Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In memory of past lives and black socks

There has been a world of change on my end since my last quarterly report. I am writing from Istanbul, where I arrived a few days ago after passing through Madrid after flying from Bali to Paris. In short, it has been a whirlwind of culture shock--particularly upon arrival in Europe. I was despondent and mopey (to put it lightly) for days after leaving Bali. 

Nora and me with the bride and her friends at a Balinese wedding (where I played rebab)! 
Entry way to Balinese wedding

As I made more connections in Bali, 'jammed out' with more musicians, and was invited to play on more concerts, it seemed that I had hit a new musical stride in Bali and should ride it out. I basically said yes to every performance or collaboration invitation that came my way, and as a result, towards the last few months of my time in Indonesia, I was performing almost nightly in different venues (sometimes giving one performance on one side of the island and then biking to the other side to play another gig). I played with spiritual healers and reggae masters, I played rebab in a traditional Balinese wedding and also played in three shows in Bali Spirit, the island's largest annual music festival. Imagine hundreds of blissed-out, tattooed, dreadlocked hippies in one place peddling leather fanny packs and practicing their acro-yoga. After Bali Spirit one of the other performers came up and asked me if I had been using a distortion pedal--"It sounded like you were playing an electric guitar! It was awesome!" Another memorable comment from a different performance: "Audrey, I listen to you improvise and I am sure in your past life you were a Javanese person." (As said by a Javanese musician!)

A tangent about dreadlocked yogic hippies: In my various collaborations with Hindu chant leaders and Native American flute-toting medicine men, I had somehow carved out a niche for myself performing with sound healers. After a laughably pretentious recording session in which a medicine man repeatedly criticized me for not capturing the "essence of the night birds and rising dawn" in my musical "invocation of the divine through mystic poetry," I found myself at a dinner with many of his compatriots. It took me about half an hour of them talking about "the potency of the Grandfather" for me to grasp that they were talking about hallucinogens. Anyways, a Hawaiian shamaness and self-proclaimed channel of Gaia, the Mother Earth, heard about my violin playing and recruited me to perform with her at Bali Spirit. I eagerly agreed and showed up the following afternoon to her home. Picture a scantily-clad, heavily-tassled woman with a large lotus tattooed over her uterus playing crystal bowls, her emasculated partner Shamiracle, who could apparently do no right as she continued to scold him throughout the afternoon every time he hit a drum or blew a conch, a rhinestoned Russian with the plastic surgery of a former porn star who had recently changed her name in an Indian ceremony (and became increasingly annoyed as the other ensemble members continued to forget it), and Vasu Dev, a Norwegian with John Lennon glasses whose name belied how short his fuse was. And then there was me, wondering if I came off as way too normal to be part of the group, or if my musical journey through China and Indonesia qualified me as unorthodox enough to be one of them. In any case, they accepted me as one of their own. It was an interesting musical experience--on one hand, much of the spirituality with which the sound healers sought to imbue the music sort of cheapened it for me, but on the other hand, the lotus-tattooed singer had a beautiful and incredibly unique singing style that drew on overtones and yodels, and the freedom and presence with which she improvised was extremely effective.

Performing with Rizal at Bali Spirit Festival 

Being pulled into the spiritual undertow of Bali's expat scene was actually a really valuable experience for me as a musician. None of the sound healers I met had formal music training; as a result, it was really interesting to witness and experience their approach to creating music. Nothing was really off-limits (and in many cases, the more bizarre and experimental, the better) and for me it was a very safe environment to experiment musically as well. The result in some cases was music that would be considered really avant-garde in a different setting. In one show Agustian, Miyoshi, and percussionist Arif and I improvised a piece in nine (an unusual time meter) based on the theme of the change from the rainy to dry season while Sako, Arif's wife and talented dancer, did contemporary dance; however, catering to the Eat-Pray-Lovers, the concert was advertised simply as an "ethnic fusion" journey to "meditation," which again I think diminished how nuanced and multi-faceted the piece was.

