A day to rememberTom Lloyd | March 12, 2010
Friday morning, our third day in Istanbul. I finally caught up on my sleep last night, hopefully enough to catch up on the narrative of the last few days experiences, comment on a couple of important themes during the trip, and be coherent for our eagerly anticipated final tour concert at Bogazici University tonight.
Every tour has its own distinct character according to the country we’re visiting and the particular chemistry of the combination of students on the tour. But I’ve found there is often a natural arc: the initial excitement of meeting new people and places – the “oh-my-god” sense of “I can’t believe I’m standing here in this incredible place so unlike anything I’ve experienced before!” This is usually followed by a middle period of exhaustion caused by the tumble and intensity of new experiences coming one after the other in days that are fuller than any we can remember (what would we do if life were this exciting all the time?). Then, just when we think we can’t possible have the energy to make it to the end of the week, we encounter a new group of students who welcome us with such excitement, generosity, and enthusiasm, that it seems like we just arrived all over again and we begin to wish this experience never had to end.
This leads me to thoughts of one of the important themes of our tours – the special dynamics of students engaging with one another on multiple levels in ways that I think are somewhat unique to having shared music-making as the central activity. (Note to a few of my colleagues at Haverford who remain skeptical about the whole idea of choir tours – in using the word “unique” I am not suggesting that this is the “only” experience where this kind of engagement is possible, or that it is superior to other kinds of collective or individual kinds of engagement through travel – just that it is different in some essential ways from other kinds of encounter.)
As academics, we are often profoundly suspicious of the emotional rush of artistic performance and social activities (“having fun”) in relation to intellectual seriousness. One way we define the academic world is on the spectrum of “party schools” to “academic rigor” as though critical thinking and having fun in a social context are mutually exclusive.
Let me describe the sequence of our encounter during a single day this week with the students at Anadolu (Anatolian) University as an example of this dynamic (Monday March 8). We started off the day by visiting the new student activities building at the university. This is an exciting new four-story building with a huge atrium in the center with provocative examples of graduate student work in furniture and fashion design on display (very un-Haverfordian in itself, though utterly fascinating to our students). This is very un-commercial, modernist, outside-the-box kind of stuff that we can’t help gazing at.
We have been invited to go upstairs to the fourth floor where members of a wide variety of students clubs are waiting to show us what they do. Everything from the Ataturk Club (politics) to cartooning (several of our students spent their whole time there and were hard to pull away) to the Erasmus Club (welcoming and engaging students from abroad). Lots of struggle with communicating across the language barrier (these students have less English proficiency than at the other universities on our tour, and our Turkish is still at the stage of “merhaba” (“hello”) though a number of the students have already moved well beyond that).
In these kinds of small group and one-on-one encounters with students, there is a basic kind of communication going on. What is it like to be a college student, to be a young adult in Turkey or the US? What matters to you in your daily life as a student, as a citizen in your country? What are your enthusiasms? What are your frustrations?
Though I keep trying to program more formally academic group discussions on these tours, I’ve slowly come to realize that more important information about cultural experience and socio-political realities comes out in these less structured, informal encounters. In addition to lots of personal likes and dislikes, things come out about the naturally skeptical view students have of their elders in the political sphere, such as several Turkish students who expressed impatience with mandatory but one-dimensional courses they were required to take in their high school curriculum (call them Ataturk 101 and Islam 101) representing opposite sides of the secular/religious questions at the center of Turkish political life – important topics they felt were dealt with in an unnecessarily doctrinaire way, yet within a system where students seem generally much freer to speak their minds than we in the “West” might assume.
On our way out, we begin to wonder what it would be like to sing in this soaring atrium space. We ask our guides if it would be appropriate and welcome to sing a couple of our Turkish songs here – they say “of course” and are affirmed soon after we start singing the haunting lament “Yeni Cami Avlusunda” and people come out of their offices on all four floors to listen peering over the side of the railings on each floor.
As we go off as a group to lunch, accompanied by some of our new Turkish student friends, some of the students break into a harmonization of Otis Redding’s “Lean on me” (nice how they like music from our time?) which in turn draws more students on campus to come our way (but more on this in my next post).
