I started listening to a variety of world music when I was a teen. Folk music from Africa, South America, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and other places was a daily part of my musical diet. I had a cassette of dance music from around the world that I played until it wore out. Every summer, I would attend the world music-and-dance festival sponsored by the local university. I listened to as much world music as I did jazz, and perhaps more than I listened to classical music.
Listening to world music grew out of an overall interest in and appreciation for world cultures that began when I was very young. In elementary school, I devoured as much as I could of each issue of National Geographic that came with my parents’ subscription. Every few years, the church I attended held a missions conference during which missionaries would come and speak about the work they were doing in various places. I went to as many sessions as I could, sitting in a room full of adults, fascinated by all the pictures and stories of far-off places and people. I was so obsessed with geography my parents bought me games published by National Geographic, but my family got tired of playing them with me. I always won. (As a side note, those games are now completely outdated since the map of the world has changed so extensively.)
My husband and I recently learned about the world music department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and have been attending several concerts there over the past couple of years. The other night, we attended a concert of South Indian vocal music. I knew what to expect. I understood the level of improvisation, I knew what instruments would be there, I knew how long some of the pieces can be. I was not surprised there was no intermission. Despite all my experience, I found myself miserable halfway through the concert. I wanted to leave, but I hadn’t heard what I knew my reward for staying would be – a drum solo and some really cool singing where the singer utters syllables used in Indian dancing faster than a trumpeter can double-tongue.
That drum solo didn’t come until two hours into the concert. TWO HOURS. Two hours of constant, unrelenting tamboura drone. (Click here to see a picture of a tamboura; click here to hear a sample.) It didn’t even stop between pieces. I so wanted to get up and shout, “Stop the tamboura! Just stop it! Stop it for two seconds and let me get a breath!” I wasn’t having a problem with the music, overall. But I had never before put myself in a position of listening to Indian music for two hours straight with no break. In essence, I had never practiced going to an Indian concert, and even for me it was too much all at once.
I looked around and wondered if I was the only one who was having trouble. It seemed so. My husband was all into it, but truthfully he has a higher tolerance for annoyance than I do. (When we were first dating, I would often complain about being annoyed about something, so he decided he would point at me and tell me I was a noid. It was timely, given that Dominos pizza was using a marketing campaign with the slogan “Avoid the Noid.”) I looked around some more. No one else seemed antsy and uncomfortable. But they were all grown-up hippies (women with their natural, uncolored white and grey hair and their companions) who had probably been to a Ravi Shankar concert or two in their younger years. Some of them may have attended many concerts at the school since, as we learned, Wesleyan University has a long-standing department specializing in Indian music. In other words, they had practiced attending these concerts.
However, I am not sure that I can really get used to the drone of a Tamboura. I am one of those people who can’t handle the buzz of fluorescent lights. When I was in school, I noticed it. All. Day. Long. Discussion in class. bzzzz. Test day. bzzzz. Band rehearsal. bzzzz. When I took some classes at New England Conservatory, I noticed that the fluorescent lights there did NOT buzz! I wondered if they invested in better lights because the incessant noise would drive the students and faculty batty. In addition, my limit for sitting in one place is about an hour-and-a-half. After that, my body literally starts to hurt. I really enjoy the ability to watch movies at home. I almost always take a break mid-movie. I get up and stretch my legs, use the restroom, get a snack, and invariably ask a question or two to make sure I understand what is going on. It is especially helpful when the movie is really intense. I can take a quick break then get back to it.
It didn’t matter how much I appreciate South Indian music. I enjoyed the last half hour of the concert, but I still left with my brain scrambled as if I had plugged myself into an electrical socket all night. The sensory overload put me in a daze in which I could not comprehend conversation. The ride home was quiet as I tried to decompress. The experience made me realize that someone can have difficulty enjoying a concert while still liking the music. If I could give the performers advice, I would say “lay off a little on the tamboura. Stop it between songs. Give my ears a rest for a few moments. Add an intermission.” It would have helped.