Yemenity2010's Blog

Music On My Mind – Part 1

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Direkt från Jemen by yemenity2010 on 13/12/2010

– It sounds like Arabic music.

A Yemeni student commenting on ”Viva la Vida” performed by the somewhat famous British band Coldplay, which appears to be completely unknown in this country. Anyway, most of the students in the group who listened to it, seemed to like the song which basically is a catchy pop tune with sweeping string arrangements and and an obvious melancholy atmosphere.

Music has often been described as a force that can break barriers and open doors. Sounds like a cliché, but sometimes these contain a lot of truth. During my regular courses with creative exercises, I’ve tried to make some experiments in the classroom, to find out kind of music they like – and not so much, respectively. The idea is simple; once or twice in each lesson, I let them listen to a song and write down their personal thoughts, associations, opinions and possible imagery that arises from the tune. I sometimes combine that with homeworks, where they write about musical themes, not least to find out what can they tell me about the musical landscape of the Middle East. It’s been educational, at least for me, and I hope, sometimes even for the groups I’m teaching and interacting with.

Many young people here listen to music on their cellphones or portable mp3 players. The CD market seems to be mainly ‘piratized’ (which also goes for the distribution of films, by the way). What they call quiet music is often preferred. Although that seems like a paradox when there’s a wedding in the neighbourhood and the party music is anything but quiet, subtle and discreet… Preferrably also played with the volume turned up to eleven (if you’ve seen the spoof ”This Is Spinal Tap” from 1984 you know what I’m referring to). Generally people here – the mostly young people I get in touch with in this city – don’t like it too messy or complex, although music with an effective crosspollination between eastern and western harmonies seem to work pretty well.

In the process I’ve learnt something about famous musicians and artists from this part of the world such as Om Kalthoum, Amr Diab and the legendary Palestinian singstress Fairouz who apparently never smiles in public, out of principle and some lifelong sorrow due to her people’s suffering (at least according to the story I’ve been told here). So called western music is reaching into this hemisphere as well. Celine Dion is overall very well-known and popular (for some reason I am trying to figure out, since I might be one of the few people on earth who find her voice and appearance more annoying than uplifting). Bands like Backstreet Boys, Westlife and some hip hop acts are also frequently mentioned when the topic comes up.

Several times I have heard the comment that they like to understand the message of the music to appreciate it; hence if it’s in Arabic or English it makes it easier. But that’s not always the case. Songs from Latin America with lyrics in Spanish or Portuguese and a somewhat melancholy disposition often get positive responses. And the same goes for entries from my own Nordic home country. Sometimes I’ve chosen instrumental music from films like ”Chariots of Fire” or ”The Mission”; on other occasions progressive rock, pop songs, cross-over in different shapes, Armenian dance tunes, Brazilian soft slightly samba-inspired songs or Indian wedding anthems with powerful vocal performances… The responses are not always predictable – which I appreciate from my perspective.

Examples of comments from the students:

– The song started with a nice quiet music that touched the core of our hearts (about the ballad ”Lay it Down” by Jaci Velasquez).

– The music makes me relax and I dream of another world (about a Christmas tune sung by Carola, a female singer well-known in Scandinavia but not so much in the rest of the world).

– I liked the music. I listened to it before when I saw TV they put the music when they showed some tourist scenery (Vangelis ”Chariots of Fire”).

Transcendence is an interesting word that no one can really explain but almost every creative individual seem to strive for. Then the eternal question for the recipients of music, paintings and other works of art is – how much of your response is emotional and what can sincerely be described as analytical, conscious decisions? Some students have tried to convince me that their opinions are based solely on how much thay understand of the lyrics, and what concrete things they can learn from them. They claim that it’s all logical and not emotional, but the majority seem to react also in a spontaneous, intuitive way like most of us do, whether we are aware of it or not. Yes, music in itself can be a controversial thing in this region, because of traditions and some scholars’ views based on a strict interpretation of religious doctrine, but those opinions rarely come across in the groups I meet. It happens, at least the assessment that music with too many instruments and too loud voices can be deemed not pure enough, but not very often.

So why does all this matter? Because I believe that music really can function as a uniting force, a builder of bridges that shows the similarities that exist between people, the ability to react spontaneously and intuitively. Then of course, we should never stop thinking, not ‘checking our brains at the door’ as the saying goes, but as experienced by someone grown up in a church environment where we sometimes deny that we are trying to ‘create an atmosphere’ I would claim that it’s perfectly alright to search for ways to influence other people emotionally and to make space for other values than just cold calculating logic – if, and that’s an important if, we are honest about it and admit that we are doing just that.

Music is also, I emphasize that again, a means to make people from different backgrounds come together and share experiences as well as a part of their respective cultural baggage. Sometimes we disagree about what really constitutes good art, but there is always room for surprises. And those are generally a healthy experience. People who never get or don’t allow themselves to be really surprised are probably either comatose, emotionally handicapped or downright dangerous to be around…

Ashufaqom, insha’allah.

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  1. Ingemar Lindahl said, on 02/01/2011 at 06:29

    Har faktiskt inte läst den här förrän nu – men desto trevligare att hitta en riktigt bra text som början på det nya året! Blev riktigt glad av den!

  2. […] är fortfarande ett oavslutat projekt (men några reflektioner i ämnet finns i inlägget ”Music On My Mind – Part 1” från december 2010). De här tre tipsen är nya för mig och värdefulla i […]

  3. […] that I hope will be presented some time in the future. I published some reflections in the entry  ”Music On My Mind – Part 1” (december […]


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