‘Where the Light Enters You:’ Nature, Culture and the Ghazal in the Greater Caribbean
Presented on April 6, 2019 at Puentes Caribeños, a Caribbean composers’ conference at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico. The vocals and arrangements of all the songs in this talk, as well as the presentation itself, are by Priya Parrotta.
Here in the Caribbean, we are at a crossroads in our relationship to the environments which surround us. In some ways, this crossroads has been a defining feature of this region throughout its history. Taking a path towards sustainability implies deep choices; and ultimately, it is the gentle among us that will show us how to appreciate the world anew. These are important premises in my work as a musical environmentalist, and today I would like to explore with you a musical dialogue which might illustrate these ideas.
To begin, I’d like to share a brief recording with you, to give you a sense of how crossroads, and the desire to start anew, might be expressed within the tradition of the ghazal. While ordinarily performed with instrumentation, I’ve chosen to set this particular version to the sounds of a tropical, likely Caribbean, river. The words are sung in Urdu, the language of some of South Asia’s most beloved poetry.
A talk on environmental issues in the Caribbean can go any number of directions. We live and work in some of the most brilliantly biodiverse spots on the planet. The stories of our lives are interwoven with the lifeways of other beings, from exuberant birds to chirping tree frogs. The ever-abiding sounds of the ocean have accompanied us though some of our most fruitful moments of solitude, and perhaps, on rare occasions, our most delicate encounters with other human beings. Though we tend not to call much attention to it, here in the Caribbean we live within webs of reciprocity and responsibility. The quality of our lives depends upon how much we appreciate those webs — and how much we create music that conveys that appreciation to diverse audiences.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that the Caribbean is vulnerable to profoundly disruptive environmental events, such as hurricanes. It is also impossible to avoid the fact that politics, markets, and rogue leadership play an instrumental role in how we experience these events, and how well we are able to recover from them. But it is also impossible to ignore the fact that, in many places in the Caribbean, we continue to espouse certain cultural values that impede our own ability to be custodians of the ecosystems within which we live. Equally, in order for us to be able to participate in culturally-driven environmentalism, we must look at our own behavior, and transform it if need be.
For the purposes of this presentation, I’ve distilled this issue into two ways of seeing the world — where we tend to be, and what we might wish to become. Carelessness is, unfortunately, condoned far more often than it should be in this region, and in some cases throughout the world. Circumstances vary from place to place of course, but at least here in Puerto Rico, environmentalists struggle daily against the pressures of a dominant culture that tells us that it is okay to pollute. It is okay to litter on the beach, it is okay to discard kilos of waste on a daily basis, it is okay to make decisions without considering their environmental impacts. We are told that we have the right to dominate the Earth in this way, that it exists for our conquest, for our use.
This ideology of conquest has been active in the Caribbean for centuries, ever since the domination of man over nature became politically sanctioned. This logic of domination is often mirrored in cultural expectations about the relationships between men and women. Today, we are still combating machismo in its myriad forms, from outright physical violence to emotional abuse. Part of what keeps such systems going is a careless disregard for the delicate webs of reciprocity that I mentioned earlier. And this is a pity, because beyond the range of interactions that this paradigm of carelessness allows, is a wide horizon of beauty, peace and sustainability.
I call that horizon “appreciation.” Appreciation for the intricate threads that connect life, before the trash lands upon it. The dazzling beauty of the natural world, whether expressed in a seashell or in the cry of a bird. The acoustic interactions within a forest, the eternally captivating soundscape of a wave. The opposite of domination. Rather than seeing the non-human world, and the relationships in our lives, as something that is valuable so long as it satisfies our needs, we can go a different way. We can appreciate plants, animals, people for their beauties and their inclinations, whether they belong to us or not. Is it possible to effect a cultural transformation away from conquest, and towards appreciation? As musicians, music lovers and musicologists, do we have vital role to play?
I believe we do. In the long tradition of Caribbean syncreticism, I would like to draw from a cultural paradigm that is practiced among the South Asian and/or Muslim diasporas in the Caribbean, and which serves as a heartbeat for people around the world. Sufism is most commonly defined as the mystical branch of Islam. Its philosophical base is gentle, tolerant, and deeply appreciative of the subtle dynamics of human and non-human life. According to Sufi cosmology, humans and nature comprise an infinite Mystery. The world is made up of unanswered questions, but it also contains experiences of endless light. And it is this light that forms the basis of inquiry, choice, and artistic practice.
