Arts/Literature

World music roundup: traditional Assyrian

Or should I say “traditional” “Assyrian?” I don’t know.

I didn’t bother with a clever playlist name for this set of videos. It’s just an identifying label to help me find it in a list of lists later. It starts with with my Hollywood idea of what over there sounds like, then quickly cuts through a ton of preconceptions. Who are the people “over there?” Saying “them” is about as meaningless as saying “us” as though there’s no difference between an American from Appalachia and an American from the Ozarks and one from the Rockies. Over here, we’ve got enough in common that people having a good time in Memphis probably know how to have a good time with people in Seattle. It seems like it would probably be trickier for people from NYC to have a good time in Waxahachie and vice versa, but why, I don’t know. A good neighborhood BBQ in either place would probably satisfy, either way. Except over here, someone militant about something will find a way to step into the buzzkill void. “You call that BBQ?”

Differences. Commonalities.

Along the way, there’s something deeper about community and shared experience and shared culture said in all those different videos, even as I progress them through a sound that’s more stereotypically ancient, to one that’s merely “vintage,” through to where the sound is modernized and and polished enough for a wedding in less than stereotypically traditional settings. Keep in mind, I’m no ethnomusicologist. I can’t opine intelligently as to which videos in that list are truly authentic, or discuss the evolution of the music.

Along the way, I see something else…I see an absence. It can be striking when one finally sees what isn’t there. I don’t see any of the people we’re shown by “them” in the news. And I don’t see any of the people we’re shown by “us” in the news. All I see is something so obvious as to be unremarkable, except for the fact that I don’t think enough of us remark on it, especially those whose job it is to remark. All I see is ordinary, everyday people, whether 40 years ago or yesterday. Sometimes they’re punctuating their day to day lives with a major event. Other times, the culture is just the backdrop for where they live out lives every bit as banal as our own…doing the grocery shopping, working, going to a mall. Or attending a friend’s wedding.

And through it all, when those major events come up, some things they’ve learned from childhood come to the fore: the importance of these events, the sense of community that binds them together. There’s a degree of empathy, even of intimacy and trust, it takes to participate in the culture to the degree shown, and that’s probably even leavened with a bit of civility because nobody likes everybody, and yet there they are. And those dance moves. What about those dance moves?

Somehow when Americans get a dance bug such that some but not all Americans seem to know all the new steps to some new dance craze, what’s missing is that there’s no traditional American dance one might expect to see a bunch of random Americans break into at some large community event. Sure, there’s those dance crazes, but none that become more broadly traditional, and especially not in a way that sweeps broadly across widely divergent social groups, unless it’s just some kind of generic getting down. Choreographed moves, though…and complex ones requiring much more than a few low impact aerobics moves? No. We get the Achy-Breaky. Or twerking (which does have its cultural proponents, but that genie got way out of the bottle). I’ll be surprised if someone can volunteer an exception that doesn’t prove the rule.

There’s lessons in all this that I can’t even wrap my brain around at the moment. It would be easy to romanticize all these cultural traits I’m looking at. To do so, I can’t help but to do so against my own cultural backdrop here. My backdrop has precious few such unifying strands. To look at my musical tastes and compare them to those of another American, one might conclude we’re from two different planets. I’m lucky I have eclectic tastes, because I can just about always relate to another American on the basis of some music. Some folks are so bound to their narrow band of tastes that they would struggle even to locate that common ground were they to find themselves transplanted to a new town. And that’s just the music.

I just hope I remember this the next time I see Fox and the NYT and MSNBC alike beating the drums of war. On the one hand, we’re only supposed to see terrorists. On another, we’re only supposed to see acceptable losses as long as we’re inflicting them. Or screaming living bodies and bloody dead ones that somehow become the justification for our own contributions to the body count. What I want to see are people whose boring, hum-drum lives still have more color and vitality than the stereotypical hum-drum American day to day life. Or at least people who want nothing more than to get back to such a colorfully hum-drum life if only people would stop killing them or otherwise dragging them into conflict. Maybe if we saw more of them in the news we’d be less inclined to find reasons to kill them, but I’m old and cynical and doubt it. Someone would turn them into a different kind of justification, the kind where we need to destroy the village in order to save it.

Somehow I’m quite sure I’ll be having this experience quite a bit in the coming weeks and months, whether I’m finding myself surprised by Kurdish tunes next time around, or by a German pagan/nativist troupe, or by villagers in Burundi.

For now, enjoy some more Assyrian music. Give each video a moment, if only to see an example how tradition grows and changes with the technology and the willingness of musicians to experiment with their own styles and instrumentation.

Author’s note: Lest one conclude I somehow singled out Assyrian music as the anvil against which to beat some new ax to grind, no. I’ve got a creative project I’m working on. I started with music from ancient Sumer and spanned the globe until I came back around nearly full circle in ancient Greece. Then I looked up a list of ethnicities at Wikipedia and searched on Iraq since that’s where Sumer was. Assyrians and Kurds both came up. I’m glad of it for the experience, but no, there’s no social or political agenda in the selection. Only in what I gleaned from the experience of expanding my own horizons.

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