Marked with Musical Notes – Part 13

This is the last segment of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 13

Reflections: Earth

Deep within the earth, near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, lies the world’s largest musical instrument. The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans three acres of the Luray Caverns and can be heard through all sixty-four acres of the cave. In the 1950s, engineer Leland Sprinkle tapped over 2,500 stalactites of different sizes with a rubber mallet to test their sound, finally choosing thirty-seven for the organ. When an organist presses the instrument’s keys, an electrical signal travels via a solenoid to a mallet that strikes the corresponding stalactite.

While a pipe organ is an aerophone, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is a lithophone: an instrument whose sound comes from a struck piece of rock. It sounds more like a xylophone or bells than a conventional organ. The tones echo through the cavern, producing a sound that is eerie, beautiful, and peaceful, all at the same time—music from the belly of Earth.

Today, Earth and her inhabitants cry out, oppressed by greed-fueled devastation, disease, and deep-rooted injustice.

Bono, activist and lead singer of U2, reportedly said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Such a bold quote begs examination. Does music actually change people? What can music do for us now?

Music usually accompanies social movements and change. Music by artists such as The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan encouraged and inspired those fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. Rock music was instrumental in helping Czechoslovakia through the Velvet Revolution, its nonviolent transition from communism to democracy. Songs such as “La Réveil de Peuple” and “La Marseillaise” fostered unity during the French Revolution. Obviously, not all social movements end well. Music is a tool, and it can be used to spur one to progress or spread propaganda. Musicians capture it all in song for later generations.

Music therapy addresses mental, behavioral, and physical issues. Sufi music was used in the Ottoman Empire for centuries to treat the mentally ill and restore balance to the humors. Different Ottoman musical modes affect the body and mind in different ways, such as making patients sleepy, reducing fever, dispelling lethargy, or even helping patients lose weight. The tradition has been revived in modern Turkey to complement conventional medicine.

As music heals the individuals of Earth, it heals communities. Numerous musical initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the Mostar Rock School, the Pavarotti Music Centre, From Woman to Woman, and the Youth Cultural Center Abrašević, seek to bring people of different communities together and heal the wounds of the recent past.

A group of artists called the ClimateMusic Project wishes to save the world—literally—by raising awareness of one of the earth’s most pressing issues: climate change. They produced a thirty-minute interpretive audiovisual piece called “Climate,” which illustrates the earth’s climate over 500 years, beginning in 1800 CE. As the piece continues into the earth’s future, it projects two possible scenarios. The visuals come from the Community Earth System Model and illustrate the ocean’s pH and the earth’s CO₂ concentration, which is reflected in the tempo of the music. The earth’s temperature is reflected in the pitch, and the earth’s energy balance manifests as distortion in the sound. Response has been positive so far and audience members are intrigued, but will it produce real change? Will it transform people’s opinions and actions?

We cannot predict the future, but we can listen, educate ourselves, and promote positive change—and art. Whatever lies ahead, music will be there to document it and give us hope and, perhaps, solidarity. The path forward is always marked with musical notes. Let’s make sure it leads us to a sustainable and bright future.

Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 12

I haven’t had the heart to post this past week because of all that’s been going on, but after the Lotus Festival this weekend I think it’s time. Music is, after all, a way to get to know one another. Be well!

This is Part 12 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 12

Spain: Fire

Across the fire, my co-worker strums his guitar and sings “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. Hundreds of small bonfires light up the beach. People sit around them and sing, cook shish kabobs, or make wishes and jump over the flames. Locals also tell me that my wishes will come true if I step into the sea tonight or place laurel leaves under my pillow.

The last suggestion is futile because it is 2:00 a.m. and we do not appear to be leaving any time soon. Our group contains about twenty people, but I only know three of them: a co-worker and my flatmates. We leave at 5:00 a.m., but it is La Noche de San Juan and, instead of heading home, everyone stops at a dance club. I sneak away to walk home but, new in Valencia, I lose my way and end up taking a taxi, finally getting to bed at 7:30 a.m.

La Noche de San Juan, or St. John’s Eve, falls on June 23rd. It coincides with the Northern European Midsummer traditions, marking the summer solstice. Many Midsummer celebrations also involve fire. According to pre-Christian tradition, supernatural forces and monsters walk the earth on this night, making it an auspicious time for divination and making wishes. The fires serves to keep away the evil spirits.

