Liner Notes: M&E’s early steps
For the first three months of Music & the Earth’s existence, we kept a steady stream of notes — liner notes, if you like — on the organization’s early development.
Music and ecology surround us every day. Whether we live in a rainforest or an urban jungle, in a landlocked valley or by the shore of a sea, we are enlivened, informed, inspired, provoked, and placated by the sounds of the natural world — and the sounds that we human beings make. And yet, the connections between these sounds — between the rush of waves and the pulse of drums, between the chirps of a bird and the dynamics of a human voice — rarely make it on the front page of the newspapers and magazines that we read most.
Indeed, we are encouraged to believe that the resonances that exist in our daily lives — the ecologies of sound, as it were — are far less important than the headlines of finance, war and high style that reach us more frequently.
At Music & the Earth, however, we believe that the music in our lives matters. We believe that through sitting down, brewing a cup of tea, taking a deep breath, and appreciating the world’s music, we might be able to, in the oft-quoted words of Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change we wish to see in the world.” These days, there are numerous challenges that we need to face. For now, though, we are focusing on one: Global climate change.
After years of incubation, Music & the Earth launched this past month. April began with a question: what is the connection between music and the global movement to combat climate change? Far from having a simple answer, this question quickly became a path, a process to be shared by people of diverse educational and professional backgrounds, across the globe.
We issued a call for contributions and received interest from people in Africa, South and North America, South Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean. Now, one month later, our team includes about half a dozen people, working on several distinct but interwoven projects.
This first cohort of contributors are ethnomusicologists, musicians, activists, and cultural critics. Drawing from their fields of expertise and particular areas of concern, each in some way is investigating the ways in which music reflects and defines our relationship to our natural environments. Their projects, many of which are still in process, focus on moments in time and place where music and ecology come together, to yield important lessons in the art of living.
Music Across Pipelines celebrates the role of pluralism and decolonial environmentalism in the music associated with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Sounds of Street Vendors depicts the urban soundscapes created by singing street vendors in Havana, Cuba, and urges reflection about how music can help to define public space.
Music and Nature in Bollywood invites us to look beyond our stereotypes of Bollywood song sequences — as mere floral interludes (quite literally) that have little to do with reality — and consider what these sequences can teach about the challenges, dreams and circumstances of Bollywood viewers. Music & the Earth Day Care (still at a young stage in its evolution) hopes to bring mindfulness, geographic awareness, and plain old fun to kids by introducing them to new music.
Music for the Earth in Nairobi, Kenya demonstrated the powerful role that art can play within climate awareness events. And in a similar vein, the Una Terra, Una Famiglia Umana march conveyed that the global climate movement can give rise to cultural landscapes that inspire idealism.
Geographically and thematically, these contributions run the gamut, but they resonate with each other in one important way: As cliché as it might sound, they encourage us to believe in the power of music to support peace and sustainability in our world.
Whether in the form of a public event, a popular movie, or practices of daily life, active links between music and ecology already exist. Our contributors have considered some of these links. They’ve offered insights into how this oft-unacknowledged relationship — between music & ecology — might teach us about power, hope, fear, and joy… about the geography of the global climate movement.
Let’s talk about Starbucks.
I happen to be sitting in a Starbucks now, one of the many that speckle the suburban periphery of a major “world” city, defined by a curious blend of unmistakable patriotism and an internationalism beyond borders: Washington, DC. Outside, the thrum of cars and the chirps of birds create a quotidian soundscape. Inside, baristas serve pricey drinks and showcase a variety of new blends. One in particular catches my eye. The “Colombia Nariño Supremo” blend is packaged in a brilliant turquoise bag with gold accents. Turning the bag over in my hands, I read that the blend is a “celebration of Starbucks heritage in Nariño.” To the tune of what could only be a “world music” compilation CD, I do a little research and learn that Nariño borders Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean. Its climate and geography vary considerably, and over the centuries it has been home to a diversity of cultural landscapes and peoples, including the indigenous Quillacingas, Awá, Pasto, and Tumas, not to mention the Spanish conquistadors and their progeny. With each new fact I uncover, the phrase “Starbucks heritage in Nariño” sounds less credible, and more outlandish.
What does any of this have to do with Music & the Earth?
In the world of cafés and caffeine, Starbucks’ success in the global marketplace is unparalleled and unprecedented. For decades, the company has been riding the waves of economic, cultural and environmental globalization in ways that have brought on international popularity. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people on this planet enjoy Starbucks, whether for its décor or its drinks or the status that it seems to confer. Some of us have conjectured that people love Starbucks not only because you can ask for a tall-skim-decaf-mocha-Frappuccino-no-whip without hesitation, because also because a trip to Starbucks affirms a sense of “global community.” Purchasing a coffee blend that is sourced from multiple countries, while listening to a mixtape that combines music we recognize with music we don’t, as photos of coffee berries and smiling coffee growers surround us, we can perhaps believe that we are all linked. And every little thing is going to be alright.
Except, climate activists and critics of contemporary globalization know that this is not true: every little thing is not necessarily going to be alright. We know that humanity is currently facing challenges that require a nuanced understanding of the problems that we share. These problems include: the threat of ecological collapse, the endangerment of the world’s cultural diversity, the unwillingness of the world’s most powerful to assume responsibility for the inequalities and divisions and fears that we live with every day.
