Still from Dhrupad – Mani Kaul (1982)
This post is dedicated to Phong Tran. Phong was among The Hum’s first advocates. If memory serves, his was the first email I received expressing support and solidarity with my efforts – helping me to understand what I was embarking on, and the potential of my reach. Over the period within which we have interacted (despite the fact that we’ve never met in the flesh), I’ve come to consider him to be a dear friend. We are connected by the power of music and the incredible community to which we both belong. He continuously reminds of why I am so grateful to have a role in this world.
Phong’s tastes and approach to sound are uncannily similar to my own. Nowhere is this more striking than our shared passion for Indian Classical music. Yesterday he sent out a tweet inquiring after a largely unknown film made by the Vietnamese trông player and ethnomusicologist Trân Van Khê about the Dagar Brother’s during the 1960’s. Though I have a number of Khê’s records, and a great many by the Dagars, I was shocked to find out that their paths had crossed. It seemed too improbable to be true. While trying to learn more, I came across this film again, made in 1982 by Mani Kaul about the Dagars and the tradition of Dhrupad. It’s a remarkable piece of work – worth every minute of the time it takes to watch.
One of the ideas that I embraced when I began The Hum, was my record collection as a sonic metaphor. That through music we are willing to approach cultures beyond our own, and that on our shelves (and in our ears) we place them into conversation with each other. Phong’s mention of Khê brought back the memory of the last time I had listened to his music – a moment which complicated my utopian view.
My better half’s mother is from Vietnam. She grew up in Saigon, where she met Jenny’s father. He worked for the State Department during the war. We’ve never been able to get to the bottom of what he actually did, he’s a steal trap – all we know is that he was responsible for burning all of the money at the U.S. embassy as the city fell, and that he left with the ambassador in the last helicopter off the roof. Two days before, Jenny’s mother had been quietly whisked out of the country – on her way to California where she would serve as a translator for incoming refugees. She left behind her life, her family, and all that was familiar. Until last month, she never returned.
A couple of years ago, while Jenny and I were still in NY, her mother came to stay with us. During that period she was struggling with the legacies of her choice to leave her country behind. The American dream hadn’t entirely paid what it promised. She had reached place in her life which seemed to demand she take stock, and wasn’t entirely at ease with what she found. On a particulary moving stroll through China Town, she become overwhelmed with emotion as we passed a Vietnamese grocery. She caught sight of foods which her grandmother had made for her, but hadn’t tasted in 40 years. With tears in her eyes, she uttered the words – “what have I done?” When we returned home, I pulled down some recording made by Trân Van Khê, thinking it was unlikely that she had heard music from her country in nearly as long. At first she was enthusiastic. As the needle dropped and sounds began to creep from the speakers, her face crunched up. With disdain she said – “Oh.. this is from the North.” At first I took it as a description of cultural nuance. That this music was not from the same place she was, and was different from the traditions that she knew. Then my memory flashed. The North Vietnamese communist government had promoted traditional music and culture as a means to combat Western Imperialism. For Jenny’s mother, these were the sounds of the forces which had pushed her from her home.
Though this doesn’t detract from the power of the music, or its cultural importance, it did leave me with questions about what I knew, and what music can carry with it. That something I heard with hope and optimism, might be bound with terror and loss for another. I was naive, and needed to learn more.
Of all the cultures of sound, none move me more than the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions of Indian Classical music. There are few things that I’ve dedicated such energy to learning about. It is one of the great passions of my life. These are among the oldest continuous forms of music on the planet. They have underscored, informed, and influenced countless traditions, across as many cultures, for the millennia that they have existed. They move me in ways that few things do – and are worthy of far more attention than they receive. To learn about this music, is to learn about where so many others began.
All Indian Classical music evolved from ancient Hindu (Vedic) musical traditions. It is a deeply spiritual music – with links to the heart of that religion. The northern and southern realizations (Hindustani and Carnatic, respectively) have different ways of conceiving Ragas, as well as the way they emphasis their meaning. The Carnatic tradition is generally regarded as closer to the music’s ancient roots, and can often be more ecstatic. The Hindustani tradition is arguably more internal, meditative, finding some its distinction from the incorporation of Persian and Islamic influence over the centuries.
Dhrupad – Mani Kaul (1982)
The Dagar family are inextricably linked to the highest and most devout realizations of vocal music within the Hindustani tradition. They are the foremost proponents of something called Dhrupad. This is the oldest form of Hindustani music practiced today. Few sounds can match its power. It is austere, slow and incredibly serious and spiritually devout. The Dagar family makes up its central school of thought, dating back at least 20 generations. The form was largely dying out, until the 1950’s when brothers Moinuddin and Aminuddin Dagar returned it to public view. This work was furthered by their brothers Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar (generally referred to as The Younger Dagar Brothers), who brought it to international prominence. Though three of the four Dagar brothers were still alive at the time this film was made, it focuses on other members of their family’s generation – the Veena player Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, the vocalists Zia Fariduddin Dagar, and a then young veena player named Bahauddin Mohiuddin Dagar, who is the son of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin. It’s truly fantastic – a well of knowledge and sound that I can’t recommend enough. If you are interested in learning more about Indian Classical music, I recommend reading my two part article Introduction to Indian Classical Music. You can find part one here and part two here. If you are interested in learning more about Phong, you can follow all of the amazing things he shares on Twitter here or check out his incredible sounds as half of The Shouts From The Sea – here and here. I hope you enjoy it all.