February 19, 2008

India, Part 4 - Music

Music is, I think, one of the universal languages. It doesn't matter that there are an impressive variety of different styles, genres, and even tonal systems; no matter who you are, you will, on some level, appreciate music in one form or another.

Nowhere was this more true than in India. Indian music was, in its primal form, based off of a 12-tone system, rather than our western system of 8 notes in a scale. If you're not a musician, that means that the same space of sound is divided differently; in Indian music, there are smaller divisions of sound between each note than in western music. However, much of their current music, at least at Bethel, has been highly westernized; guitars, keyboards, and other western instruments are widely used in music along with a lot of percussion (which is, as far as I can tell, the most indigenous part of the music).

Several of us - Ryan, Adam, Jill, Ben and myself - went into a local village to participate in their service. It was quite an experience. The whole thing was in Tamil, which made it hard to follow, and the music was mostly percussion (an Indian version of Congas and a Djembe were used with great enthusiam). The word "Alleluia!" was used exhuberantly after almost everything that was said or sung; we had to adire their enthusiasm. Despite the village's rediculously tiny size and relative isolation, the music still felt more western than Indian. The one possible exception I would note is its volume: even in America, we value our ears enough to keep it softer than they. American teenagers get busted for lower volume levels than this church had; the tiny room had four speakers plugged into an amplifier blaring at full power; consequently our ears were ringing a bit when we left. But most of their church service was sung, not spoken, and everyone participated.

Church, in India, is different in other ways as well. For one, chairs are more of an optional arrangement. Instead, the chapel or church is a floor that has been covered by woven mats. One must remove one's shoes before going inside, as a way of showing respect to God. I can't quite tell if this comes out of the Hindu tradition or if it's from Moses'
burning bush experience. Or perhaps it's a contextualization of Hindu culture based on Moses. Either way, upon entering the chapel, the attendee prostrates on the mat in prayer, and then sits down, cross-legged, to await the start of the service. Most of the rest was about the same as any church in America; singing, prayer, a speaker, more singing. Obviously it was in Tamil, or while we were at Bethel, both Tamil and English, but that and the volume were the only major differences.

Music was everywhere. The kids at Bethel were almost always singing, either by themselves or (more likely) in groups. Every time we had a house visit, the kids would sing for us. They loved it on our second day when Adam and I grabbed our guitars and sat outside the dorm, surrounded by school-age girls, and played until our fingers ached and we'd exhausted every song we could think of. It didn't take too long, come to think of it, but the girls kept asking us for more. It was also at this time that Adam got his

We (myself, Adam, Jill, Steph) led chapel music all week. I got up at 5am to do this, and so when I tell you that this was a healing thing for me (to lead music again), it should speak volumes. Despite the fact that I had not had breakfast yet, and despite that my feet were uncomfortable standing without my orthodics, and despite that I was exhausted, God started talking to me there in a way that I hadn't heard for a while. I think I hear God best through music; maybe it's just how He made me, but that's the way I am.

The best part, though, was at the end of the week. I had been trying to communicate all week to the Bible School students - in earnest - how the music had to be their own. Every piece we'd heard of theirs was mostly just a translation of American or European music. Not entirely every piece (Nirmal, one of the students, was quite the musician, and wrote his own stuff sometimes), but most of them, and especially the translated wesley hymns they sang in chapel (incidentally, I like Charles Wesley better in Tamil). On Saturday, after we'd been teaching them music (while trying to emphasize that they should write their own), Nirmal approached Adam and me and asked if we'd like to learn a song in Tamil.

So we did. We spent half an hour, maybe more, transliterating the very vowel-laden Tamil song into something American eyes could read and our mouths pronounce. Then we spent another half-hour learning the music and how to pronounce it all. Let me tell ya - Tamil is easier to sing than it is to speak. It's spoken quite quickly, but when sung, the vowels become amazing platforms for sustained notes. Their sounds echo and ring so well, even in rooms made mostly of concrete and steel. And they do well for harmonizing as well, even if the locals don't really know what that is (unison seems to be the way they sing pretty much everything).

My favorite moment in all this was when Adam and I were running the piece one more time on sunday morning before we were to sing it in chapel. It was our last day, and though we were already feeling a bit nostalgic at the thought of leaving, we were (or at least, I was) more nervous about this song that we didn't really understand (Nirmal had never really given us a translation, only mentioned something about it being about Jesus as the light of the world). As we were rehearsing, Paulin was setting up the projector. We had been working with her all week, both in the chapel and in the Bible school (and she liked to cook). And as we sang, I looked over to see her mouth literally hanging open.

I doubled over laughing. I only wish I had a picture of her face, because as it turns out, the song we were singing was her favorite song, and not only were we singing it, but she could actually understand us. Though later, when I asked about our accent, she said (wobbing her head as only an Indian can do) "eh, it was ok."

(to be continued ...)


Dan said...

So, when do we get to enjoy the experience of this "Tamil" hymn/song?
I'm certainly glad that leading worship was again a good experience for you - and hope it works out for you to continue doing this in the future. C-ya soon.

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