It's been a while - busy times, end of the year, you know how it goes. Soon I'm off to Kazakhstan to present a paper at the world conference for ethnomusicology. The paper will be on my shanty choir research, which runs for two years now after having been planned much earlier, and I am looking forward to present a paper on imagined sea life in the middle of a very arid steppe, in a country where the huge Aral lake has about vanished in the past decades.
Me and my wife spent last weekend in Emden, the Northern German harbor town. We like to be in Germany, for many reasons. Some of my choir members see in Germany the Promised Land of Shantymen, and at least last weekend was an argument in favor of that thought.
On Saturday evening, the Berlin Shanty Crew Kreuzberg performed at a place called Zum Nordkai. Zum Nordkai is simply a quay in Emden's harbor where a guy called Klaas has set up a small alternative - yes, what is it; a place where you can drink, eat, sit, camp, whatever. Shanty Crew Kreuzberg described their performance as 'Shanty-Woodstock in Emden', and it was. A very varied audience (fans, family, people from the neighborhood, people just happening to pass by) sat in the sun, took in the music, the view of each other, as well as drinks and various types of fish. Songs were near-exclusive in English, and from the announcements in between we could gather that the Berlin guys were not keen on commercialized shanty from the likes like Santiano or Ancora (nor were they for some reason on the GEMA, Germany's copy rights collecting organization, it seemed) and that they went for the more 'authentic' repertoire.
On Sunday morning, we went to the touristy harbor of Greetsiel because there would be music. And indeed there was: Shanty Chor Hude, a choir very much resembling the type of shanty choir I sing in, performed mainly German-language songs. Quite some people gathered as an audience, and we were welcomed by the chairman of the Commercial Society of Greetsiel. The sun shone nicely, the choir sang its songs and in between made funny announcements, and I wondered about the big differences and the big similarities between those two choirs.
I am not going to elaborate on that, but one thing was very clear: the meaning of music is not in the music. "Music is not a thing, it is human behavior", I cannot stress it enough; and this weekend that again showed. Both choirs partly shared a repertoire - they partly shared the same melodies, the some chords, the same lyrics. And at the same time, the two occasions could probably not have been more different: in the backgrounds of the choir members, the audiences, in the location, in the meanings attached to the words, the chords and the melodies. I might think the words, the chords and the melodies do the work, but that would be a mistake; but if I would think it's all in the heads, the minds, the ears of the beholders I would be equally mistaken. It's precisely in the in-between music does its work.
And I felt happy to have been in the in-between of two so different occasions in one weekend.