next class.  I’m excited to work with them again.  The cultural exchange is really happening now.