It was like a punch in the gut.
And it came from a 60 year-old woman, one of my students who has spent a lot of time in America, but who now wears the hijab and long skirts of the most conservative women of her Muslim sect. Though we’re quite different, we usually get along pretty well.
Last week, she crossed the campus to find me before our class joined a screening of a documentary film.
“Craig, I’m glad I found you,” she said, winded after rushing up two flights of stairs. “I need to ask you. Is this a film about music?”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s about a group that plays the instrument called the Simsimiyya.”
“Oh. Then I’m not allowed to watch it.”
“Because some consider the making of music to be haram [the Arabic word for ‘forbidden’].”
I was stunned, but managed another question: “So what do you do when you hear music in the soundtrack of the other films we’ve watched?”
“I try not to listen to it,” she said.
Before I go further, I need to tell you that this student’s strict views are shared by only the slimmest minority of Muslims, and are not a commonly held tenet of Islam. Clearly, in Egypt, music is a great part of a culture with a long history of musical stars from Om Kalthoum to Amr Diab.
The Oud. The tabla. The flute. All of these instruments are widely played and enjoyed throughout the Islamic world.
But I went into the screening of the documentary that day in a bit of a daze. Had I really just had that conversation?
In a world where music-making is haram, clerics would wrestle the baton from Simon Rattle before he could lead the Berlin Philharmonic on the stage at Carnegie Hall. There would be no Italian Opera. No talking drums. No Tuvan throat singers. No Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. No Peter Gabriel. No Ella Fitzgerald. No Elvis. No Beatles.
Not a world I’d want to live in.
It would all be over if the Fat Lady can’t sing.
The film we saw, called “El Tanbura,” follows the resurgence of a musical form nearly lost in Egypt. In Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean, groups of men used to sing together in clubs, and many at that time knew the tunes, and their call and response lyrics, well. They were ancient Hadra and Dama Sufi songs.
The film El Tanbura tells the story of how a music producer has gotten a number of master musicians together — men who were working as fishermen, waiters and laborers — to revive the music form and play in a group named for one of the key instruments in the band. It’s a little like an Egyptian version of Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club.”
One of the other instruments that provides the foundation of El Tanbura’s music, aside from the Tanbura itself, is the Simsimiyya, a lyre dating back to Pharaonic times. It’s the instrument Shimy, the Bedouin guide I met in the White Desert, plays. And you may remember how much I enjoyed my time there.
Anyone who’s visited any of the places I’ve lived, will know that I collect CDs, and have more than 500 of them, now in storage boxes, along with most of everything else I own, in a Brooklyn warehouse. So I was excited to be introduced to a new band.
My eclectic taste means I have dozens of disks of various genres, from jazz to classical, and any number of types of modern popular music and avant garde wackiness.
Some friends once had a strategy for keeping their music listening from getting repetitive. They would pick a number and then pull off the shelf a CD at every increment of that number. Kind of like throwing darts at a map to decide where you might want to explore. Now, of course, I have the shuffle function on the iPod.
When I do that with my collection, it invariably takes me on a tour not only of various forms of music, but also various regions of the world. It’s like traveling.
Though I’m not a great musician, there’s a bit of the traveling minstrel in me. And I’ve always been a wanderer. From roaming the woods and fields around my rural home as a youngster, to exploring so much of the world as an adult, it’s clear that somewhere along the line I developed an intense wanderlust.
And it could be that wanderlust was fed by my family’s musical taste.
Let me explain.
I am the son of a barbershopper.
Let me explain further.
Dad sang bass in the “Stephen Foster Chorus,” in Warren, Ohio and still sings with a group in San Antonio, Texas. Barbershop choruses follow the same four-part harmony of the more famous quartets. When I was growing up, my dad’s social life was very much centered on the chorus, and the family would attend events and shows every month. Our family soundtrack was the 8-track tapes of award-winning quartets booming from the stereo.
And it’s no surprise, I guess, that the very day that the woman who is perhaps the oldest student at the American University in Cairo said she couldn’t watch a film about musicians, I got a link to this YouTube video in my inbox, in an email from my dad.