Sako, me, Arif, Miyoshi, and Agustian after our concert
I even graduated to writing, singing, playing my own songs, which was one of the most thrilling experiences for me because it was something I had never dreamed of doing before. I was surrounded by people from so many cultures and backgrounds doing just that and playing in their concerts, and soon realized that there was nothing stopping me from doing the same. I would brainstorm, create, and record a rough draft of a new song, and then show it to my friends, who would add their own instruments and musical ideas to it. They encouraged me to perform my own songs (and made time in their own shows for me to do so). I was initially really nervous since it was entirely new to me, but I went for it and received really great responses. I was so encouraged when an audience member came up to me and said, "You have an amazing voice--be proud of it and stand tall!"

Another huge highlight towards the end of my time in Bali was having my friend Nora visit me. Nora is traveling around the world on a traveling fellowship of her own exploring cultures that eat bugs, and sent me a message that she was thinking of popping over to Bali for a week or so on her way out from a month in Papua New Guinea. She asked if she could crash with me, and I, valuing my personal space but unwilling to tell her to "get a room," begrudgingly offered to host her. We ended up having a phenomenal time, and at my urging she stayed for the better part of a month. She has been traveling independently at the same time as me doing entirely different things, and it was incredible to hear about her experiences and compare successes and failures. She is one of the few people I have encountered thus far who can understand what it's like to make connections while transient, pursue an esoteric project in a foreign place, and watch the holes in your underwear get bigger and bigger. (One of my greatest triumphs was dragging Nora to replace her pants after a bumpy motorbike ride made it clear that the purple patches holding them together were no match for the life of a traveling fellow.) We sought out dragonflies for her to eat and introduced her to wandering hippies as "Peekaboo Nevernude, owner of Tissle-Tassle, a tassled clothing boutique" ("But my friends call me Boo!") It was great having her--as a traveling fellow, she is totally used to being independent and would set out for solo adventures while I would have rehearsals; at the same time, we totally related to one another and there were no limits on the fun we would poke at the mishaps we had had over the course of our travels.

Speaking of entertaining mishaps, Nora joined me and my friend Agustian to travel to his village in Sumatra for his sister's wedding blessing ceremony. As soon as we arrived, I was so grateful she was there--his relatives and neighbors overwhelmed us with hospitality and requests to take photos, and as the token foreigners in a village where few will encounter outsiders we were shuttled all day from one house to the next for photo ops while people continued to ask if (or assume) we were Agustian's fourth and fifth wives. I soon got really exasperated--I generally reject people who ask to take my photo on account of my being white, but it was impossible to do that to Agustian's family and friends, all of whom seemed to each have a few phones that each needed at least four photos...We stopped at three hospitals and took photos with all of the nurses and midwives, we stopped at the home of the village elder and took photos with village representatives there, we even stopped at a police checkpoint and, instead of paying a bribe, took a photo with the police. (We were later featured in the regional news.) Nora remained a good sport throughout, and when we were brought to Agustian's friend's family home late at night after a long day of posing and confronted the family waiting for us with karaoke, she took the microphone and sang campfire favorite "Black Socks" in the style of Indonesian dangdut music. What a champ.

Black Socks (lyrics)
Black socks
They never get dirty
The longer you wear them
The blacker they get 
I think I should wash them
But something inside me
Keeps telling me,
"No, not yet, not yet, not yet..."
One high point of the trip was journeying out to Gua Putri, a legendary Sumatran cave outside of Lampung. The myth goes that a princess was taking a bath when a man passed by and catcalled her. When she didn't respond to his comments (big surprise) he commented that, to ignore his flattering words, she must be made of stone--and lo and behold, she turned into stone, becoming the Gua Putri cave. This is a mythological manifestation of kutukan, sort of like the power of suggestion or the power of the word (for negative results). Anyways, sort of channeling fantastic musician Andrew Bird's recent project, Echolocations, in which he makes recordings in unusual settings (most recently, the canyons of Utah), Agustian and I brought the bamboo flutes and violin into Gua Putri, sought out the most resonant spaces, and had some fun improvising (I also played some Bach--typical.)

