There is a rock jutting out of the Caribbean, rising like a castle from the steely blue water crashing onto its shores. The lovely sandy beaches which draw crowds to the region’s surrounding islands are missing here, replaced by uninviting rock-strewn shorelines and cliff faces more suitable for nesting sea birds than sunbathing humans. This island, the Dutch municipality known as Saba, is accessed by a rough hour and twenty minute ferry ride from St. Maarten, or a considerably more comfortable twelve-minute flight which ends in a dramatic landing upon what must be the only level place on the entire island. Most visitors come to Saba to dive, and the reef is said to be fabulous, a veritable wonderland of colorful coral and fish; a few others come to hike, for above the formidable cliffs which ring the island there sits a rainforest, featuring an entanglement of ancient walking trails, as well as Mt. Scenery, an inactive volcano rising 3000 feet above the water and whose crown is shrouded in perpetual clouds.
Roaming around on the internet yesterday, a little bored at work, I discovered that today-November 7, 2013-is the 100-year anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace. The New York Times had published a short animation depicting highlights of the explorer’s career, and another website revealed the news that Sir David Attenborough would be unveiling a statue of Wallace today in the gardens of the Natural History Museum in London. For all those who enjoy a good walk through the woods this is surely an auspicious day, for much of what we understand about those woods, and all the critters who call it home, stems from the work undertaken over a century ago by that most hardy of travelers, Mr. Wallace.
What kind of blogger on sound and environment would I be if I didn’t come out of retirement to say a word or two about the arrival of the Periodical Cicada Brood II to our great northeast? Equally obvious was that I must visit Bill Braine, my gentleman landowner friend who lives up the river in Cornwall-on-Hudson and with whom I explored the sounds of the katydid a few posts back.
(More about sapes … )
Garawat Nulun kindly allowed me to record him playing sape and singing. Garawat lives in Bario, a village with an airstrip located in the Kelabit Highlands. This mountain plateau is the eponymous home of the Kelabit tribe, an Orang Ulu group with members who also play the sape (though the number of musicians has diminished in recent years). Along with the Kenyah, the Kelabit do not typically accompany singing with instrumentation (instrumental music and vocal music tend to be kept separate among the Orang Ulu); nonetheless, there is the following wonderful recording, in which the vocalist describes a scene of two young lovers in the forest, the modest means that surround their romance, and her hopes that the man before her finds her beautiful nonetheless:
Let’s begin with some song lyrics:
I’m charged up, don’t put me down
Don’t feel like talking, don’t mess around
I feel mean, I feel o.k.
I’m charged up … electricity
-David Byrne, “Drugs”
When I first started traveling in search of traditional music I had certain ideas regarding the purity and authenticity of the music I was looking for. Traditional music, I was certain, would be untainted by contemporary influences … distinct from the pop culture that shapes conventional tastes and listening habits, apart from the fleeting aesthetics that characterize commercial trends. Most of all, I thought, it would not be electric.
It was not a realistic set of expectations. The contemporary world eventually overwhelms us all, and music–like every other phenomena in the entire universe–is subject to change over time. Traditional music, I was naively surprised to find, was made by people not unlike myself, all of whom were living in some variant of the contemporary world, and thus subject to many of the same influences. Perhaps, I’ve thought, it is only a matter of choosing to what degree a musician wishes to let music from outside their native musical culture change their that culture. An instrumentalist from any one tradition–be it a Mexican son tradition or Indonesian karanguts–might shy away from sounding like music they hear on the radio, but that doesn’t preclude other types of modernization. Can you, for example, blame a player for putting a microphone in front of his traditional instrument if it allows him to be heard by a larger audience? And how large a step is it for that same musician to go from putting a microphone in front of their instrument to attaching a guitar pickup? How profoundly might that change the sound?
Here is an unseasonable gift, a little reminder of those hot months not so far behind us: The summer sound of katydids, recorded in the yard of my friend Bill Braine’s home in Cornwall-on-Hudson, upriver about an hour from New York City.
It is always a pleasure to visit Bill and family. Inevitably the conversation turns to the subject I would simply entitle “cool things in nature,” and Bill, possessing a curious and appreciative mind, is always willing to do a little exploring, even if within the confines of his own neighborhood. That evening in August, after dinner and a few drinks, we ambled out to the great outdoors of Bill’s back yard, taking along a recorder and microphone to check out the action. What we found, naturally, was katydids. Listen …
I went to Isla de Ometepe because I wanted to try out some new recording equipment, and then promptly recorded evidence that I don’t really have my new recording equipment figured out yet. It was the first time in several years that I had been outside the comforts of city life, and to tell the truth on this trip I still didn’t stray very far from those amenities.