Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pop-Rap; Amusing and Unbelievably Culturally Valuable

You won’t find many people my age who will admit it, but it’s true; I was at one point a fan of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. I don’t feel (in retrospect) that I had too much of a choice in the matter, after all “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice, Ice Baby” were major hits when I was in 5th and 6th grade (not a period of development that is really known for independent thought in young men).  There was, of course, the allure of attending dances (where we would hear these artists along with Kid 'n Play, Kriss Kross and Bell Biv Devoe) and actually being able to interact with girls, which probably had something to do with my gravitation towards this music.

Vanilla Ice circa 1990

As my tastes adjusted (earlier, as a child I was a big fan of Iron Maiden and Metallica-style heavy metal largely under the influence of my older brothers) so did my fashion. As far as I know Vanilla Ice did not sport the emblems of any sports teams, however; MC Hammer was well known for his support of Oakland groups (namely the Raiders football team). It seemed very natural to wear the clothes of your idols, by doing so you are showing that you belong to a particular group of people, in my case, a group of people who liked pop-style-Hip-Hop. It didn’t matter, at all, that none of us were particularly interested in sports. To this day, I cannot say that I have ever watched one professional American football game all the way through (the boredom is just too overpowering). What mattered was sporting the colors of our newly-found tribe.

This was a concept completely lost on my Adult teachers, especially the males who watched sports. I remember one saying; “you should at least be able to name ONE player on the team if you are going to wear that t-shirt!” Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary, or the intellectual capacity to explain that the t-shirt had nothing to do with football; it was a statement about music.

In the end, the perceived problem was self-solving as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice gave way to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Almost overnight the emphasis on fashion shifted to flannel and torn up jeans – hair grew long and uneven – there was a palpable attempt at looking unkempt (as a side note, I remember the worst insult someone could call you in 1992 was “trendy”). For much of my life I laughed at my brief love affair with dance Pop-Rap, looking back though, the idea that these white suburban kids were trying to speak Ebonics and attempt dances that came from inner-city America actually seems charming (a sort of Utopian "everyone unites under 'The Running Man" notion).

MC Hammer's hit song "U Can't Touch This" 1990

Now, I know it is rather late in the blog to address the title "Unbelievably Culturally Valuable," but I suppose it had to be done at some point. We could assume that "unbelievable" means "immense," of course I am not using the word in this way. Very few people have anything complementary to say about this period of Hip-Hop, they look on it with a mix of disdain and humor, it is one of the reasons I started out by saying; few adults would admit to listening to this (at one point). But why? Its not like the music was of such a low quality, the lyrics weren't really more silly than other pop music of the time and although the fashion could be conceived as "clownish" other subcultures had dress that was equally bizarre. I suppose, that if we had to narrow it down, we would have to conclude it was the immense commercial success that did the music in. In many ways it created a "false majority" for the newly formed "grunge minority" (which would quickly become the majority) to rail against. Not to mention smaller independant Hip-Hop acts who felt brushed aside (3rd Bass to name just one).

New York Hip-Hop group 3rd Bass practically made a career
out of criticizing Pop-Rap. This is their 1991 hit song "Pop Goes the Weasel"  

Yes, the music was highly commercialized and yes, the clothes on Mr. Hammer, not to mention Vanilla Ice’s rat tail are absolute “what were you thinking?” moments in fashion. On the other hand, the fact that both of these artists (along with many others) encouraged young people to dance is something for which I absolutely have to give credit. I think it’s no secret that in the United States, dance is a seriously under-nourished art-form. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the Hip-Hop genre in general was a major injection of interest contributing to its survival. The fact that this music provided a social framework where I was able to meet other young people at the beginning of my adolescence is something that deserves praise (from me at least).

So, as we look back and think of ourselves doing the “running man” or the “Rodger Rabbit,” between the cringes I hope we can also smile. And while we are at it, we might try our hardest not say Vanilla Ice ruined the song “Under Pressure.” I know I can still enjoy it. Finally, perhaps we can be encouraged by the fact that within every era, there is an opportunity to glean the positive and learn from the experience. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: Going Home

My time in Detroit had come to a close. I woke up in the morning on Sunday and finished my packing. I did a final sweep of the hotel room to make sure I hadn’t left anything important behind in addition to putting a few dollars on the nightstand for the housekeeping. I went downstairs to the lobby and indulged in sausage and eggs with coffee (I didn’t see any of my fellow attendees around, so I felt as though I could get away with eating meat out in the open).  