We know that deep creativity and dynamic collaboration between people of diverse nationalities, disciplines, and concerns is necessary. And, though we might all phrase this differently, we recognize that for peace and sustainability in our world, really what we need is soul. One world, one love, one heart: without a sense of real connection between human beings, and with the natural world(s) that support us, every little thing could not possibly be alright.
Not even if we had an unlimited supply of tall-skim-decaf-mocha-Frappuccinos-no-whip.
Music & the Earth is driven by an enthusiasm for this real connection — this soul, which is perhaps gestured towards in the advertisements of the world’s most powerful companies, but which actually resides somewhere very different: in the human heart and the rhythms of the planet. It is, and perhaps has always been, expressed in the insights we have gathered from time in nature, and in the music that we have created.
This month, Music & the Earth welcomed several original contributions that spoke to this themes of heart, soul, music and climate change. Climate Art — Nairobi illustrated how musicians in Kenya created art the specific purpose of raising awareness of the ecological and human impacts of climate change.
The Song-Dance Sequence in Bollywood raises an important question: what does the media which surrounds us tell us about the role of nature in our personal and emotional lives? Infinite Sound considers one of the world’s most ancient musical concepts — Om — and its relevance not only to contemporary religious life, but also to the contemporary challenge of global climate change (especially as it is experienced by coastal societies). And a new write-up on the Una Terra, Una Famiglia Umana March considers an emerging form of heritage that has been born out of the work of both climate activists and multicultural, “fusion” musical ensembles. This dynamic and engaged form of heritage resounds in the activity of musical environmentalists the world over, and in coming months we shall showcase some of the most ambitious of these initiatives.
Shortly after learning of Starbucks’ intensely unlikely cultural legacy in Colombia, I was introduced to a beautiful video of música nariñense: a piece from Nariño named “Grito de Raza” which (thanks to YouTube) brings an Andean soundscape to the ears, minds and hearts of those who are open to, and humbled by it. Surely it is these expressions of heritage which can steer the cultural direction of contemporary global environmentalism. Quite frankly, and jokes aside, I believe without question that a multinational corporation like Starbucks has no right to claim such cultural authority — let alone distract millions of people worldwide from the fact that others do.
But I take heart in the knowledge that providing alternatives to mainstream globalization is what so many of us hope to do. So here’s to a summer filled with sounds and sights and (perhaps, perhaps, perhaps) beverages that make our souls dance.
It’s official: Even Music & the Earth is listening to “Despacito.”
For those of you who are not familiar with “Despacito,” I am surprised. Released a few months ago, this single has attained an international popularity that is as widespread as it is comical. The original version features Puerto Rican pop icon Luis Fonsi, as well as the reggaeton celebrity Daddy Yankee; its video also features Zuleyka Rivera, another Boricua who was crowned Miss Universe in 2006. The video is filmed largely in La Perla, a barrio on the outskirts of Viejo San Juan. Once a settlement for the city’s servants, it now lends its picturesque presence to a number of music videos each year. The video begins with stunning views of San Juan’s coastlines — scenes that are enough to make your heart break… or, in my case, inspire Music & the Earth. To me, “Despacito” is a supremely ordinary song. However, since its release, it has been covered by people all over the world, from India to Palestine to… Justin Bieber. It has also been praised by this group of Italians.
Why are we even talking about this?
Music & the Earth was born, in many ways, in Puerto Rico. My first memory of this project feeling truly real was last Columbus Day — also known as Día de la Raza — at a plena venue in San Juan. Plena is a genre of music, dance and chant which originated in Puerto Rico. Like so much of the music of the greater Caribbean (and indeed, the world) plena was brought into being by the confluence of immigrants from outside — in this case, from St. Kitts, Tortola and St. Thomas. Art often emerges out of the crucibles that are created through contact: Contact with the Earth, contact with each other, contact with the rawness of life. On Music & the Earth’s first night out, as it were, I listened to the panderos and güiros and human voices, felt the humid night air, and looked around. I saw dancing and joy and… lots of garbage. The venue was an open-air bar, where people could drink and mingle and throw their empty cans and Styrofoam plates anywhere they wanted.
The scene felt like a microcosm of the world, and somewhere in that experience, Music & the Earth was born. Now, as I re-watch “Despacito,” looking at the beauty of its landscapes and the absurdity of its choreography, I find myself wondering: why is it that even the music we listen to and the videos we watch frequently incorporate and require the beauty of nature, we never discuss the link between environmentalism and musical experience? Why do we not see that if we have no Earth to live on, we will most certainly have nothing to listen to?
This month, we received a new contribution by Michael Robinson on nature and improvisation within classical Indian and jazz music. We created an Inspiration section within both the People and Projects section of the site — a space to celebrate the voices of those who are already doing the work we dream to be a part of. From a documentary on the art of listening to a collaborative fusion project in the Nile Delta, to a peace-through-music initiative by Arab and Israeli women, it seems that a paradigm shift towards ecological consciousness in music has already taken place, will take place in the future — and perhaps as you read this, it is taking place within you.
This site strives to offer a combination of resources that makes musical environmentalism appealing to all — in the service of the ecologies of places like Puerto Rico. So far, “Despacito” has a slight advantage over us in terms of popularity. But, I mean…
Even Luis Fonsi had to start somewhere ;).