In defining human fulfillment, we often place humans and nature into separate categories. Further, we consider nature solely as an instrument for attaining objectives that we have already determined. Like many of the world’s mystical traditions, music and poetry are essential to Sufism. And within Sufi poetry, it is clear that humans and nature are not separate at all. On the contrary, they constitute each other. They are interdependent, and without appreciating that reciprocity, we cannot hope to attain true insight into the art of life.
I’d like to take a few moments of silence as I show you some poetry by Rumi. Rumi was a medieval poet, a Persian scholar turned artist. And as you read these poems, consider the interwovenness of humans and nature. Consider, too, how the images in these poems resonate with your experiences of the Caribbean.
“Ecology” itself is the study of the interactions between living and non-living things within an ecosystem. The poems I just showed you, as well as the ghazals that I am about to share with you, cannot exactly be called ecological studies. They are not scientific in their investigation of humanity’s relationship to other forms of life. If anything, they are deeply subjective. A river might play a certain role in one poem, and in another take on an entirely different place. They are also imbued with profound feelings and questions that no human has the answers to. But one thing is absolutely certain in Sufi music and poetry: Nature is never extraneous. Nor is gentleness. Nor is appreciation. Nor is the principle of reciprocity. Nor is curiosity. The guiding principles of ecology are therefore woven into the Sufi tradition, in a way that speaks directly to our hearts. Sufi music can therefore help us a great deal in navigating the chasm between carelessness and appreciation, upon which our tranquility and sustainability depends.
Rumi’s poetry served as the lyrical basis for many ghazals over the centuries. Which brings me to the ghazal. The ghazal is a musical tradition that has been associated with Sufism since its beginnings. The word ghazal has the same root as the word gazelle, or in Spanish, gacela. When I came across this connection I found it delightful though perhaps not surprising, as agility and grace are very clearly part of both the animal and the music.
The ghazal developed in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, and traveled both East and West with the spread of Islam. It reached Andalucía in the medieval period, though its tenure there was not long-lived. It found its way to the shores of Trinidad and Guyana centuries later, via indenture. The ghazal reached Persia, now Iran, in the 10th century and flourished into a long and beloved tradition. In South Asia, the ghazal enjoyed centuries of popularity in court. Then, following the violent Partition of India and Pakistan, the ghazal was embraced in a more popular form. It was beloved for its delicate treatment of the subject of love, and its attendant messages of peace and gentleness.
Historically, the ghazal has consisted of seven to twelve couplets, with distinct rhyme and refrain rules. However, over the years these rules have relaxed as the form has interacted with new audiences. The ghazal is popular across diverse geographies, and can be composed in many languages. To me, its most important characteristic is its consistent, thematic focus on transcendent, superior love.
The love expressed in the ghazal is not linked to possession or domination. It is not a means to an end. It is not an achievement or an acquisition. Within the logic of the ghazal, love is neither physical nor pragmatic. It is a meeting of spirits, which occurs within the gossamer threads provided by time in nature.
It is never careless. It is, above all, appreciative.
So how can the practice of the ghazal in the Caribbean help us to effect the cultural transformations that our islands require? As a South Asian diaspore in the Caribbean, this question is of particular interest to me. The natural soundscapes of the Caribbean taught me so much about music, about life, about love, and about choice. I’ve only recently begun to explore the possibility that such intimate encounters with the environment can be expressed in the music I work with. The ghazal has played a big role in this inquiry thus far. So now I am going to play you two soundscapes. Each is an adaptation of a popular ghazal. As you listen, I invite you to pay close attention to the lyrics. I also invite you to allow the presence of nature in these recordings to take up space, and interact thoroughly with the meaning of the song.
The first song is about wishes that go unanswered. At its heart is a mix of pain, emptiness and a resilient approach to beauty despite it all. Piano and percussion dutifully keep time as the singer waits for something that may never come. The ocean surges and gulls cry overhead, and the voice rests somewhere in between inundation and flight.
The second song is Badi Haseen Raat Thi. It is a waltz of sorts, the late after hours of a beautiful evening. Nature itself seems to twinkle and dance with us on evenings like these, and we delight in its company.