Talk about cultural exchange. Music is a vessel filled with influence, ideas, ideologies, and insights on everyday life; it can be an explosion of passionate feeling on important topics like wars and politics, or a simple, mindless ditty about nothing in particular. Woven into the lyrics, rhythm, and progression of songs past and present is the state of the culture, and the individual, from whence the song sprouted. Walk through the downtown sector of many American city these days, and you’ll no doubt hear the plucking guitars, drum circles, and protest lyrics associated with the Occupy movement. Poke around wine country, and you’ll hear the harvesters bellowing drinking songs about the benefits of low maintenance women. Stroll through the market in an Indonesian city, and you’ll hear live traditional music clashing bafflingly with pop tunes issuing from some nearby boombox… Is that Michael Jackson? Yes it is.
I am something of a musician in that I have some background with a number of instruments and some experience playing in groups. I have my tastes, my dislikes, but no matter what I am listening to I analyze it for timing, I listen for key changes, I try to discern the meaning in lyrics. So it can be fun to chat with new people about their music, and listen to the things they like to hear. Similarly, it is just as entertaining to try and explain to someone who’s never heard of Robert Johnson just how powerful the blues is. A musician is often surprised by the differences and the similarities of a different culture’s musical preferences. And so, as a traveler, music is a wonderful thing to be brought along and shared with those you encounter when traveling abroad, and can be used to easily forge some great connections.
During the last summer which I spent working and traveling through France, I came at one point to the home of a Vintner, the uncle of a friend of mine. He was a very large, very tan, very loud and insistent guy, and since he and everyone around me (besides my sister) was speaking French, I was a bit intimidated. After a lovely Mexican dinner (engineered by my sis), I tried to contribute to the conversations, tried to be present, but I soon tired. I heard a familiar tune issuing from an upstairs window. It was an old blues tune I knew well, and so I sang along. The big man, JC, turned to me and asked in French “You know this song?”
“Yes,” I said, “It’s Howlin’ Wolf! I love this song.”
We talked about the blues (my favorite) for a little bit, and seeing an opening, I pulled a harmonica from my pocket and offered to play a tune, or perhaps I was coerced. I played my rendition of the tune that had been playing, “Sitting on Top of the World”, and a Sonny Boy Williamson tune called “Help Me”.
After applause from the diners, JC beckoned me upstairs saying that I must see his record collection. I love records, too, so naturally I couldn’t resist. Turns out he has an extensive collection, including nearly every blues artist I could think of, and some I had never heard of. He had amazing compilation albums combining Eric Clapton with Howlin’ Wolf and Keith Moon and things like this. He had it all. So you can imagine what great fun we had the rest of the night drinking grape hooch and discussing (or trying, in French) the musical genius of Frank Zappa. I swear, this guy had seen more of my favorite American blues and rock groups in concert than anyone else I know. And he’s in France! what gives?
This rapport-building musical commonality led to my being hired by the family to help with the grape harvest some six weeks later, which turned out to be as musically fulfilling as anything. Downtime, and even worktime, was filled with musical opportunity. I learned lewd lyrics to french drinking tunes as we arched our backs and plucked grapes. I hung out with some dudes who had each brought guitars, a saxophone, trading chord progressions and ideas. And any time I was just too tired to try and understand drunken French banter, I could always just wander to some other corner of the compound and tear out some of my ready-to-play blues licks on my harmonica, which helped to keep me sane when I was feeling anxious.
One hazed evening, JC suddenly brought me to the attention of the crew of thirty or so harvest workers and said, “Why don’t you play us all some of the blues?”
I smiled, ran and got my sack-o-harmonicas, and dove right into two or three of the more interesting blues tunes I had in my repertoire, ones I could sing to. Everyone sat in silence as I sat on the picnic table and tried my best. What fun it was to be given the opportunity to show these people my favorite tunes live.
The entirety of my trip was filled with musical exchange. After dinner musical performances at the home of my host farmers and their in Normandy, listening to fellow travelers’ IPods while pulling weeds on the farm, transcribing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” into the harvesters’ song notebook, listening to a farm-girl-flutist around a campfire, writing down French rock artists I should get into and having lyrics translated in real time, trying to sing hymns in a different language at the orthodox church, talking blues with a young Briton who really should have brought his beloved guitar, playing along to French versions of Disney songs with a ukelele player.
The exchange of music is an easy way to make friends and is a very helpful tool when traveling. Think of music as a universal language. It’s more universal than math! More so than money! Everybody on the planet enjoys and appreciates some kind of music to some extent (I hope!), and some people do their part to create it. So why not bring it with you when you travel? Bring your song notebook, or a flash drive for to share your electronic music and get new stuff, buy CDs from local artists to find the flavor, and for cripes sake, if you play an instrument, bring it!
Of course, practicality of lugging large instruments is an issue. Surely, if you’re a pianist, you can find a piano somewhere to play. It’s easy for a harmonica player to say “yea, bring your instruments!” when he’s got three harmonicas in his pockets. But really, nothing beats live tunes flowing out of some exotic instrument at the hands of an exotic person, as well as trying to collaborate with someone you’ve met who’s also ready to play.
Music. It’s yet another way to share ideas and make friends. Consider it on your travels!