Day 18 – Mountain Drive – Srinagar, Kashmir
Another morning on the houseboat, another breakfast of coffee, omelette, toast, and porridge. The place is amazing, the dinners are delicious and varied, but the breakfast is quite consistent. Haha! Anyway, thankful for some food in the belly and for some good sleep. We have another full day of plans, and it’s time to get started early. The boat arrives to take us across the water at 9 am. Today Mursaleen, our original guide, picks us up and plans to take us to a far off Sufi shrine way up in the Kashmir mountains.
As we drive through Srinagar, I am taken aback by the difference of perception I feel of the area from the time we left the airport, to now, only a mere 48 hours later. The armed military guards everywhere, the horror stories, the warnings from Indians and foreigners alike were all coloring my experience directly off the plane. Now, such a short time later, I ride in the car in the same place, with the same companions, with a completely different perspective. I’ve gotten to know the area, the people who inhabit it, and the intricacies of the situation. My understanding is so much deeper, nuanced, and respectful than it was only 2 days ago. That goes to show that only experience, not heresy or news stories, can give you the real truth. Sure, you have to pay attention to the narrative that is going around, but only some intrepid exploration can really get you to the heart of a matter.
The drive to the shrine is fascinating. We climb higher and higher in elevation, see some of the beautiful Kashmir countryside, and pass through little towns and villages that are bustling with activity. As we reach the site of the shrine about one hour later, the scene is pretty surreal. The shrine is to one of the great Sufi saints, and this little town is built around it on the top of a mountain. Outside the gates is a parking lot where vendors are selling street food, trinkets, and crafts. The people are very friendly and are very welcoming to us. This area is almost completely Muslim, and given the recent history of the struggles between the west and the Islamic world, one would think this would be a scary place to be. But, in actuality, I feel very calm, safe, and welcomed here.
We have a few street snacks, then enter the shrine. It is beautiful, detailed, and ornate, like all religious structures here. Inside the very center, in a room, is the casket of the great Sufi saint, along with several other caskets. People come here to pray and give their respects to the deceased. There is rice and sweets that is blessed then given out to the devotees. We pay our respects, explore the area bit, then head back down the hill. Exhaustion begins to creep in and I have to catch a car nap, waking up just as we reach Srinagar. After a lunch and interview with our friend and guide, we get back to the hotel for about a 10 minute rest, before having to leave for the session with the band Meezan. These are the two guys I met for kava, a kashmiri tea yesterday. This time the whole band is in tow. They are waiting for us across the lake, and all six of us pile into Zeeshans compact car, and groove off to his house for a night of music and family.
The whole family is there, including brothers, sisters, father, mother, and grandmother. They welcome us in with open arms and the warmth of their kindness is palatable. As usual custom, we have kava and cookies to get things started, then the collaboration begins. After setting up all the equipment and finding the proper audio levels, we begin constructing the song. This is truly the first co-write/live recording session in Banjo Earth history. The whole process of this sharing and creating is the true nature of the project, and really brings forth the spirit of Banjo Earth. It’s hard work, and complicated to write and arrange a song on the spot, but we persist, and eventually come up with something that we think will work.
But then comes the challenge of performing it live well enough to put in on a recording. This takes probably another two hours of work, and simply because of time, we have to shut down the sessions. It’s coming on 1030pm, which is late by Kashmiri family standards. Our last go at the recording is pretty good, though I feel like with some more practice, we could improve the song. Thus is the challenge and constraints of time and space. However, we did get something on wax and we’re all proud of our efforts. Dinner is waiting for us when we finish, so we gather at the table, and dig in with our hands, as is the custom.
These guys are so much fun, and the family is incredible. I feel a lot of love coming from everyone involved here. This project takes us to some strange and exotic places, but the real heart is the people, and this experience shows why that is so true. Sharing music, sharing food, sharing laughs, sharing hugs…Connecting the world through the spirit of a banjo. This is the magic of Banjo Earth.