Thursday, September 6, 2007

743 Sounds of Baghdad

Message no. 743 Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Monday, April 2, 2007 3:25pm Subject: Sounds of Baghdad

Hi Class - I just received this beautiful letter from a good friend of mine, Mark Schapiro, who is on his second tour of Baghdad with the US State Department working as press advisor to people like Paul Bremer, connecting Iraqi journalists and American journalists and military planners -- he lives in constant danger but remains optimistic.

Mark is also a musician, and created the "Circus Guy Musical Goodwill Ambassador Tour" with me in Syria after the September 11th terrorist attack, as an attempt to create environments of cooperation and celebration to "change hearts and minds" and the behavior of Arab youth.

The Circus Guy band now teaches environmental science in the Arab world as part of its mission during festivals and solar powered concerts. You can see a documentary film on our work here:

You might enjoy his reflections on "music", "sound" and "noise" and relate them to our chapter and discussions!



Mon, 2 Apr 2007 11:08:32 -0700 [11:08:32 AM PDT] From: Mark Schapiro To: markschapiro@yahoo.comAdd to my Address Book Subject: The Babylon Diaries - Frequencies of Bass

Dear Diary and friends,

There are parts of music that you can only feel. You can't hear them. Sound is generally unavoidable in this world, an essential part of life, but when it touches senses other than simply hearing, it means something to you. You feel it, and it controls your memories, your relationships and your instincts. I'm not being poetic here - physics tells us that sound comes in waves, and those waves hit you and have an effect on the body. Scientists can even use sound waves to move objects, which is one of the many theories I have heard about how the Pyramids were built. And studies have shown that Mozart helps cure the sick, raising endorphin levels and strengthening immunity. Now you can understand Beethoven, how a deaf man was able to feel things most people fail to distinguish from the ambient noise that surrounds us, and weave them into immortal symphonies.

I've never enjoyed the music taxi drivers play on the radio in the Middle East. If you have ridden in one, or watched a Bollywood movie played too loud on a long bus ride while traveling around Southeast Asia in the middle of the night, you know what I mean. It's tinny, way too high on the treble scale, and I swear that one of the instruments played in those recordings is the sound of fingernails grating on a blackboard. The effect of the Bollywood movies during those bus rides is particularly deadly, since it takes the obligatory high-pitched female singing voice to a hair-raising level not even dogs could bear.

I have come to realize in my travels that bass is a defining sign of Western civilization. From James Brown to Depeche Mode and 50 Cent, we have come up with bass grooves that could seduce a statue or stand in for a pacemaker. Bass balances the treble, shakes the room, and gets inside you the way no other musical register can. I'm sure it is addictive. Play James Brown in an Arab taxi or Depeche Mode softly before you go to sleep and you lose the entire effect. Each has a unique bass signature which you can actually recognize without even hearing anything, when others around you do not even hear the music. The philosophical question of whether or not there is sound if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it has always struck me as stupid. Of course there is. You feel it. Beethoven would have told you so.

None of the senses ever get any rest here. We are under constant bass attack. Mortars, rockets, footsteps on my hollow trailer floor, engines of various kinds, helicopters, jet fighters, generators... even when you are surrounded by noise in the cafeteria or a group of people behind the palace, you can still recognize the bass signature of a distant car bomb on the other side of the river. Even though most of my colleagues here will not even hear it sometimes, I can still tell them what just happened. If you tune your internal antenna in just the right way, you hear things others don't. You just hear it with your body. Same way you have a special reaction to the voices of the people you love. It means that we are constantly being bombarded by vibrations and waves that make us feel things we cannot control and do not understand because we cannot hear or see them.

Anyone who read the 2004 editions of these Diaries will remember that there is no shortage of noise in Baghdad, but not nearly enough music. Yet all the ingredients, all the waves, all the vibrations are out there, wild and unfettered. There is plenty of bass, plenty of sound you just feel and cannot hear if you are too far removed. It has always surprised me that Arab taxi radios never seem to have bass, because no other part of the world that I have yet seen is so nuanced as to lend itself quite naturally to the interwoven sound waves of a symphony. The bass is here, I feel it every day, and when it hits you are left feeling an involuntary mix of power, fear, addiction, and pleasure depending on the source. It is a potent and volatile cocktail of feelings, one that often keeps foreigners here for the wrong reasons.

Yesterday I flew over Baghdad in a Blackhawk helicopter, blown to and fro by powerful gusts of wind that brought bits of the desert into every part of my life. The deafeing Blackhawk bass groove, needless to say, blocked out any chance the street scenes below might have had to have an impact on me. Bass without the discipline and treble of Beethoven or the rhythm of James Brown is left on its own, an invisible force pulsing through Mesopotamia pushing and pulling Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd in directions they rarely see or hear, in bursts that often last but a second but resonate for generations. These waves do not come across on your TV screen back home, which turns your home into an Arab taxi - you hear a small fraction of an unfinished symphony.

A good song does not have to be very complicated. Look at the Beatles. Look at Egypt's Amr Diab. In today's information age, we feel out of control, due to the hurricane of sound waves that pummels us wherever we go, especially in Baghdad. Finding that harmony, that simplicity, is both more refreshing and more elusive than ever - even more rare is the terrifying sense of actually feeling it and surrendering to it. I often want to run away from here, grab someone I love and sit under a tree and listen to my iPod together as we watch the seasons change.

But I also feel other things. I feel all the pieces of a symphony, all the players in an orchestra, searching for a conductor, crying out for Beethoven. They have been here long before I arrived and will play on longer after I die. But right now it is late and as I head to my trailer I am tired, and I'm grateful others have written the songs and the symphonies that will move me to sleep tonight. My biggest decision right now is James Brown, Depeche Mode, or the voices of people I love.

Love, Mark

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