This post is on a musical subject, so for those whom music is proscribed then look away now. Or maybe not, as you might learn something.
I was recently on the west coast of the USA and was invited by an old friend to give a short lecture to a Community College class on the subject of Music and Islam. She had been teaching a course on Islam to a group of about fifty students, mostly white, in Livermore, a prosperous neighbourhood inland from San Francisco’s Bay Area, the world’s rich crucible of American technology and lifestyle. Teachers like Sh. Hamza Yusuf had also contributed to the course so I could hardly refuse.
These students were average Americans between 18 and 25, not from the super wealthy but from the middle classes who had all driven to college in their own cars. Much of the campus was in fact a car park! I was told that the students mostly stayed for an hour then left so they could get credits for attendance.
I gave a brief account of my life’s involvement with music and how the progression from so-called rock music to North African religious singing was a quite logical progression. At all times, I explained, I was seeking a kind of musical ecstasy, inspiration, uplift….what most people listen to music for. My musical path had led me to the gates of Islam and right on through to the other side up till now, almost 45 years later. But it got interesting when I started to ask the class questions. Who knows what a cassette is? I asked. This drew a complete blank! But the mention of mp3s and Itunes brought a response. When I asked who played a musical instrument, one young man put his hand up. The only hand to be raised. He played the bagpipes! Here we had musical consumers, not re-creators or performers of music. Here there was evidently a generational problem. I wasn’t going to mention the wind-up gramophones of my childhood.
What put me on the spot was when several students asked if we could sing something from Morocco if it was so good. They had called my bluff. So myself and two friends who had come along with me sang a short qasida (song) which we knew in arabic to an up-beat kind of Algerian tune from the desert. Probably hundreds of years old. Much to our surprise they applauded. This was live singing from a living tradition and it had connected with them. But then they asked what the words meant. One of our group obliged. Yet more applause. Most of the students stayed for 2 hours, well past their normal patience thresholds. I was quite moved.
When I was young in the 1950s in the UK, every house probably across the world who had a version of European culture, had a piano in the living room. Rich people had pianolas or grand pianos. Ours was a heavily played wreck of a piano but sufficed for the playing of everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Schubert via all the popular standards of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. All played from stacks of sheet music on top of the piano. We also had a cello, an oboe, an old guitar, drums and at times a trumpet and an accordion. What mattered is that we played the music ourselves. Records and radio did exist of course but only peripherally. I now frequently enter peoples’ houses that have no musical instruments at all. A sorry state of affairs. But instead they have gigantic TV screens in the living room and Blue Ray players with 4k on its way whatever that is. But no piano and no musical instruments. Consumers of entertainment.
The world uses this wonderful technology to watch movies with expensive soundtracks – the obligatory musical accompaniment to the film director’s dream. A film without music is interesting as it is almost emotionless with only dialogue and the story line producing any kind of emotional response from within the viewer. I did a few not very notable soundtracks for documentary films in the 1990s and it amazed me how a film could be transformed by music. A functional sequence about cutting marble could be turned into a great drama or a comedy, purely by the choice of music. The film of Dracula could easily be turned into a slapstick comedy by the use of a Laurel and Hardy music track and vice versa. I’m naturally interested, ergo, in what the musical sound track is for the most important of films – my own life, the film I am in. So should everyone. Is it other peoples’ music or is it yours? Is there no music or singing to the film of your life and why not?
I disagree strongly with those religious folk who say music is forbidden. There’s beautiful music, good music and ugly, bad music. But people have to choose. What scholars and theologians dispute about is their business and they have been doing so forever and that’s to be expected. But banning music is like banning speech because some people use profanities. Absurd. The people of extremes, and we all know who I am talking about, will next pick on music and start beheading rock stars. It could happen. Well if it was within my power to forbid certain kinds of music I have many genres I would gladly prohibit. But it is not, and probably better I don’t have such a power. Loud throbbing, mindless trance music which sometimes percolates up our valley for days on end is top of that list. There’s something hellish about it.
But the ever present noise of the mechanical world from chain saws, the radio next door, helicopters, jet planes to loud PA systems is just a reminder of this crazy machine addicted world where people have been imprisoned in a kind of feudal technological universe where they cannot think or live outside the box they have been put in and use and tolerate noisy machines just because they are there. Can’t we ever just say no?
Making your own singing and music (without huge amplification please) is one place you can find out a lot about yourself and find unimagined harmony and beauty that will benefit you and your family for the rest of their lives. All yours and all free. And then after that comes the sweetest music of all – silence with nothing but the breeze and the sounds of bird song.