After lunch, we rehearse three shared pieces together in the auditorium – one spiritual (Swing low) and two Turkish pieces – the students can’t stop smiling as they crowd onto the risers with each other – the Turkish director, Gulsevin Doganay, is a charismatic, dynamic woman who the students relate to immediately, and who responds in kind with generous enthusiasm. We then rehearse our own repertoire, with most of the Anadolu students staying to listen and cheer us on.
When we are done with what turns out to be a more intensive and lively rehearsal, the students are tired and in need of down time back at the hotel before the performance a couple of hours later. But the Anadolu students have prepared tea and snacks for us, and turning down tea-time in Turkey is not allowed!
But soon after we move outside for tea, the students from both sides start forming a small circle and singing pop songs from their respective cultures for each other – the Turkish students show us lots of dance moves – some traditional belly dancing, some line dancing – and our students respond with grooves from their a cappella groups (horrors!) – they go on like this for over an hour, taking each other’s pictures, giving great whoops and hollers for each others performances. Finally, Ilker, our lead guide tells me we’ve got to get moving and continue the partying after the concert!
A more traditional choir director would have been horrified and the students using their voices so much just before a concert. But after all my preaching about how music is a part of our lives on so many different levels, from the profoundly reflective to the playful, each expressing our culture and our humanity, how can I complain.
The concert itself goes beautifully. Our students have plenty of voice left after all – they sing our Turkish songs with increasing confidence (using our newly acquired wooden Turkish spoons as percussion for the first time after having heard them on the recording sent to us) – the spirituals have the impact they always do – the David Lang minimalism of the little match girl passion evokes a special curiosity and interest – our Marenzio madrigal and jazz harmonies of Desafinado receive warm applause. The Anadolu choir sings with a real operatic ring (many are in the operatic program) and musical intensity. The combined pieces come off with the joy that only young people like these can bring to them.
But once our formal concert is over, with all the focused concentration that requires, there is still youthful energy left to release. In Ghana, our three hour collaborative concerts ended with the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah followed by dancing on stage and with the audience to Ghanaian High Life beats. Here, as in the US, the concert hall maintains its relative formality to the end. But a boundary of trust and mutual interest has been crossed through our performing together and now for an audience, and the students want to extend their time together – this time with music for dancing.
In Eskisehir we truly lucked out – our tour managers found the perfect little music club with a light super menu in a centuries old covered marketplace up the street from our hotel. At first we watched the end of the professional soccer game on TV involving the local team, learning the rhythmic team cheer from our Turkish host students. Then when the game was over (nothing supersedes a soccer game in these circumstances), two musicians come in – both with acoustic guitars, but one also with a kanun – similar to an American autoharp or zither but with more strings and levers to allow for micro tuning.
These turn out to be easily the best musicians we have encountered so far. Knowing there are Americans in the audience, they start with some Eric Clapton songs and 12-bar blues. Our students are delighted, but also can’t believe how natural they sound in the style (the musician who doesn’t play the kanun does most of the vocals). Then the one guitar is replaced by a kanun, and the Turkish music takes over, with a riveting beat, dazzlingly virtuosic kanun playing, and traditional Turkish melodies sung with what could only be called Turkish “soul.” Here the dancing begins – everyone is up and moving, arms up in the air, the Turkish students singing along, everyone all mixed up together.
It’s moments like these, when I see students from two different cultures with very different traditions finding such obvious delight in each other’s presence, embraced all day long by their common love of music and movement, that it all seems worthwhile. One of those blissfully naïve moments where human beings getting along together – no, thriving together – seems so natural it makes one wonder why this can’t be the mode of diplomacy we depend on rather than threats of military force or suicide bombings. Yes, totally naïve. Life is much more complicated; discord and violence are much more real and dominant. Music alone is not up to the task – reason is desperately needed as well (including the reason in the more restrained music of our concert performances).
But this total, uninhibited delight in the company of people who the day before shared music making were total strangers to each other – this is also real – and I know that no matter how difficult the conflicts these young people face the rest of their lives, they will remember this day, and this night, forever.