La Noche de San Juan is far from the only holiday that involves fire jumping. Hıdrellez, also called Ederlezi (Khidr and Elijah Day), and Đurđevdan (St. George’s Day) are celebrated across Turkey and the Balkans in late April or early May, depending on the calendar. Despite the religious names, these holiday traditions, like those of Easter, come from pre-Christian and pre-Islamic spring rites and include lots of music and dancing, picnics, and making wishes. Many people observing Đurđevdan build bonfires. Those celebrating Hıdrellez build smaller fires and leap over them in hopes of warding off disease for the upcoming year.

Iranians jump over fires the night before Chaharshanbe Suri, or Red Wednesday, which is the last Wednesday before the spring equinox. The practice originated in ancient Persia and is believed to purify one of sickness, as heard in the chant spoken as one jumps: “Give me your fiery red and take my yellow from me,” red symbolizing health, and yellow, sickness.

No one jumps over fires during Čarodějnice (Witches’ Night), celebrated in the Czech Republic on April 30th. The fire is much too big for that, as its purpose is to burn an effigy of a witch so that spring can come. The largest witch burning in Prague takes place in Ladronka Park, accompanied by a live rock band as little girls run around dressed as witches. The German equivalent is Walpurgis Night, which Faust attends with Mephisto in the Harz Mountains. I wonder if Faust and Mephisto would feel at home in Valencia tonight.

Fire is deadly, destructive, and difficult to control, but it also keeps us warm in winter, gives us light, and cooks our food. Symbolically, it represents anger and desire, danger and the comforts of home, magic and purification.

Continue to Part 13.

Image by Daniela Morescalchi from Pixabay 

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 11

This is Part 11 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 11

Bosnia: Water

In the forests of Šuljaga Mountain, a spring bubbles. Its water courses through a series of pipes until it reaches the village of Prusac, in western Bosnia.

It wasn’t always this way.

The year was 1510 CE. A severe drought hovered over Prusac. An Ottoman dervish named Ajvaz-Dedo (Grandfather Ajvaz) managed to find the mountain spring, but a seventy-meter boulder blocked the water’s passage. Perhaps inspired by Moses, Ajvaz-Dedo prayed in front of the boulder for forty days, beseeching God to split it so the villagers could get to the water. On the fortieth day, he dreamed of two white rams engaged in combat. When they collided and locked horns, they cracked the rock. Upon waking, Ajvaz-Dedo found the boulder had split, forming a canyon and revealing the water beyond. He ran wooden pipes through the canyon and brought water to the village.

Šuljaga Mountain and its spring are now the site of the largest Muslim pilgrimage in Europe: Ajvatovica. Far from a solemn affair, the annual Ajvatovica festivities feature a parade with horses and flags from different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, music and dancing, sporting events, coffee and tea, prayers, and a trek through the rock to the spring.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to a large number of natural springs that provide its residents with fresh, clean water (their sparkling water was voted the best in the world). But pollution is starting to wrap its tentacles around this small country as well.

Water gives life. Most of the world’s metropolises were historically built near seas, lakes, and rivers. In his masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić describes the construction of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. In the stories that follow, the bridge and the rivers—the Drina and the Rzav—play a central role in the lives of those who live nearby. Musicians celebrate Bosnia’s rivers in songs such as “Miljacka” and “Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu.”

Many local and world religions include belief in water deities and spirits. People have offered sacrifices to bodies of water and their deities in return for a flood-free season, a large catch of fish, or protection at sea. Water sustains life.

Water spirits can be mischievous or even dangerous. The vodyanoi, or vodník, is a male water spirit found in various Slavic traditions, known for drowning people, destroying mills, or simply drinking beer with the locals, depending on the place and story. The rusalka, a female water spirit, is credited with granting fertility and with luring young men into the depths. The Scottish kelpie can take the shape of a horse and carry its rider to a watery grave.

In May of 2014, Cyclone Tamara hit the Balkans, dumping three months’ worth of rain and causing the Sava, Bosna, Kolubara, Drina, and other rivers to flood. At least sixty-five people died and tens of thousands were left homeless. Water takes life.

Continue to Part 12.

