Appreciating the Language Beneath the Words
I’ve been in an awful lot of debates lately, most of them involving language. Some people insist that English is the universal language. Scientists will tell you that it’s mathematics. The romantics will claim that it’s love. Abstractions and lessons aside, I still think music is the great universal language: one that springs out of all continents (yes, Antarctica included) and one that is spoken in dialects that are as fascinating as they are diverse.
I’ve always loved music, despite the fact that music did not always love me back. I never had the patience to memorize notes or scales when I was younger, especially when my music teachers made it all the more boring. They had turned music theory into a memorization exercise instead of showing how different scales and notes were across cultures. They had turned music theory into a black box that could never be changed, and that could be used only if you had enough mental capacity to store all the letters of the alphabet and all their permutations in your head.
It was only much, much later that I grew to appreciate music. Without the fetters of grades and quizzes, I discovered that music was far more interesting than my teachers had portrayed it. The notes and time signatures meant something. I could dance to some kinds of music, and sing (though not very skilfully) the words of a song while stressing on the right syllables. I began to listen to beats, to the music beneath the poetry.
I discovered that my tastes were wildly eclectic. My cassette tape collection – then my CD collection – and then my Music folder in my computer all looked like a record store had thrown up. I had everything from pop, to rock, to classical, to opera, to new age, to movie soundtracks. All kinds of music spoke to me in different ways.
And then, I started belly dancing, and the world of music deepened and expanded. I discovered that the time signatures I had studied as a child were only a tiny portion of the possibilities. There were odd time signatures in different cultures, with each signature corresponding to various emotions – with songs speaking to my heart, with music begging to be danced to.
Dancing taught me that there is a language beneath the spoken words: that beats, and rhythms, and instruments, and all the little idiosyncrasies of music come together to produce a piece that is filled with depth and layers – with meaning, with thought, with emotion that transcends the language of the composer, or the singer.
I love music, regardless of the language or culture from which it arises. I do have my limits, of course: there are some music genres that I do not like, and only after i tried to like them. Nevertheless, i will not dismiss any piece of music outright on the basis of its language or culture of origin – unlike some people.
My parents and I were at a Turkish restaurant a few days ago, in Cagayan de Oro. The restaurant was outfitted with quite a menagerie of Turkish delights: whirling dervish music boxes, pillow cases with Moorish designs, paintings of scenes from Turkey, and dolls in tribal costumes. As a belly dancer, i nearly glided into the restaurant and expected to start dancing – until I heard the music.
The restaurant was playing piped in, 2nd rate piano renditions of Hollywood movie themes. I sat and fidgeted as I listened, and as my brain tried to reconcile my surroundings with the now annoying music that played over it all. Mind you, i like the piano, and I love piano music, but hearing it in a Turkish restaurant was starting to drive me mad.
My mom and I decided to ask the waiter why they weren’t playing traditional Turkish music.
“Ma’am,” the waiter replied apologetically, “We used to, but some of our customers didn’t like it because they couldn’t understand the words.”
My mom and I were appalled. Even my father, who normally doesn’t go outside his comfort zone of classical music, was astounded. The restaurant had ruined their ambiance by bowing to the requests of rather ignorant customers – of people who didn’t have enough sense to explore a new culture, and instead insisted that their own culture be followed.
As someone once told me, “It’s like people walking into a Middle-Eastern restaurant and demanding that they be served hamburgers.”
See, this is where I have a problem, and it’s not just something I’ve seen in Filipinos. I’ve seen it in a lot of people: they demand that their cultures and practices be adopted so that they can live conveniently while outside their country’s borders. Never mind that Italian food is pretty darn awesome. They want a McDonald’s while they’re in Rome. Never mind that Czech beer is pretty darn wonderful. They want a Budweiser while they’re in Prague. Never mind that native Chinese food is pretty good and unique. They want their Chinese food to taste the way it does when they do Chinese takeout.
At its mildest, this behavior is annoying. At its most brutal, this behavior leads to people invading countries and demanding that other cultures bow to their demands, and their practices. At its most brutal, this behavior is the foundation for war.
True, there are a lot of cultural practices that are shocking and that might need to be stopped. But let me return to music: why close one’s ears to new music sung in a language that one cannot understand, or in a rhythm that one cannot clap to? Why is it so difficult for a lot of people to simply appreciate new things? To get out of their comfort zones, out of their security blankets, or even out of their homes?
A lot of my elders will say that it all boils down to education: if people don’t learn about other countries and cultures in school, then they will never appreciate new things when they get older.
I think education is just one factor. Upbringing could well be another. if you had parents who never dared to let you try new things, then you might end up being far more cautious and less daring. Then again, I’ve met people who grew up in such an environment, and are daring precisely because they were brought up so cautious.
Perhaps one’s surrounding culture is a factor. Perhaps the mass media’s portrayal of other cultures is a factor. Or perhaps some people are just idiots. Some people are just too lazy to care, too laid back to dare.
I grew up in an environment that might have been cloistered at first, but i also traveled a lot.. I learned to defy conventions – within reason – at an early age. I dared to do a lot of things, and today, i still embrace new things and try new things out – again, within reason. Last week, I tried some fresh sea urchin while we swam on a sandbar out in Camiguin. The week before that, though i was afraid, I taught American Tribal Style belly dance to a new batch of students. I had never taught the class alone before. As I left the studio, I felt invigorated.
There’s something about exploring new cultures and appreciating them that makes me happy, and that energizes me. I guess the only things I can’t tolerate are people who refuse to listen to new kinds of music or eat new kinds of food for all the oddest, narrowest, shallowest reasons.
So yes, theirs is the only culture I’ll invade and impinge on.
In the meantime, I need to appreciate the language beneath the words of any kind of music. In so doing, i get to learn new things. The poor, ignorant idiot who refuses to try anything new will just miss all the good stuff that they could have learned.
So yes, I guess I’ll pity those idiots, too.