“Quelle monotonie intolérable à nos oreilles! dira-t-on. Soit; mais il ne s’agit point de nous”. That is what the famous French musicologist Alexis Chottin wrote in 1939 about Moroccan music. Translated a bit freely: “One would say: `What an intolerable monotony for our ears!” So be it; but this music is not about us.”
I use his quote as he motto for my lessons on non-western music. Yes, music may sound strange to us, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe it makes sense for other people, and often, through finding out why it makes sense for others, it starts making sense for us also. And not necessarily the same sense, I add hastily, but that is also what music is not about – it is not about a particular kind of sense, it is about sense; as it is not about good taste but about taste, as I wrote earlier on this blog.
This sense-making thing is interesting. I remember sitting next to an accomplished Indian musician listening to an early Mozart symphony in an open air concert. Easy listening on a warm evening, one would say; but afterwards my companion confessed that although she now had something like forty years of experience listening to Mozart she still could not feel she really understood this music in the way she understood Indian ragas.
And I remember sitting in a bus driving through Jordan. The bus driver played a cassette with Arab music influenced by flamenco. It reminded me of holidays, sunny beaches and Rioja – you may know the connotations Spanish music has here in Holland. For the bus driver, though, the connotations were slightly different: the Spanish sounds transferred him to a time when Spain was the centre of power of the Western Arab Empire; days when the Arab world was a world power, leading in art and science. He confessed it made him melancholic.
In the lesson I teach on Arab music sense-making often becomes a central theme. For some reason many students proclaim already beforehand that “the” Arab singing style for them is incomprehensible and puts them off (what they don’t realize is that it is very comparable to the singing style used in current RnB and soul). And I must say I feed into the idea of sense-making consciously, choosing a radical heterophonic Moroccan classical music fragment as one of the central pieces of the lesson. No harmony whatsoever; a melody that is ornamented and improvised upon so radically that sometimes it seems to disappear completely; and a bunch of excellent musicians who on the video seem to sing and play the music rather off-handishly, looking around them while playing as if they would rather have the afternoon off. And on the agenda: try to make sense of what is going on.
It’s not so easy. I remember standing in a record shop in Morocco, asking recommendations from the shop keeper. He got wildly enthusiastic, playing one fragment after the other of for me unknown singers from all over the Arab world. All completely different styles and genres – but for him the major point in all those fragments was that all those singers knew how to intonate the modes they sung in, and especially the quarter tones in it, with precision and emotion. Some quarter tones nearly made him weep.
It is like watching a game of cricket as a foreigner. A guy hits the ball with his bat and it flies through the air and disappears out of sight. You jump out of your chair and start to cheer and applaud but the rest of the very English audience mutters something under their breath and stays seated firmly. The next batter kind of misses the ball nearly completely; you mutter something under your breath while the rest of the audience jumps up and starts to cheer and clap like mad.
The only thing to do, actually, is to accept that cricket exists in this world. And to try to understand why.