Image by Lisa McCarty from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 10

This is Part 10 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 10

Reflections: Air

Musical instruments that use vibrating air to produce sound are called aerophones. These range from bagpipes and accordions to saxophones, trumpets, and flutes. Flutes are among the oldest musical instruments that are still in use today. The Persian and Turkish flute, called a ney, was traditionally carved from a reed, though a modern neyzan may play a metal or plastic ney. The ney features in the first poem of Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi, his last, and probably most famous, work. It begins:

Beshno az ney, chon hekayat mikonad. Az joday-ha shekayat mikonad.

“Listen to the ney as it narrates its story. Of separation, it laments.”

The ney continues its story in the next lines, grieving how it was ripped from its reed bed and asserting that, ever since, its song has brought men and women to tears.

Of course, Rumi uses the ney as a metaphor for the human being: we were plucked from the divine presence and consigned to Earth, and our souls long to return to their Beloved. It has been years since I have sat in a group zikr, and my heart laments like the ney.

Rumi’s ney uses art—music, in this case—to express its grief. So do we. This is a hazardous undertaking, as we risk producing a navel-gazing saga. However, sorrow and depression constructed the Taj Mahal, The Bell Jar, Francisco Goya’s black paintings, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Western music employs major and minor keys, fast and slow tempos, and rising and falling tones to convey different emotions. In Persian music, the dastgah system is a skeleton on which musicians build and improvise a melody. A dastgah, literally “position of the hand,” prescribes a scale, a theme, and musical phrases. Musicians often use a relatively upbeat dastgah called Mahur during celebrations. Homayoun, on the other hand, conveys pathos. A group of Iranian scientists found that not only does Homayoun activate an area of the brain responsible for emotions, but also part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, associated with decision making.

Continue to Part 11.

Image by Bob McEvoy from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 9

This is Part 9 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 9

Spain: Xátiva

Orchards and farms race past as I gaze out the window of Abu Bakr’s big green monster van, the one he uses to transport furniture for work. We are on the way to Xátiva, a town one hour south of Valencia, for a zikr in the home of Abu Bakr’s friend Hamza.

This will be my first zikr and I am nervous. What will I have to do? Were “those people” right about Sufi practices? Am I ready?

The sun is just disappearing behind the hills as we enter Xátiva. Abu Bakr tells me most of the buildings still face Mecca. A castle with pre-Roman and Latin foundations crowns Monte Vernisa, a nearby hill. A thirteenth-century hospital, a food market, and numerous fountains adorn the city. They beckon dimly, and I promise myself to return during the day before I leave Spain (it’s a promise I will not keep).

Hamza is authorized by his and Abu Bakr’s Naqshbandi shaykh(spiritual leader) in Cyprus to lead the zikrs in the Valencia area. I picture an elderly, austere man with a long, sparse grey beard. It will be a small gathering this time, probably just three or four of us.

Hamza’s wife greets us and feeds us gazpacho. I haven’t learned to like this cold vegetable soup, so beloved in Spain. I eat it to be polite.

We finish the soup and enter the sitting room. I feel as if I’ve stepped into 1967. The heady aroma of incense fills the room, and six or seven children peer at us. In the center towers Hamza, massive and definitely not elderly or austere-looking. A ponytail and a full, dark brown beard frame his broad face, and he wears an assortment of medallions over his navy blue robe.

Hamza leads us upstairs to a smaller room with rugs and cushions on the floor, lit by only candles. We pray the sunset prayer and sit in a circle. Hamza starts reciting some familiar verses from the Qur’an. I glance at Abu Bakr. He recites along with Hamza, so I do too. Hamza’s powerful voice intones the names of God. I would find out later that the shaykh told Hamza to compose melodies for these litanies that fit Spanish musical aesthetics.

We recite the one-syllable names slowly, elongating the vowels. The tempo quickens. “Haqq. Haqq. Haqq.” (Truth.) I squirm a little. The ritual is new to me, but I soon relax and rejoin. We recite some praise formulae and supplications before finishing. The session has lasted forty-five minutes.

We drink black tea and talk for an hour or so before Abu Bakr and I say goodbye and start the quiet drive to Valencia. My blood is humming. I go to bed at 4:00 am and manage two hours of sleep before work.

