I brought the banjo with me simply to see how it would sound here. Would the humidity loosen the skin head and diminish the pluck, the plunk? Would anyone else want to listen? Would my tunes sound flat compared to the etherial scales of this subcontinent? Would it be an incessant drone for my travel mates?
My traveling banjo, the old Dobson Brothers, keeps coming through and here in India it is no exception. It’s such a lovely instrument. Sitting down to a tune is always a grounding force. I’m not sure it’s so much culturally grounding as it is pleasurable on the most basic physical level. Mostly, its strings have been employed in the privacy of our hotel rooms as I’m shy to take it to the streets. Eric, my nephew, who plays nicely, had the gumption to take it out in the courtyard at the guest lodge for the Tibetan monastery. He said the monks seemed quite curious. He told me it was down right multicultural, playing a Bulgarian folk tune at a Tibetan monastery in India on a banjo.
Earlier I had offered to play for the students at the Monastery. Our host, the English Secretary, declined politely with ready-made excuses. I fear that most Indians–and Tibetans, for that matter–believe the only American culture is our most crass pop culture, a corrupting force to conservative values worldwide. I can’t help but think that if we would have stayed a couple more days. we could have made arrangements with the English-speaking school principal we met. He’s traveled to the US before with the Monastery’s performing group and I’m sure has a less stereotyped view of our nation.
When I was in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year, I was struck by how everyone we met aspired to international travel. Most Indians I’ve met here have rarely traveled outside their own region and have little desire to venture out. We have made several invitations for Carolyn’s friends to visit us in the US and though they listen politely, you can see there is little desire, little curiosity. There are those who travel but they are the modern Indians who leave the country for opportunity. They are a vast minority. This may change as people see more of the world through the Internet. Every rural village has its computer lab which they are extremely proud of. However, there is something about Indian culture which is so encompassing, a world of complexity and nuance. Who needs to leave when it is so bloody interesting here?
My big debut on the banjo came at a school in the small village of Gulumb in the hills outside of Wai. Carolyn, my sister, had worked with the teachers there over the past couple of months and they were anxious to let the students hear American folk music. Because the rains have been heavy they did not seat the children on the ground in front of the school which would have been the normal assembly venue. Instead the students walked to the main covered courtyard at the local Hindu temple in town. The first photos show the place, those students, and me playing. Eric videotaped part of the performance and promises to put it on YouTube when we get back to the States or when he can figure out how to make it work here which is always a challenge.
I played a few tunes and songs with simple introductions that were ably translated by the English teacher. First was “Texas Traveler.” I asked the children to listen for the few words in the song to see if they could hear the English, “Oh, early in the morning.” Though they were not able to discern the words they had fun listening for them as they all take English classes. I then sang, “Giddyup Napoleon.” telling them it was a song about a farmer who goes to the big town where he is fearful he will be taken advantage of by the city slickers. I figured they might relate to this theme. After a couple more tunes I sang my own song, “Alone Town,” which I said was about a man so old that he knows very few people in his small town, but is acquainted with more people living in the graveyard. When I explained the song, the English teacher looked at me and said, “very sad.” The kids really seemed to enjoy the sound of the banjo, the themes of the songs, and seeing this strange big white bearded man sitting in front of them. I was thrilled.
Later in the day I had the chance to perform for the students of the Akshar Institute in Wai where Carolyn has done much of her work. This is a school for children and adults with cognitive disabilities. Before playing the students performed a wonderful folk dance. My tact for this audience was less language based and more physical comedy as I peered into my banjo case, just barely opened, as though there was a monster inside. I had fun goofing around, even improvising a tune and singing two songs that I’ve never played on the banjo before. They kept asking for more. Again, I was thrilled.
Why was I thrilled? There certainly was no fee involved, no big hype. It was just a simple act, the gift of music. When we were in Wai we could not pay for anything. We could not even look at an object with desire without our hosts insisting on purchasing it for us. We could not pay for a meal at a restaurant. Carolyn’s friends and colleagues were so devotedly generous. As it was, Carolyn was showered with gifts on her departure. The teachers insisted on having a tailor come and measure Eric and me for Kurtas. So being able to give just one little thing back, a bit of music, felt incredible.
I’ve spent my career benefiting from so much generosity. When Taki and I make radio stories, not only do people give wholeheartedly of their stories, but we have always been treated with such kindness and generosity. This happens almost every place we go and generally we are not visiting rich people. Often our stories are about people with few material resources. I love to interview people, get their stories, their lives, down for posterity. I know in the long term that the documents we record, transcribe and preserve will be a gift to the world but at the moment it always seems we are taking. We are the beneficiaries.
Music is not like that. It is an art form of the moment and when you play a tune or sing a song it is a gift to the moment. As I play banjo more and more, I am enjoying breathing deep, smelling the air, listening to the silence around me, and attempting to be part of that moment musically. I’ve never felt I was much for improvisation but when my expectations are low and I’m open, sometimes, just sometimes, wonderful sounds come out of the instrument. I know this all sounds a little woo woo, but its not that at all. Its really quite simple and direct and, by the way, therapeutic.
I know this have been a rambling post but to answer my own question, YES, the banjo is ringing, it is singing in India. From the BaBa of Banjo …