The loveliest-sounding part of Gua Putri 

Men in Indonesia often collect gemstones, carry them around and/or turn them into rings,
and show them off at every opportunity

After our short jaunt in Sumatra, Nora and I spent a few days in Jakarta while Agustian visited his other sister, and then parted ways as she set off to Laos and I returned for my final week in Bali. Feeling that I had become inspired, but also perhaps too comfortable, in Bali, I impulsively bought tickets to Madrid, deciding to visit my longtime best friend Rebecca on her Fulbright before making my way to Istanbul. 

The reality of my decision started to set in a few days before my departure. Perhaps you can imagine how difficult it was to leave such an environment. People would see me on the street and know me as "the violinist," and when I would go out, I would always see people I knew. I was conversational in Indonesian language--not enough to be particularly interesting to talk with, but enough to venture off aimlessly on my motorbike, get lost, barter for something, explain my purpose in Bali, get invited to someone's village, know when I was being talked about, and get back again. Indonesia was an incredible incubator for creativity, one that fostered collaboration over competition, and a place where people were constantly encouraging one another to feel more, love more, create more without any rush or deadline to do so. For me, a chronically-busy and uptight classical musician, it was exactly the shot in the arm I needed (I remember being too terrified to try to improvise when I first arrived four months ago!), and leaving it I became so scared that I wouldn't bring that spirit of creativity and non-urgency with me--that I would be too scared or too uninspired to carry on without those people who supported and taught me.

My friend Mark, who I met on my first night in Ubud, invited me to play at his collective's open mic night the following day, and essentially triggered and supported my period of musical creativity in Indonesia, hosted a farewell party for me the night before I left Bali. It was tremendous to see everyone from different arenas of my life on the island come together, meet each other, and make music. My rebab teacher met a local artist and flute player, my fellow Seven Sisters graduates met Lanny and her family, who had hosted me when I first arrived in Bali, Soraya (my partner in crime for the last Terunyan trip) met Miyoshi (my partner in music-making). People who I had played music with and played music for all came out, and it was an amazing testament that in some small way, I had joined a community and made a network. The only one who didn't come was Agustian, who was apparently too sad to come. ("Someone stepped on my flute. G#. It's broken now. And I thought it would be too sad for me to be there.") 
Farewell party jam session
I wept my way to Madrid, and spent the following days sitting shiva for my time in Bali. I had arrived in Madrid and reunited with Rebecca, who was in her chemistry lab during the weekdays, leaving me with nothing but time to mourn leaving my friends, my motorbike, my inspiration. Beyond missing the people I had left behind, I was terrified that "you can't take it with you"; namely, that I was losing the permission I had received in Bali to take risks, try new things as a musician, and think outside the box. I was utterly unable to do anything; my schedule consisted of waking up, weeping to Sufjan Steven's album "Carrie and Lowell," inspired by the loss of his mother to cancer, listening to the rough recordings from jamming out with my friends in Bali, crooning softly to myself, and repeating. Poor Rebecca, who had probably expected a more festive reunion, was a great sport about striking a balance between watching me sob and dragging me out of her tiny apartment. We did have a great time, all things considered (and I'll make it up to her when she comes to visit me in Istanbul in a few days); she took me to see a Steve Reich concert and violinist Joshua Bell's performance with the National Orchestra, we had tapas and paella, and saw as much as we could see in one day at the Prado.

I was indeed in a period of mourning, but now that I have arrived in Istanbul and gotten a glimpse of the sheer abundance of culture that seems to be oozing out of the city, I am encouraged that in a way things here will be "same-same but different," as they say in Indonesia. I have connected with a kamence player who is eager to take me on as his student, let me shadow his rehearsals and work at Turkish National Radio, performed my first concert, befriended a national living legend/inventor of the fretless guitar, and am on the cusp of meeting many more musicians (as soon as I can send off some emails). It's really hard starting over, especially since everything feels unfamiliar and foreign again, but at the same time I have faith that leaving Bali to get a new perspective in Turkey will be worthwhile and fulfilling. It has been already--more to come soon!

Illustration of me playing violin by my dear friend Miyoshi

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