The Sounds of Planetary Culture

Imagine over 40 young musicians from 13 countries getting together in the foothills of the Himalayas to teach each other songs from their respective cultures and play them together.

That is what I had the privilege of experiencing a couple of weeks ago: I went to Himachal Pradesh in the North of India to help my friend Barry Goldberg, an award winning sound engineer and producer, record this unique gathering. We met up in Delhi and took two buses up to the mountains. At first, it felt like a school trip. I was thrown back to my childhood, all those trips with classmates, only this time, I was the “adult”, helping our friend Suchet Malhotra, a wonderful music teacher and classically trained percussionist, who organized the trip for Ethno World. While we were there to help record the record, we also played chaperons together with the rest of the impressive crew, ensuring that our bathroom and smoke breaks did not expand into infinity loops.

We arrived at Namlang, a lovely eco-village with cute cottages at night after over 15 hours traveling on sometimes treacherous roads navigated with calm and expertise by our bus drivers, former military personnel. In the dark, we unloaded instruments and helped everyone find their cottages. The next morning was glorious. Waking up to the sight of a Tibetan temple framed by snow capped mountains. The air crisp and clear and filled with excitement. Ringing gongs to wake everyone up, we gathered for our first breakfast with chai, omelettes and paranthas.

The first assembly was stunning. Forty musicians with instruments from around the world: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium, France, Estonia, Croatia, Bosnia, America, Hong Kong, Iran, India. Some of the instruments I had never seen before, like the curious instrument from Iran that looked like an animal skull, or the side-played Nyckelharpa from Sweden. Nor had the people who ran the place. One of my favorite moments was when I joined one of the staff who was watching the musicians play. When she became aware of me, she thoughtfully pointed at the contrabass and said “That is the biggest guitar I have ever seen. It must be heavy.”

Seeing all the musicians play together was one thing, but hearing them was a completely different story. Here were local sounds that had never been played on some of the instruments from other cultures. Imagine a Belgian Accordion playing an Indian hymn or an Iranian Oud playing a Polka from Denmark.

All cultural barriers seemed to melt in their Harmonies…

Throughout the week the musicians had workshops all day to teach each other the songs they chose from their homes. And when the workshops ended, they would sing and jam into the early morning hours. It was so beautiful to see them communicate with each other. Not with words, but sounds. All cultural barriers seemed to melt in their harmonies. There were no nations, there were only regions of the earth in which sounds had been born differently due to geographical factors and centuries of culture. I remember standing and watching them play and thinking that nowhere in the world had anyone heard these sounds before. That only a few years ago, this would not have been possible. For forty people to travel thousands of kilometers to come together in this remote place would have been an impossibility. Here we were, though, in this beautiful place that felt like Shangri-La, bathed in a never before heard soundscape. As the musicians were sharing their songs with each other, they learned to sing in different languages, and although they could not speak them, singing them made them for one moment embody these frequencies, taking on each other’s cultures, and becoming truly planetary citizens.

Even on a day off, when we had to go to Dharmsala to get a special Protected Area Permit, indulging in the bureaucracy of India, inherited by the British and taken to Kafkaesque perfection, they would not stop singing and playing. On the bus, they would teach each other songs, and as soon as they were off the bus, spontaneous jam session erupted.

On one of the last days, they performed all the songs as a concert for the locals. To advertise it, all of the musicians walked up to the nearby village of Bir. Seeing them walk through the streets and seeing the reaction of the people who lived there brought tears to my eyes (it still does even as I am writing this and remembering). So pure, so deeply moving. Watching the locals come out of their houses as they heard the strange sounds in the street. Seeing them stare lost in wonder. Kids, teens, the local “bad boys”, grown ups and elderly, all equally suspended in awe and curiosity.

Artist are the Agents of Evolution

Artist are the agents of evolution, whether they know it or not. This experience most definitely drove home that point. Being with these young musicians, seeing them change and evolve during the week together, taking in each others’ cultures, and knowing that they would now take these frequencies with them as they would go back to their respective countries and become catalysts made me feel joy and optimism for the future.

Planetary Culture will not be created by Politicians

Planetary culture will not be created by politicians. The United Nations is still a bunch of nations bickering over local privileges, trade gains and national advantages. Planetary culture will come from artists around the world who enjoy learning about other cultures and by embodying them making them their own. By sharing memes and frequencies, by suspending nationalism, celebrating each culture, and creating a whole new one in the process. It was a privilege and honor to be there.

There are no national boundaries on the planet, no lines that separate us.

We did end up recording the music on the last day after they had played those songs together throughout the week. I look forward to sharing the album when it becomes available to the public. In the meantime, check out Ethno World. Expose yourself if you can to some of the sounds of other cultures. Learn to sing a song in a different language.

We now have images of Planet Earth from Space

We now have images of planet earth from space. There are no national boundaries on the planet, no lines that separate us. Nations are arbitrary, relics of empire building, today only used to segment tax farming. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we shall have peace on this planet and truly human brotherhood among all who live on this revolving rock in space.

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  2 comments for “The Sounds of Planetary Culture

  1. March 20, 2014 at 07:40

    Thank you Philip! This moved me to tears. In your recounting of events…I could feel the joy of the musicians and all those lucky folks in hearing distance. So beautiful.

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