Despite the lack of sleep, I am full of energy.

Continue to Part 10.

Image by Renate Anna Becker from Pixabay 

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 8

This is Part 8 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 8

Bosnia: Blagaj

The lofty stone cliff dwarfs the 600-year-old tekija, or dervish house. Neat, square, wood-trimmed windows line the white walls. A small gift shop occupies the entryway, but on the second floor, quiet reigns. Vibrant carpets in diverse colors and patterns cover the floor, with low couches and pillows resting against the walls.

A bare room for washing before prayer features a small dome in the roof with stars cut into it, allowing the light to stream in through the different hues of stained glass. All of the other rooms have ceilings of dark wood. Delicate carvings and painted designs of flowers, stars, and moons decorate the ceiling in one room.

A terrace overlooks the deep turquoise Buna River. Its source lies deep inside the karst cliff, and it emerges from a dark cavern in the rock face. The water is clean and ice cold, and beneath its surface swim rare species of fish. A sharp-snouted rock lizard clings to the terrace above the river, sunning its yellow-spotted body and teal and grey striped tail.

The tekija contains the mausoleum of Sarı Saltık, a semi-legendary dervish. It is doubtful that he is actually buried inside the tekija. Per legend, his will stipulated that eight coffins be sent to different parts of the world so that no one would know which one held his body.

After World War II, the Socialist Yugoslav government outlawed dervish practices, but they were revived later, and Sufi zikr takes place regularly in the tekija. It is now a pilgrimage site, as well as a tourist attraction. Once a year, devotees from all across the region gather for a large zikr program outside the tekija. It starts in the afternoon. People sit near the tekija, some of them under umbrellas, listening to speeches by imams, muftis, scholars, and writers. Then come the devotional songs.

“Remembrance” is the literal English translation of zikr, also spelled and pronounced dhikr, with the same sound as the English word “this.” In a religious context, zikr is the remembrance of God, whether on your own or in a group, silently or loudly, still or in motion, even while engaged in one’s daily activities. In this and similar zikr ceremonies, people gather to recite together the names of God, various litanies and supplications, and praise.

A circle of men in the center, wearing caps and black vests, lead the songs as the men and women in the outer circles join in, sway, or just listen. The song ends, and the sound of the river’s cascade fills the air. Everyone lifts their hands before their faces to silently supplicate, passing their hands over their faces when they finish. There is a break for prayer as the sun goes down. The zikr starts. The men in the center sway in unison, slowly at first, and chant in one voice.

The hadra, a form of zikr with vigorous movement, is based on the idea that repeated motions, rhythmic breathing, and chanting help the devotee focus their attention on the Divine. Participants in the inner circle bend sharply forward and backward in unison as they breathe and chant in time with their movements. Some sing, forming a complex harmony with the chanting. Most hold their right hands over their hearts. As well as harnessing the collective energy of the group, the hadra produces a sensation that the body is moving on its own and the participant is liberated from it. 

Those in the outer circles join in, according to their levels of enthusiasm and familiarity with the rituals. Some remain seated and follow the motions in a more subdued way. Though the space is crowded, there is room for everyone—those who wish to find God through movement and those who prefer to do so through stillness.

It is dark now, but lights shine on the white walls of the tekija and reflect off the river. They throw long shadows up the face of the cliff, which rises until it disappears into the night sky along with the reverberating melodies.

Continue to Part 9.

*I wasn’t able to get many good pictures of the tekija for some reason. What little photography skills I possess seem to have been “off” that day. I’ve posted a few pictures below, but feel free to Google “Blagaj tekija” for some better ones.

Image above by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Images below are my own.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 7

This is Part 7 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

I mention the Lotus Festival in this section, and I’m pleased to learn that it will take place this year, partly virtual and partly in a socially distanced environment. Check it out!

Part 7

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 7

Reflections: Enthrallment

Six people link arms and dance in a circle under the tent that stretches across Kirkwood Avenue. Around them, others dance, talk, or listen to the Boban Marković Orkestar, a Balkan brass band. The songs played by the twelve Roma musicians from southern Serbia defy anyone to stand still.

Outside the tent, the white Sample Gates beckon. Beyond them lies the sprawling Indiana University campus. For five days every September, Bloomington, Indiana, hosts the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival, one of North America’s oldest world music festivals.