Much of Barbershop music and patter is corny and almost an anachronism – people probably thought so when this clip of Perry Como and the world famous Buffalo Bills quartet in the 1950s kinescope first ran on television.
But in spite of its kitsch, there is an amazing thing that happens in Barbershop harmony that still draws audiences. That combination of a melody – led by a second tenor and the bass line – and harmony, filled in by a baritone and a first tenor, merges voices in chords that can, in sweet spots and blended sounds, ring harmonics that rival the polyphonic chants of Tibetan monks.
When the overtone from a ringing chord (or a “busted” chord, in Barbershop parlance) resonates in a hall, a high note swirls over your head and wraps around you and the audience. Dad says they call the overtone “the Charlie.”
To listen to a ringing chord, especially to feel it when singing, can give you goose bumps.
It’s almost like a fifth voice ringing from heaven.
But what does it have to do with wanderlust? Well, two things, I reckon.
First: the family vacations. Every summer the Barbershop Harmony Society (previously known as SPEBSQSA, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) holds its annual convention and contest over the July 4th weekend. And every year it’s in a different city.
For a string of summers in my youth, dad would use his vacation time to plot out two weeks to take us to the annual convention. Dad and mom would work out a driving triptyk that would hit tourist spots on the way to and back from the host city. I remember being in Philadelphia on July 7th, 1977 (7/7/77) and driving all around the Great Lakes in Canada to come down through Minnesota for the convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The journey to the convention in Salt Lake City turned into a west coast trip to the Sequoia National Park and San Francisco.
As a consequence, by the time I finished high school, I had already been in nearly 40 states. [I capped my fiftieth state when I was in Alaska two summers ago for a film I did about the Arctic. The final star on my traveler’s flag.]
The barbershop conventions were pretty boring for a teenage kid. Though I was geeky enough to enjoy some of it, I wasn’t quite geeky enough to sit in a darkened convention center to watch dozens of quartets in the qualifying rounds for three days. Luckily there were day trips for the so-called “Barberteens.”
On those long trips is where I got the notion that travel meant driving for several hours a day, with me riding in the back seat and peeing in a coffee can if I had to go so we wouldn’t have to stop. This is before those Astronaut diapers were invented.
And those experiences have infected my work as well. I’ve had camera crews tell me they know if it’s a “Craig Duff shoot,” they’ll likely put at least 4,000 miles on the rental van by the end of the week.
Another result of those summer vacations is, in a kind of Pavlovian response, I connect travel with music.
And that brings me to the second way that music has driven my wanderlust: just as travel is often a spiritual quest, I feel the most spiritually at home when there’s music playing. And I love going places to find people singing or playing, in dusty alleyways, or in curious corners of third world cities, and, yes, putting on a few extra hundred miles on the rental car to reach a unique music venue.
Some of my favorite moments from my various jaunts around the world have involved music: a cello trio in a Santiago Cafe, a gamelan orchestra in Bali, the Bedouin drums of the white desert, or peasants singing folkloric hymns on Christmas Eve in Honduras.
Just down the street from my apartment here in Cairo is a place called El Sawy, which has three halls under the 26th of July street overpass and the bridge that crosses the Nile from Zamalek to a neighborhood called Mohandiseen. I go there at least once a week to check out different acts. The Cairo Jazz Club is just over the bridge. And I’m always looking for the off the beaten path venue with authentic Egyptian music.
To feel fully alive, I need a soundtrack for my soul.
Just in the past year, I’ve had so many amazingly resonant experiences connected with music. From sitting in the front row at the Riverside Church for a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and being able to see the string section in tears during the finale just as much as I was. To the sheer, and simple, joy of hearing friends play songs they wrote.
Last week, I discovered the music practice rooms on campus, and I spent an hour or two in one of them, pounding away on an out of tune Steinway upright.
So you can see why it felt like a punch in the gut when I found out there was someone I know who believes the world should not have anything musical except the prayers chanted by the muezzins in the minarets.
Luckily, there are about six billion other people around the world who are on my side.