Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On the gift of music: sharing life, and love, through songs

How music brings us closer together. . . .

Last night, on the way back with my wife from a celebratory dinner at a charming local bistro serving superb French cuisine, I turned on the car radio/CD player, and instead of hearing the default news station, we were greeted with a song by Alanis Morissette, who was featured on a personally burned compilation CD (a contemporary version of a mixtape) sent to me by my daughter last Father's Day. I had discovered Alanis back in the pre-9/11 halcyon days when there was the frequent option of sampling the broadcasts of a now defunct local alternative rock radio station, on whose airwaves I had discovered a number of groundbreaking new singer-songwriters, mostly women.

Already several streams of thought are flooding my mind, but the one I want to focus on now is how technology enables us--with increasing facility--of sharing the songs, the music, we discover and grow to love with others.

It was in college that I discovered the joy of chronicling my life through the replaying of songs I had collected over the years on 7" 45 rpm discs--each of which brought back to me with riveting immediacy the general moods and modes of various periods of my life. College parties being college parties, the music of our greater generational era always served as simultaneous enhancement of both past (remembered) and present (experienced anew) moments fused together in a magical blend of nostalgia and discovery.

I think most of us know that a beloved song can be heard myriad times, often with new nuances of feeling in successive hearings, enriching on countless musical and emotional levels our experience of the song itself. This is true in solitude. But it was clear to me as a college undergraduate that playing one song, then another, hopping among years from the shared pasts (whether of years or merely weeks) of my companions, served to create a mode of communal sharing of a Friday or Saturday night that was absolutely unique. And so I found myself creating taped anthologies, for just such occasions, on my reel-to-reel Viking recorder of those beloved 45's--cutting my teeth as a DJ. And to my joy I discovered that record companies had begun to release similar collections on 12-inch LP discs, from which I could extract choice songs that I had heard on the radio in my teenage years (the 50's in particular) to add to my time-travel-tapes.

At some phase the phrase "teen dance party" entered my personal lexicon--whether in college or in my subsequent first year of sitar study in Ahmedabad, India I don't recall. But on certain hot summer nights in our flat in Urmikunj Society, my four fellow male Fulbright Tutors and I would "get down" to the sounds emanating from the 45's I was collecting from the local record outlet, Parekh's Music, of the latest American and British hits (often with only a few weeks' delay since of their American release), as well as older classics from college and high school days. No tapes in India, but there in the uniquely tranquil traditionality of Ahmedabad--the home of Mahatma Gandhi's famed ashram--we blazed and grooved to the intense expressions of youth, of rock and roll and all that, that burgeoned from America to inveigle (through those Stateside 45's pressed in India) our contemporaries in good old Nehruvian neutral and socialist India . . . .

During my second year in Ahmedabad, living as a paying guest with dear old toothless Mrs. Sorabji (my quarters being merely a curtain-partitioned bed-and-table in the central hallway of her dreary flat) I communed musically with my absent homeland through 3-inch reel tapes mailed to me by my then girlfriend, a fellow Fulbright Tutor who had returned to graduate study in the U.S. and was keeping me up to date as to the hits of the day.

Most memorably the songs of Bob Dylan, but also the Righteous Brothers and others, linked me to the cultural turbulence and vitality that was America in the mid 60's. And those songs played, seethed even, in my brain and soul in counterpoint to the priceless, iridescently complex ragas I was learning on the sitar from my ustad (teacher, maestro), the late Ghulamhusain Khan. Alone that year, I listened with the joy of discovery, and the pain of separation, to that evocative music, continuing to fill in the musical soundtrack of my own life with the anthologist's obsession noted in my previous posting.

Subsequently, my tapes--my anthologies, constantly evolving--served to energize three years of weekend parties at graduate school at the University of Chicago (1966-69), where both students and eminent scholars of South Asia drank and danced together with a heady abandon in which Krishna himself might have participated.

And then again at Minnesota (my first teaching gig, 1971-74), and Harvard (1974-83), where my career as a DJ came to full fruition, with the help of the Secretary of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, a like-minded eternal teenager, in a few weekend Dionysian gatherings, officially dubbed the CMES sock-hop, for which, as DaSilva, I spun my discs and played my tapes with dark glasses ("shades") and slicked-back hair (which in those days I still had in abundance . . . . )

Cut to last night--when my wife and I were listening to the CD personally compiled and sent with love for last Father's day by my daughter Laila (who was adopted as an infant from New Delhi in 1983), sharing the music of her own now almost totally American--but yet also global--soul. (This anthology reciprocated a tradition I had shared with her of giving her my own customized mixtapes, in the cassette era, of the songs I had loved over the years.)

And as if the euphoria created by the mix-CD from my daughter were not enough, my wife, Shubha Sankaran--stern classicist that she is in Indian musical matters, but also a free spirit in her willingness to celebrate the richness of the musics, both classical and popular, of the West--discovered in the second Alanis Morissette song an amazing example of how the most mainstream of western pop music has adopted, with amazing stealth and subtlety, the power of those aforementioned iridescent scales, beyond the simple major/minor modes of Europe and America.

But on to that, and the sharing of music on the Internet, in later posts. Prompted by my daughter's gift of music, across four decades of the differences in our ages, enough nostalgia for now . . . .

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