Music is a bridge. People who know very little about another culture see that community’s music or food as an easy and non-threatening first step in getting to know a new group of people. The Lotus programs include a food-based fundraiser, fun and educational activities in local schools, a visual arts workshop and, of course, the annual music festival.

In 2002, the Boban Marković Orkestar is one of the brightest stars of the show. But there are thirty-four other acts from at least nineteen countries. The concerts take place in several venues within walking distance of each other in downtown Bloomington, including theatres, churches, nightclubs, and tents.

Another year, I attend a performance by the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group, led by the nephews of legendary Qawwali performer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is a unique form of Sufi devotional music, originally from Pakistan and Northern India. A Qawwali ensemble includes several singers, typically with one or two main vocalists who lead the others in a call-and-response pattern. Most modern ensembles are accompanied by tablas, a reed organ called a harmonium, and hand clapping.

The high-energy hand clapping establishes the outer time of the music, or the beat. The heart of the music, however, can be called inner time. Led by the vocals and harmonium, it allows space for improvisation, collective feeling, and individual impressions—and trance.

The lyrics deal with divine love, often wrapped in earthly metaphor. The names and stories of Sufi saints appear as well. The subject of one of the best-known Qawwalis, “Dam Mast Qalandar,” is Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a saint who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

According to legend, when Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came from Afghanistan to Sehwan, in what is now Pakistan, the inhabitants of the city sent him a bowl completely filled with milk, indicating that there was no space for him in the city. He returned the bowl with a flower floating on top of the milk, saying he was there to spread love.

Some Qawwalis refer to the saint as Jhoole Lal, which means Red Bridegroom. The saint, who was known for wearing red (or had auburn hair), was engaged to marry a friend’s daughter. Per another legend, the marriage did not take place and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar never recovered from his grief, and never married.

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar allegedly practiced dhamal, a devotional whirling dance similar to that practiced by the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Today, Sufis perform dhamal at his annual urs, or death-anniversary, which is celebrated in Sehwan. Actually, the word urs means “marriage” because a saint’s death is the day of his or her union with the Divine.

Some people seek God through stillness. Others do so through movement. The whirling in dhamal is faster and less precise than that practiced by the whirling dervishes. It is accompanied by a racing drumbeat, and some dancers whirl to the point of trance. They seek the state of fanaa, which means that one’s self is erased or annihilated and all that is left is unity with the Divine, dying before death.

In 2018, eleven people died from the intense heat at the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The year before, many were killed while performing dhamal by an explosion orchestrated by fundamentalists whose ideals stand in opposition to the teachings of Qalandar. Love is stronger than hate, but hate rends gaping holes in the individual and collective psyche.

At the Lotus Festival, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group carries on the legacy of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, their uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and other mystical performers before them. As their voices echo around the theatre, the person next to me closes her eyes and sways in her seat. The woman on my other side pulls her knees to her chest and weeps.

I sit as still as possible until my body is a shell, like the trunk of a tree with two holes to see from. My soul moves freely within its shell, oblivious of bone, blood, and muscle. She receives the music as it rises and falls and swirls around. I am not ready to be erased. Not yet.

Continue to Part 8.

Image by Tomislav Jakupec from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 6

This is Part 6 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Part 6

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 6

Spain: Valencia

The smell of salt water and gasoline teases my nose as two flamenco dancers, a man and a woman, circle each other onstage. A fringed yellow shawl with white embroidery hangs off the woman’s shoulders as she ends the dance, hands in the air.

One thing I most looked forward to when planning my visit to Spain was watching a live performance of flamenco, even if I didn’t know how to find the “authentic” shows. The audience, seated under a shelter next to the Port of Valencia, is sparse. Unbeknownst to me until then, in Valencia, my home and workplace for three months, flamenco is relatively unpopular. Many Valencians consider it low class.

It is the summer of 2000 and I am twenty-one years old. Spain has not yet taken the euro, and I collect the twenty-five-peseta coins with the holes in the middle, the fronts and backs of which feature symbols of the different regions of Spain. Cell phone ringtones have just become ubiquitous and people do not use the internet for everything yet. Travelers are still allowed two free pieces of luggage on international flights and there is no weight limit, so I spend the money I earn at my office job on souvenirs, including a pair of castanets I don’t know how to use.

