The Musical Conversation:
a global communication experiment without words
This experiment grew out of my struggles in 1983 to play music with a folk fiddler in Kenya with whom I could not exchange a single word and a classical sitar player in India whose English was not much better than my few words of tourist Hindi. In both cases, rhythm provided the basis for transforming cacophony into music.
It was by the light of torches in a small village café that I first saw a young musician playing the Kenyan version of the fiddle, a single-stringed gourd called an orutu. He was encircled by a half-dozen drummers, and when they noticed I had an instrument, they beckoned me with gestures to join in the intoxicating, heavily-syncopated music they were playing. They were from the Luo tribe and none spoke English. I fumbled around quietly, unsuccessfully trying to blend in. I stopped and listened more carefully - this music was all about rhythm. The orutu player was making low-pitched sounds whose melodic contours seemed much less important than their rhythm. When I began noodling around with a few random pitches on my bottom string, things got better; but when I focused my attention on his bow wrist and made motions with my wrist that were similar to his, we fell into the same rhythmic grove and really took off. The smiles on our faces lasted well into the night as we played on. The joy in my heart from that experience remains to this day.
A few months later, I was glad to get an invitation from Balram, the sitar player in the Khajuraho hotel where I had just been hired as a strolling violinist, to join him and his family for lunch. It was a great meal with friendly people, but language limitations caused us to quickly run out of things to say, so I felt relieved when he motioned for us to go into another room with our instruments. Relief gradually turned to frustration as I fruitlessly tried to play something that fit in with his music. After an hour, I was ready to give up when Balram said something about a piece he liked. I realized he was referring to a highly rhythmic Italian tarantella he heard me play the previous evening for a group of Italian tourists staying at the hotel. When we both began playing around with that rhythmic motif, things began to sound a little better. But our music-making dramatically improved when we decided to try improvising a conversation with our instruments. Balram would play a musical phrase, which I would then either copy, vary or comment on in some way, tossing it back to him for further elaboration, and so on back & forth. His father, Mr. Shukla, played tabla (the Indian drums) but wisely stayed away during our initial hour of struggle. He now eagerly jumped in, his drums providing a vibrant, pulsating floor beneath our dialogues. They asked me to join them for their evening performances at the hotel, which I happily did. And it was our music, not our few words, that formed the bond expressed in the warm embraces we exchanged when I left a week later.
The Musical Conversation experiment continues whenever I travel with my fiddle. It proposes different tests for the hypothesis that music is the “international language,” easily enough verified from the listener’s perspective since most people enjoy the music of other cultures. But the tests here are from the much more problematic perspective of the speaker – the musician. I listen to musicians and, when invited, try to blend in with their music, as I did in Kenya. I also attempt to have improvised conservations similar to those I had with Balram and Mr. Shukla, and have developed some simple recipes for this.
But the most interesting experiments are with musicians where there are no spoken words in common and neither attempts to copy the other’s style of playing. Can gesture and sound alone produce music?
© Peter Contuzzi