“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” ~Confucius
I had the remarkable fortune to grow up in one of the greatest arts communities in the United States. Fairbanks, Alaska, was and is still a thriving mecca for artists of all types. Fairbanks nurtures this vibrant arts scene through multiple non-profit arts organizations and with the support of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. UAF is a model of an engaged university that is invested in the cultural life of the community; every year my siblings and I would attend music lessons, concerts, recitals, and arts camps at the university.
In addition to the thriving arts scene, Fairbanks, Alaska is a remarkably diverse community. In addition to the indigenous cultural groups, there are also large Asian and Hispanic populations. With these various population groups came the opportunity to be exposed to many different kinds of music. Some of my earliest memories were of attending the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, the annual Fairbanks Native Association’s potlatch, and the UAF Festival of Native Arts (now in it’s 43rd year!). At each of these events there was dancing, singing, and music from the various indigenous cultural groups in Alaska from Athabascan fiddling to Inupiaq, Yupik, Alutiiq, Tlingit, and Tsimshian dancing, drumming, and singing. It was through these early experiences with indigenous music that I began to develop a love for traditional music and non-Western song structures.
Growing up my brother and I would often tune into our local community radio station that hosted weekly Japanese, Vietnamese, and Hispanic radio shows. I would also stay up late on Sunday nights to listen to the syndicated public radio program Afropop Worldwide. In junior high I got a short-wave radio for my birthday that opened my musical horizons even further by allowing me to tune into radio stations in eastern Russia and Korea. By the time I was in high school I had also discovered the syndicated radio show Music from the Hearts of Space and would tune in every Sunday night after Afropop Worldwide.
Fairbanks was also an easy stopover point for many international artists and musicians who came to tour the continental United States. I recall as a child seeing many international dance troupes and musicians in our small high school auditorium. One of the most memorable was a Japanese group that put on a spectacular show of taiko drumming and other traditional music. It was at this concert that I fell in love with the sound of the Japanese koto. The sound of the koto really fascinated me and I bought a tape of koto music at the end of the concert and listened to it constantly at home. The koto was the first Asian instrument that got me interested in Asian music and song structures.
Of course in the 1980’s my ability to find Asian music in tape or record form was very limited, so I had to rely on the radio. I found that Music from the Hearts of Space would frequently play Asian-influenced music and it was here that I became familiar with Indian music and musicians. Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and the Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all became favorites of mine and I would buy blank tapes and record each Music from the Hearts of Space program every week to capture their music…then I would go through the painstaking process of creating another mixtape with just the Indian and Pakistani music on it. One of my most fond memories is of sitting in the open door of a freight car on a slow train from Taipei to Xinzhu, Taiwan while listening to Jai Uttal’s version of the traditional Indian bhajan “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram” on my Walkman.
While I was in Taiwan I would love walking through the parks and listening to the old men play the erhu in the early evening. I also became enchanted with the sound of the guzheng (the more refined Chinese version of the Japanese koto), and bought as many CD’s of guzheng music as I could before returning to the U.S. in 1994. My roommates in college often complained of my diverse and seemingly “odd” taste in music, but over time they also were able to find pleasure in the different rhythms, textures, and sounds that I would play in our apartment.
I have since continued to cultivate my passion for world music, and have sought out opportunities to see groups from around the world who have expanded my worldview. As Mark Twain wrote over 100 years ago in his book Innocents Abroad: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I believe the same can be said of music!
Diverse music from around the world is a good alternative to travel for fighting prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Can’t afford to travel? Listen to music from Ghana, Argentina, Cuba, Russia, Poland, India, Iran, or China. It will challenge you, broaden your mind, and make you a better person. Allowing yourself to be slowly anesthetized by the homogeneous pop dreck that dominates commercial radio these days is exactly the same as “vegetating in one little corner of the earth”, and does nothing to cultivate the virtues of diversity and open-mindedness. Confucius recognized the virtue of music appreciation over 2500 years ago when he wrote: “When courtesy and music are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.” Indeed.
So, I guess this is a really long-winded way of saying that I am really, really excited about the upcoming Lionel Hampton School of Music World Music Celebration! The University of Idaho Confucius Institute is so excited to be one of the main sponsors of this event this year and we have worked over the past 6 months to bring some extremely talented musicians from China to participate in the World Music Celebration. These musicians will be playing traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu, pipa, hulusi, and dizi, and will be performing traditional Chinese songs in addition to collaborating with some local musicians and student music groups to present some jazz-fusion pieces. This year’s event is going to be an outstanding opportunity for you to really experience and enjoy traditional Chinese music at it’s finest!
As we have learned over the past few months in facilitating this musical collaboration between the UI LHSOM and our partner university, the South China University of Technology, music truly has served as a universal language and has created opportunities for dialogue and cooperation that transcend cultural and linguistic differences. Please try and find time in your schedules to attend this year’s World Music Celebration on the evenings of February 5 & 6. I guarantee that you will be entertained, but more importantly you will leave the event as a better person.