The flamenco performance is part of the July Fair, a month-long series of concerts in several venues around Valencia. I attend many more performances throughout the month, but no more at the port. Most of them take place in the Royal Gardens, a centuries-old park that was created to resemble the Generalife in Granada. Today, it contains a duck pond, statues, greenhouses, hundreds of tropical and subtropical trees and flowers, the Museum of Natural Sciences, and a chapel dedicated to Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners.

The concerts take place inside a fenced area of the garden, and you need to buy a ticket to get in. Instead, I sit beside the duck pond and listen to the music for free. I hear legendary Malian singer Salif Keita, new-flamenco band Ketama, Cuban ballad singer Pancho Céspedes, and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. I cannot see the performers, but the beauty of the gardens, the sultry evening air, and the earthy and fresh aromas of the pond and trees provide the perfect atmosphere.

I am not alone at the duck pond. Other locals and visitors relax against trees or dance to the music. One young man, a foreigner like me, asks me to marry him and promises to take me anywhere I want to go, even the moon. He insists that I am an angel sent to help him get his life together.

Another evening, I meet Quino, who tells me the police are there because someone stole two ducks from the pond. Another attendee speculates that a cat committed the theft. Quino tells me about the Sufi community in Valencia and promises to introduce me to his friend, Abu Bakr, who is a member. He does so at the Afro-Cuban All Stars concert.

Abu Bakr holds his son on his lap as the music wraps around the trees, the pond, and the people. The son’s face is serious, observant, wise. The father’s face is vulnerable, wondering, childlike. I have been unsuccessfully trying to find the Sufis at the address provided online. They are right here, at the duck pond. I simply had to follow the music.

Continue to Part 7.

Image above by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Image below mine (Spanish coins).


Marked with Musical Notes – Part 5

I hope you all are staying safe and healthy. Especially if you are in the path of the hurricane in the gulf or the wildfires in California, you are in my thoughts. And if you are out marching for justice, please stay safe. Sending love. ♥

This is Part 5 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Part 5

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 5

Bosnia: Mostar

I squint at the engraving on the mausoleum outside the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. The text is written in the Arabic alphabet, but the language is Bosnian. This script-language mix is called Arebica and was used when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Now, Bosnians write their street signs in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. The letters above the mausoleum door intertwine like tree branches in the grey stone, and I can only make out a few words: turbe (mausoleum) and the title and name “Dervish Shaykh Ishaq.”

Behind me, a woman fills her bottle from a spout on the stone-roofed fountain. Closer to the Adriatic Sea, Mostar is hotter than Sarajevo and the fresh, cool water, available to everyone, is most appreciated. Next to the fountain stand weather-worn tombstones, some with round turbans carved onto them, indicating buried dervishes. The dead are never far. Flashes of hot pink, orange, and red billow behind the tombstones, next to the mausoleum, where the souvenir shop sells pictures, tapestries, and clothing, including belly-dancing costumes, evidently for tourists who assume that every country with Muslims also has belly dancers.

I glance at my watch and knock at an office door. Singer Zejd Šoto greets me and invites me inside for the interview. Zejd has short, brown hair and bright blue eyes. He started playing the accordion at the age of four—his family wanted to instill an interest in sevdalinka and folk music over rock—and began singing with Hor (Choir) Sejfullah as a young teen. With the other boys in the choir, he performed for army events during the Bosnian War. He now performs spiritual music, mostly as a soloist, in several languages including English, Bosnian, Arabic, and Turkish.

Zejd answers his phone and tells the caller he is busy. I smother a laugh when he refers to me as a novinarka—a journalist.

After the interview, I walk back outside, into the verve of the country’s fifth-largest city and the cultural capital of the region of Herzegovina. Mostar teems with Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and communist-era architecture: mosques and churches, monuments and, most notably, bridges.

The Stari Most (Old Bridge) is Mostar’s most recognizable landmark. It was originally designed by an apprentice of the famous architect Mimar Sinan and opened in 1566. Carved from pale grey limestone called tenelija from a local quarry, the arch spans the emerald green Neretva River, one of the cleanest—and coldest—rivers in Europe. The keepers of the bridge were called mostari, and that’s how the city got its name. The Stari Most was destroyed in the recent war and rebuilt in 2004.