All throughout the week, the Gurdwara had arranged for taxi drivers to pick us up at the hotel and get us to class. As I didn’t see any of my classmates around I had simply assumed that the arrangement of free cab-rides to and from was no longer an option. So I had the hotel call a local company for me and waited patiently for it to show up. The man who showed had no idea what I was talking about when I gave him the name and address of the Gurdwara. He insisted on smoking in the car and worst of all, sat in front of the building after dropping me off doing paperwork and puffing on his pipe (most Gurdwara-s have signs posted asking visitors not to smoke or consume alcohol on the premises).  Needless to say, I felt a few degrees of humiliation. Fortunately though, the man left before someone had to ask him to do so.

After the concert, a very nice gentleman taxi-driver offered to take us to the airport. I and one of the performers were and dropped off. I got a very enthusiastic hug from the man (whose name I did not catch) before being sent on my way. It had been a very eventful week, and in some ways a much needed break from the reality of my life at home (my wife and I would be in the process of moving for the second time in one year).  I would always be grateful for the effort of my fellow classmates to make an outsider feel welcome. It was a profoundly enlightening experience both musically and culturally, best of all, now it is an annual event and I am very much looking forward to next year’s retreat and camp. 

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: The Final Performances

The last two days of the retreat there were concerts held at the Gurdwara featuring the musicians from Raj Academy. They looked magnificent on stage, dressed in white with their turbans sort of floating above them. The sound was orchestral too, a beautiful chorus of voices mixed with all the instruments from Guru’s court.  They performed with a passion that I just wanted to absorb there in that large hall.

I had been at the Gurdwara all day, so when it came time to get ready to watch the performance I entered the hall and sat where I normally did during class. As people shuffled in I noticed a lot of women sitting by me and a great deal of men on the other side of the room. As you probably have guessed, in this Gurdwara (and many others) the men and women are on separate sides. I moved over to sit with a friend I had made and more people filled the hall until it was far beyond capacity.

Both of the concerts occurred before it was time to “put the Guru to bed.” At the Gurdwara, there is a ritual for retiring the Sri Guru Granth Sahib for the day; it begins with some call and response and a whole lot of bowing and standing. This was the first time I had ever seen any type of Sikh service, so I basically resorted to doing what my neighbors did. To my eyes, the closing ceremony was involved with a man chanting and what looked like a very exact way of folding the book inside its cloth. Then, the men (one with the SGGS on his head) walked out of the room and people bowed as they passed.

I was reminded of something Acharya S had said in an interview. That was (to paraphrase); when you are raised in a certain faith/culture, it is easy to assume that others, of different faiths or cultures can’t be as devout as you are. Being in a climate of so much reverence shouldn’t have been such a shock to me, but somehow I found myself consistently marveling at the devotion that was surrounding me. The service was beautiful and the impression it made on me served me very well the next time I was in the Gurdwara.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: The New Arrivals

The next day we received the incoming students. They really couldn’t be more diverse in terms of age and experience with music.  There were complete families who wanted to expose their children to the traditional Sikh instruments as well as young adults very stern in asserting their Sikh heritage. I couldn’t help but marvel over Raj Academy’s ability to pull this week off, as an instructor, I tried to imagine getting my students’ families to commit to something like this. I somehow doubt that would have ever happened.

I was paired with both a young man who had recently been to India and purchased a dilruba, and later with an eight-year-old girl whose parents asked me to lend a hand. Everyone seemed hyper-devoted to learning as much as they could in a short period of time, and I thought about how much concentrated practice benefits students. Over the course of the next three days, most people attending were able to achieve rudimentary ability in their instrument of choice.

With the new students; new compositions were introduced that were fairly simple, but nonetheless beautiful.  I was asked by my tutor to go off and practice alone instead of staying with the group – so I found a small room off the main hallway connecting the chambers. I was working on my Shabad-s diligently when I could hear the entire room singing. I scrambled to get my handheld recorder and rush in the room to get a recording but I was too late (not to mention the strange looks I got from bursting in on their practice).  It was a lovely sound though, there must have been a couple hundred instruments all together; sarangi, sarinda, dilruba, rabab, taus and jori all playing together underneath the chorus of voices. It is a sound I have taken with me, even for lack of a recording.

During these final few days of the retreat, the members of the Gurdawa were honoring a man who had recently passed. They were taking turns reading from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib* in a very continual-chant-like tone, very different than I heard from Professor Singh. It was a beautiful sound, but of course to me it was just sound. I felt somehow cheated that I didn’t understand the poetry.

*Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Sri Granth Sahib Ji (also called the Adi Granth or Adi Guru Darbar) is more than just a scripture of the Sikhs, for the Sikhs treat this Granth (holy book) as their living Guru. The holy text spans 1430 pages and contains the actual words spoken by the founders of the Sikh religion (the Ten Gurus of Sikhism) and the words of various other Saints from other religions including Hinduism and Islam
(From Sikh Wiki http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Guru_Granth_Sahib)

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: The Next Two Days

As much as I fell in love with the Raj Musicals dilruba that was loaned to me, I was grateful to get back my own instrument. It had been repaired masterfully and no one looking at it would ever know that it was in such bad shape just 24 hours earlier. At this point some minor feelings of guilt returned for feeling so frustrated and hopeless at the beginning of my stay in Detroit. But I also felt encouraged as now, I was completely back on track.

The routine was (for the most part) the same over the next few days. Every morning was begun with listening to Japji*, then light yoga. From there we moved on to “super-sense” which entailed playing our instruments and singing blindfolded (a task I found monumentally difficult), and more study after that.

I didn’t understand the words to Japji* at all. But on the second day, a friend that I had made was kind enough to loan me her iPad which had a translation, so that I could follow along. I was very taken with the melody that Professor Surinder Singh was singing, the fact that he had a deep love and devotion to the text would have been apparent to even the most mundane.  

It is true that at the time of attending this retreat, I had not been the most healthy. My stress levels were beyond nominal as I had been unable to find work in Eugene, Oregon where I was living. At this point also, I had begun to  go through a rigorous series of dental cleanings which were quite painful and all around unpleasant. So, needless to say, the yoga sections were anything but easy – somehow though, I powered through.

On the fourth day we would be welcoming new arrivals, beginners who were attending the camp to get a taste of playing Gurmat Sangeet. It had been a few months since I had last taught, so I was a little apprehensive (especially being one of the very few non-Sikhs there) but my tutors were ever-reassuring.  

*Japji Sahib is the first sacred composition found in the main Sikh holy scripture called the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a famous and concise summary of Sikh philosophy which was compiled by the founder of Sikhism and the first spiritual guide of the Sikhs known worldwide as Guru Nanak. (from Sikh Wiki http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Japji)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gurmat Sangeet Outreach Retreat and Camp: The First Day

We were asked to wake up around 7am. Of course I had flown all night and slept during the day when I had finally made it to Detroit the day before, so my sleep schedule was somewhat out of whack. I was excited to see what we would be doing over the next six days, so I showered and packed up my broken dilruba, then headed to the lobby/breakfast area of the hotel. I hadn't eaten very much the day before (the area was severly wanting for restaurants or grocery stores) so I was very hungry and the allure of  bacon and eggs was very tempting. But being surrounded by Sikh vegetarians everywhere I looked made me a bit on edge about my normal meat-consumption. It was a far wiser choice that I have begal/cream cheese/fruit.

The Gurdwara where the retreat would be taking place was kind enough to supply us with taxis leaving from the hotel. I sat with a group of young people who all seemed to know each-other, their conversation and mildly goofy behavior made me realize just how much I missed working with teenage students (at this point I had been out of teaching for a few months). It was a fairly short trip and the scenery was genuinely lovely. The Gurdwara was converted out of a high-end spa which had a lovely ambiance to it.

Registration was under-way. I was asked to tie a scarf over my hair (men and women must cover their heads inside) which was provided to me. After, I proceeded to the areas where the classes would be taking place and was promptly given a loan-dilruba while mine was being repaired. My loan instrument was absolutely beautiful - a Raj Musicals model with a lovely black sheen and perfectly weighted (later I would learn that one of the sellers of Raj Musicals instruments in the US was attending). Over the next 6 or so hours we would play through various exercises on our instruments, attend a lecture on music theory, go through a very rigorous master class and begin learning our first Rag for the retreat.

Lunch and dinner were provided by the Gurdwara and the food really could not have been better. I had heard that a core aspect to the Sikh community was hospitality and providing meals but I was not prepared for how generous and well-made everything was. The food was all vegetarian (of course) and very flavorful. When approaching the eating area, I felt a little bit like my first day of Junior High, not really knowing where and with whom to sit. However; it seemed like everyone was really going out of their way to make me feel welcome (something for which I will forever be grateful).