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Thursday, July 16, 2015

All Well in Astana

I am, with 650 others, in Astana to visit the 43rd world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, my beloved professional organization uniting ethnomusicologists from all over the world. In my case a warm renewal of friendships forming over the years, with people listening to such illustrious names as Carlos, Marcia, Svanibor, Sooi-Beng - and that's just a few.

Astana is the new capital of Kazakhstan. It is a futuristic, Dubai-like city in the middle of the Kazakh steppe.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

And as the conservatoire where I work is rebuilding, may I suggest the following?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

You may know how conferences work. Late at night you drive from the airport to the hotel you have reserved with a bus from the organizing committee. Two girls are there to help you but they don't speak too much of English or any other language you know, whereas your Russian and Kazakh is slighty rusty. In the hotel they don't know you, you're on no list whatsoever, but finally they agree to give you a room. But only if you pay directly which is impossible because they don't do creditcards. Next morning, after a couple of hours sleep, it turns out they don't offer breakfast, and you have no money to buy it because cash machines don't work with your cards for some reason. So you walk to the conference venue and hope to find someone to borrow money from - which of course works out fine, so you cán eat lunch after all, which is the beginning of the reversal. Things fall into place: cash machines start working, when you're back at the hotel you shake hands with the hotel guy who tells you you can use the kitchen for breakfast if you want, shows you a fan you can use to replace the non-existing airco and a drinking water supply you may use, and when you ask about payment he suddenly draws a pin terminal from a drawer, hooks it up to the computer and miraculously you can pay electronically after all.

And when you go outside for an evening stroll, you walk between the huge apartment buildings and find out that there are children's playgrounds everywhere where kids play and mothers sit on benches, fathers discuss their cars, young guys play football as everywhere in the world. You find a small supermarket where you buy breakfast for tomorrow and find out again that sign language works. And you realize that life is not dependent on the size of buildings, but on humans - and that they are remarkably different but remarkably recgonizable everywhere.

And you realize that that probably is why you have become an ethnomusicologist: because of your curiosity about your own musical life and the musical lives of those others, remarkably different and remarkably recognizable anywhere - be it in Nitra, Hiroshima, St. John´s Newfoundland, Beijjng, Atsana, or wherever I will go to ICTM conferences in the future.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Fine Weekend

It's been a while - busy times, end of the year, you know how it goes. Soon I'm off to Kazakhstan to present a paper at the world conference for ethnomusicology. The paper will be on my shanty choir research, which runs for two years now after having been planned much earlier, and I am looking forward to present a paper on imagined sea life in the middle of a very arid steppe, in a country where the huge Aral lake has about vanished in the past decades.

Image result for foto aral meer droog

Me and my wife spent last weekend in Emden, the Northern German harbor town. We like to be in Germany, for many reasons. Some of my choir members see in Germany the Promised Land of Shantymen, and at least last weekend was an argument in favor of that thought.

On Saturday evening, the Berlin Shanty Crew Kreuzberg performed at a place called Zum Nordkai. Zum Nordkai is simply a quay in Emden's harbor where a guy called Klaas has set up a small alternative - yes, what is it;  a place where you can drink, eat, sit, camp, whatever. Shanty Crew Kreuzberg described their performance as 'Shanty-Woodstock in Emden', and it was. A very varied audience (fans, family, people from the neighborhood, people just happening to pass by) sat in the sun, took in the music, the view of each other, as well as drinks and various types of fish. Songs were near-exclusive in English, and from the announcements in between we could gather that the Berlin guys were not keen on commercialized shanty from the likes like Santiano or Ancora (nor were they for some reason on the GEMA, Germany's copy rights collecting organization, it seemed) and that they went for the more 'authentic' repertoire.

On Sunday morning, we went to the touristy harbor of Greetsiel because there would be music. And indeed there was: Shanty Chor Hude, a choir very much resembling the type of shanty choir I sing in, performed mainly German-language songs. Quite some people gathered as an audience, and we were welcomed by the chairman of the Commercial Society of Greetsiel. The sun shone nicely, the choir sang its songs and in between made funny announcements, and I wondered about the big differences and the big similarities between those two choirs.
I am not going to elaborate on that, but one thing was very clear: the meaning of music is not in the music. "Music is not a thing, it is human behavior", I cannot stress it enough; and this weekend that again showed. Both choirs partly shared a repertoire - they partly shared the same melodies, the some chords, the same lyrics. And at the same time, the two occasions could probably not have been more different: in the backgrounds of the choir members, the audiences, in the location, in the meanings attached to the words, the chords and the melodies. I might think the words, the chords and the melodies do the work, but that would be a mistake; but if I would think it's all in the heads, the minds, the ears of the beholders I would be equally mistaken. It's precisely in the in-between music does its work.
And I felt happy to have been in the in-between of two so different occasions in one weekend.