I look up as a diver plummets from the center of the bridge and hits the water amid applause. A second speedo-clad diver climbs the steps of the bridge in the wake of dispersing tourists. He steps onto the ledge and beckons with his hands to gather an audience. He bends his knees and looks down at the water, then straightens, turns, and beckons again. People pass without stopping, and he descends from the ledge and pulls on his clothes.

The tense, vibrato voice of Šaban Bajramović floats from a nearby music store, accompanied by the melody of Mišo Petrović’s guitar. The band is Mostar Sevdah Reunion, and they play a blend of jazz, contemporary music, and sevdalinka, an emotional urban folk genre. Šaban Bajramović is not a member of the band, but they have recorded two albums with the prolific Serbian-Roma singer. Roma in Europe suffer discrimination and abuse, but Balkan Roma musicians are prized. Bajramović, the King of Roma music, composed over 650 pieces of music but died in poverty in 2008 at the age of seventy-two.

Music unites people here, as illustrated in Ruth Waterman’s book When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo. Throughout this true account of her role as guest conductor of the Mostar Sinfonietta, Waterman uses the Stari Most as a symbol of the relations between the various ethnic and cultural communities in the region and presents music as a bridge as well.

Rock critic Anke Perković refers to music as Yugoslavia’s Seventh Republic because of the role it played in integrating the different communities of the former country. Music cannot completely heal the wounds left by the war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. But, like the reconstructed stone bridge of Mostar, it brings people together who wish to hear and connect.

Continue to Part 6.

Above image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay

Images below are mine from Mostar, 2009.

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Marked with Musical Notes – Part 4

This is Part 4 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Part 4

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 4

Reflections: Freedom

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in culture. Music, a certain type or piece of music, means something different to people in different communities, and to different individuals, and at different times. Humans use music for dancing, in rituals and ceremonies, to influence mood, and to heal.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire, singer Tshala Muana’s image has evolved from provocative siren, to Mother of the Nation, to politician. She rose to fame as one of the top performers of Mutuashi, an upbeat dance genre inspired by Cuban music.

Tshala Muana’s early performances, from 1977 through the ’90s, delighted, shocked, and scandalized audiences, due to her revealing clothing and sexy dance moves. Because of the political climate, she did not live in her home country until 1997, when President Laurent Kabila invited her to return and she became active in politics.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son, who remained president until 2019 despite the fact that his second term was supposed to have ended in 2016. Tshala Muana sang lyrics that praised the elder Kabila and continued to do so for the son, although this lost her some fans, particularly among Congolese in diaspora, due to his extreme unpopularity.

My first exposure to Tshala Muana’s music came via the CD Putumayo Presents: Congo to Cuba, which features Muana’s song, “Lekela Muadi.” The song begins with Muana’s silky voice backed by a single flute playing the song’s chorus, and then she is joined by the full orchestra. It is a medium-tempo dance song with soaring vocals, a catchy melody, and an intricate rhythm. I do not understand the lyrics, but to me, the song sounds like freedom—the way the melody floats above everything else, as if it is the only thing that matters in the world.

“Lekela Muadi” featured on a playlist I once made to listen to in the car. In my beloved blue ’94 Chevy Cavalier, speeding down M-59 with the sunroof open, there was only the music and the image of Tshala Muana dancing across the stage, no one to censure me, to tell me to be more ladylike or ask who I was trying to impress with my lipstick. All that remained was who I was and Tshala Muana’s magical voice.

Tshala Muana is far from the only Congolese musician to accept patronage from corrupt governments. Werrason, Koffi Olomide, Papa Wemba, and many others performed songs praising President Kabila. They may or may not have agreed with Kabila’s politics, but it is nearly impossible for musicians to make it in the DRC without government patronage.

Praising corrupt governments in return for patronage goes against the American definition of freedom, but it is normal in several countries. Many giants of Western classical music were supported by royal patrons whose politics their protégés may have disagreed with. Perhaps that is why many admire Beethoven, who lived for his art whether or not it brought him money, and who tore up the title page of the symphony we call Eroica because he had dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven decided that Napoleon was a tyrant, and he was not afraid to say so.

Continue to Part 5.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay