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Music Is Not Universal: For the Record of Human Vanity

For the sake of open-mindedness in understanding music and the experience of listening to different kinds and genres, we like to attach it with a universal label. But sometimes, this view is illusionary and gives us more noise than music to our ears.

I have so much wanted to take music as a universal language, as some kind of expression that all of us share with no inequality. Religion has failed hopelessly a long, long time ago. So is the concept of humanity. I saw there was something in music that all of us can relate to. But the harder I try, the more difficult it has become — for some apparent reasons. It is the politics of music that makes it chained to each society, country and a group of people and so on. It is utterly inefficient to communicate via melody and tunes sans political barriers and imagined boundaries between the proverbial us and them. Just like any other mundane thing!

Humanity always longs to be in a group, but the desire has never crossed beyond the perception of a certain space. In our age, a nation is the largest possible space that we can think of. Continents and the globe are shrunk only when there are mutual benefits, as in the formation of regional blocs for economic development. So we have our music and others’ music, more segregated by the countless languages and genres.

Some talented and fortunate musicians have been acclaimed for performing crossover and capturing the attention of the global audience. The recently deceased sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was one of those few people; but their number is comparatively negligible. This takes us back to the beginning. Music is in some way universal but it is grossly overrated. Still we are so lucky that it is not divided like religion and we are fighting for supremacy and killing for it.

Out-of-tune blues
A certain value of universality is missing in music that we hear every day. All of us are living but that does not mean living is universal. There is a value that makes a thing or an object or a feeling universal, just like love or hate which are not conditioned by regional interpretation. 

In this part of the world where I live, there are issues of cultural imperialism. Armed movements, fight for self-determination and social unrest dictate the common life and the living condition. Out of these currents, the consolidated result on the society writs large on the troubled arts and expression, as much as it is in other aspects of life. This is a fact which politicised music even more than we would not like it to be.

Pop Placenessness

Pop music is paradoxically popular as much as it is sneered at. I take this example seeing pop music has the ability to go global unlike any other genre. However this does not change the social reality, with the overtly amorous and lovelorn expressions of pop music. This inability is why music cannot be universal. We can clearly see the inequality. To take another example, we will die for all the western musicians, starting from those rock-around-the-clock 1950s melody makers to the present metal-heads and sexless, lovey-dovey Casanovas-cum-crooners. Their music reaches nook and corner of the globe, convincing us music is really universal. But is it really universal? Does it make music universal? 

A market is too noisy if it is the reason, if its lacking is the reason why a certain kind of music is highly concentrated around just a small specific place or space. For example, check the music from my native place, which struggles even in the local market. Commercialism has also taken so much essence out of the world music. Needless to say, so many musicians have sold themselves out. At the end of the day, music is leisure for the mass. Their dislikes and the corporate tricks make a great deal of difference on musicians, who are longing to earn some piece of fame, some piece of bread and butter, some piece of adulation. The concept of universality is worse than a torn tape of a cassette. It is obsolete and shares the same place with an un-amplifiable gramophone for the record.

Image from weknowmemes.com
A kind of global music exists no doubt. For an instance, websites such as Earbits.com and Accuradio.com and the like have a category of world music each. But in a literal sense, music is not universal. It is just like eating food: rice is our staple food; and wheat may be some other people’s. So eating is only universal in terms of our reaction to the physiological needs. Different people do not necessarily share a common staple food. Music is universal only in this sense of satisfying a listener’s needs marked by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Otherwise its politics is filthier and more hopeless than a system like the Indian democracy. 

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Pena is our answer to the world music 

Pena is a stringed, bowed instrument used in Manipuri folk music. It has strings of horse hairs, a body created from coconut shell and an unmarked fingerboard made of polished bamboo. The long established tradition of playing pena is quite unique but it is confined to some areas in the region and to only a few people. The instrument is available only from individual pena makers. There is no shop anywhere, which sells pena, even in the congested shitty-smelling markets around Imphal town. Help is at hand, though. You can contact Rajen on +91-9860-103100 if you are interested to play or learn some psychedelic melodies out of horse hairs, coconut and bamboo. He lives near Lamsang along Uripok Kangchup road on the way to Singda Dam. You can order a pena from Nameirakpam Jila as well; he resides in Kwakiethel Haorakchanbi. I have also heard about the Laihui Ensemble, a group of hardcore Manipuri musicians, but I don't have much idea about them.

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Pena is our answer to the world music

Pena is our answer to the world music

Pena is our answer to the world music


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