Music and perspective

Last weekend our family raided the local library. I wandered into the CD section for kicks and came away with four CDs. They have a world music section that I couldn’t resist. Specifically, I checked out “The Rough Guide to the Music of the Balkans”, “The Soul of the Digeridoo”, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “Songs from a Zulu Farm” (and I also grabbed a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album, but that’s not exactly world music).

My family was amused by my selection, so I made them listen to some on the way home. I think some kinda liked the sample of didgeridoo music, but generally they were panned. My family, the Statlers and Waldorffs.

I didn’t expect anyone to like them, really. I have no idea if I’ll even like them. That’s not the point. After reading an article How To Be More Interesting recently I have decided to be a little more adventurous and try new things. New music styles is a no-brainer. I like music, and there is very little downside to trying something I don’t like other than a little time. And these come from the library–I can’t lose!

But I think my years as a music major taught me something else: You don’t have to enjoy everything. During my time in college I was exposed to a wide variety of music. Often because of the nature of the classes we were taking we couldn’t just hear something once and never listen again–there was usually a test later. But what we learned was how to listen to music–how to understand what is happening and take reasonable guesses as to why. We didn’t expect to like everything, but we did learn to listen deeply enough to like far more than we would have expected.

I’m listening to World music for another reason. I want to be an author. One of my interests lays in the fantasy genre. In fantasy one is often tasked with creating an entirely new culture from scratch. It occurred to me in doing preparation for my current novel that music can be an important part of culture, and perhaps more importantly, an instant connection for me. If I can associate certain types of music with a culture in my books I only have to put on that music to start getting into the setting.

To be able to do that I need to experience a lot of different music from a lot of different cultures. So here I am, listening to a song that sounds that sounds like it should be playing on a ragged old jukebox in a small cafe in some sleepy Aegean town. Do I like it? Well, yes and no. Some of it makes me want to put on a beret, unbutton my shirt halfway, and look depressedly hip at some corner table. But some of it is breaking through and catching my attention. I rather like the brass choir from Romania, and this Macedonian brass-and-wind band has some interesting things going on.

Because I’ve learned a bit about the Balkans through the years (largely due to the amazing work of Michael Totten), I know that their culture is a modge-podge from centuries of different influences (aka conquerors), and listening to their music is practically a quick trip around the musical world. This piece that’s on now by Esma Redzepova has a fire and primal undercurrent to it that refuses to be ignored, and I can identify influences from Muslim, Greek, Spanish, and Germanic cultures.

On the other hand, “The Soul of the Didgeridoo” album was something of a disappointment. There were some interesting moments exploring the flexibility of the instrument, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. I know a didgeridoo can produce a wider variety of sounds than that, and I would have loved to have heard it used in more ways than that. Not wasted time, though.

Whoa, what’s this. I’ve just made a new discovery. Ever hear of a cimbalon? Yeah, me neither. But this piece just started that features what I thought initially was a piano with some tampering with the strings to give it a sound even farther afield than a honky-tonk piano. It’s a fascinating sound, and later on today I’ll be heading into Wikipedia to learn more about the cimbalon. But just from the liner notes it looks like it’s an instrument struck with mallets like a stringed marimba. Imagination fodder for sure.

Mind you, I thought the Balkan music collection would be the most boring of the three, and it’s turning out to be my favorite. I’ve enjoyed Ladysmith Black Mombazo, but after awhile their songs start to sound alike. I may listen to the others again, but the Balkan collection is a definite re-listen.

I know World music isn’t for everyone. That’s not the point of this post, really. Mostly I’m just encouraging everyone to step outside their comfort zones from time to time and try something different. You might be surprised at what you find…or you might just come to appreciate your tried-and-true favorites all the more. Either way, it’s a win, right?

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6 Responses to Music and perspective

  1. Robyn Taylor says:

    I love world music and the library is such a great place to go. I’ve discovered new favourite bands and been introduced to some really awesome new music from around the world. One of my faves is a CD on traditional songs from Algeria. It’s badly recorded, but that is part of the charm. And the great thing is that, if you don’t like the music, the library takes it back and you aren’t out anything.

    • Thom says:

      I love libraries! It’s one thing I pay taxes for that I will never complain about. And, as someone studying to become a librarian, I guess that would make you one of my heroes, Robyn! (By the way, in my to-read stack is a mid-grade kids book called “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians”. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but you might get a kick out of it.)

  2. Terhi says:

    One of my ballet teachers in Tallinn used to say “you have to boarden your eyesight” (=sa pead arentama oma silmaringi). She meant we have to see and experience other things too, not just ballet. And so we went to a huge flower festival to see how florist tied flower bouquets. It was interesting and I’m glad I went, even though it didn’t make mw want to be a florist.

    You have a point. It’s never a bad idea to try new things. You don’t have to like everything, but how do you know whether you like something or not if you never try it? (That’s what we are trying to tell our kids when I have cooked something new. Hardly every works…)

    And now I can honestly say I don’t really care of didgeridoo music. 😉

    • Thom says:

      Well, in defense of the poor didgeridoo, it was never intended to be a solo instrument any more than the bass drum was. Even the didgeridoo album I listened to added at least one other didgeridoo and often other instruments to make it more interesting. Whenever it was a solo track it got old pretty quickly. Didgeridoos works best as part of an ensemble.

      Of course if anyone can offer some samples to the contrary, I’d be happy to take a listen!

  3. Robyn Taylor says:

    “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians” sounds great! I’ll have to see if I can find it. I do have a kids book about a lunch lady who fights evil librarians. What is up with the librarian-as-bad-guy scenarios?

    • Thom says:

      Probably because librarians frequently commit the unpardonable sin in a kids’ eyes: insist on quiet!

      Not all are evil, though. I understand Noah Wyle made three movies about a librarian as an Indiana Jones type. I’ve seen part of one–cheesy, but in a good way.

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