Why I write about music:
My parents had three albums which intrigued me: Paul Simon's Graceland (featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Enya's self-titled debut, and King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black on LP. I consider this my “foot in the doorway” toward developing an appreciation for world music and experimentalism. I had purchased my first east Indian folk music album when I was 19; it was Anoushka Shankar’s debut, Anourag. I liked the faster bits with the tabla, and it was great musicianship, but I laughed to myself about how every song seemed to start the same. Of course, I had a long way to go before I understood the form and function of Indian music, and it would be a while yet before I could truly appreciate the alap that often begins an Indian raag.
In 1999, when I was 20, I traveled through Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By the time I was in Greece, I started being aware of the functions of microtones in music. In Kusadasi, Turkey, I played dumbek for the first time, with the shopkeeper. He threw in a rhythm in 9/8, and I couldn't follow his playing. The rhythm stumped me, and I grew to respect the music and the culture that developed it. The next few years, I continued to feed my interest in it. I came to think:
No matter what the culture, no matter what the instruments, all musicians and artists throughout the world are performing the same function, engaged a universal need to communicate the beauty of both their sorrows and their joys -- things that no human experience is without. You don't need to understand the Turkish language, customs, or history in order to feel what an oud player's taksim is “saying.”
In that sense, I began to feel that music was a form of communication that, if not higher than language, fulfills a need in a way that language often cannot.
In 2004, I entered the Army, practicing dumbek and still playing guitar -- thought it exclusively be a nylon-stringed classical guitar at that point. As a line medic, I grew close to the infantrymen whose characters I had grown fond of, and who would look to me for aid if wounded. In 2007, I deployed with my infantry unit to Iraq for 15 months. Things changed. I marveled at the essence of a good portion of the men – specifically, how much a good portion of their morality changed because their geography did. In some people, the well-being of the Iraqi people was unimportant, or at least, “negotiable.” And of course, no war is without a sample of the sadistic soldiers. You might say they considered Iraqi people like cheap toys. It wouldn't matter to some if they "broke" those toys, because in the end, when the Army unit goes back home to America, it's like nothing ever happened.
I couldn't think that way. When I thought about a foreign country or culture, I'd personalize it. I'd think of what their instruments are, what their music is like, and how much there is to learn (about both music and myself), through seeing another culture at work, and in hearing the universal messages in their particular style of music. I took a lesson from an interview with Joseph Campbell, where he was addressing Native Americans, and how the natives perceived all aspects of life – even trees and rocks – to have an “essence” or soul or consciousness that warranted respect from humanity. (Surely, that is a wise way to approach the world, as any research into the precursors of climate change, or the dustbowl, or the Minimata disaster might indicate.) In a manner of speaking, all elements of the planet were not simply “things” or an “it,” but instead a “thou.” Campbell followed up this point by saying, “...when you go to war with a people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those [foreign] people into ‘its,’ so that they’re not ‘thous.’” In a way, Campbell was showing us how a society’s leadership, through news media, reinforces divisive thought and encourages the rationalization of mistreating of others.
It occurred to me that, in empathizing with the rest of the world through its music, I had a bit of an “emotional investment” in the well-being of the world – of people I didn’t even know. In 2006 – 2007, when news media started to portray segments of “news” alluding to potential military conflict with Iran, my first thoughts were of the Persian zarbists (or tombak drum players), Mohammad Reza Shajarian and his son, Sima Bina… the list goes on and on. I thought of the network of musicians whose music has brought me so much life throughout the years, and I thought of their families. When it came to America’s foreign interventionism, “not caring” wasn’t an option for me, yet I still had 2 more years to go in the Army
That may be a privilege of experience: my civilian travels and interests. But, that emotional investment and spiritual cord with the rest of the world is something that could be encouraged. So the purpose of my writing is aid in promoting the beauty of that which many others all around the world are doing, in their universal musical language; to help bridge a gap, and to encourage people in taking further steps toward exploring and appreciating what's at the core of us all.