Day 19 – Tear Gas and Folk Music
The batteries were low this morning. We have been going and going ever since arriving in Kashmir due to the marvelous planning and execution of the team here working on our behalf. I’m extremely thankful for all of their efforts and opportunities, but I’ve become very tired after 3 days here. I woke up, and immediately canceled our pickup so that we could rest for the morning. It was a much needed break. It allowed me to drink a couple cups of coffee, relax, and catch up on my blogs.
Being so busy, I have missed the last two days of blogs. An interesting thing happens to my memory on these Banjo Earth journeys. Over the course of only two days, so many things happen, so many little twists and turns, so many epic experiences, that it all begins to just melt into one big memory stew. I have to consult friends, pictures, and social media posts to remember the events of the last couple of days. Weeks of life are being crammed into days. This is the beautiful thing about traveling. Everyday is new, everyday is vibrant, and the realizations and changes in perspective are relentless.
After resting and catching up on the work, we catch a boat across the lake to reach the car that awaits us. It has not yet arrived, and there is a few minutes to spare, so I break out the banjo and play a couple of tunes for the boatmen and taxi drivers that are standing around. Never miss an opportunity to bring joy and happiness into the world. The car finally arrives, and we head out through the narrow concrete alleyways.
We are going to a cafe called Chai Jaai to meet our friend Mahi for a performance of Kashmiri folk music. I’m excited because the sounds of the songs and instruments is very mesmerizing for me. They play a melody for sometimes thirty minutes or more as they sing a dramatic story in a call and response fashion. Much like our Appalachian ballad tradition, it is their ancient form of sharing stories and the news of the times. But it also just sounds so damn good!
On the way to the cafe, we run into a bit of a scare. While driving, we hear a couple of explosions. People start scurrying around, and it is very easy to tell that something serious is happening. I have my window down, and an old guy across the street sees me, and motions for us to turn around and get out of there. It’s not so easy, because there is a lot of traffic and they are also trying to get turned around. Furthermore there is a deep ditch dividing both sides of the road that make a u-turn impossible. We try to remain calm, as the driver maneuvers us out of the situation. Apparently it was a couple of tear gas bombs used by the Indian military to disperse a protest crowd. There is a lot of tension here between the native Kashmiri population, who is primarily Muslim, and the occupying Indian forces, primarily Hindu. The rape and murder of an 8 year old girl by a prominent Hindu official’s son has further exacerbated the situation. Despite Kashmir’s incredible beauty and the warmth of it’s people, it’s pretty scary to be around this tension. It’s also eye-opening in a way, as it is unfortunately the reality of daily life for Kashmiris and many people around the world.
After extracting ourselves from the situation, we take a different route through town, and finally end up at the cafe. It’s like a different world in there. The stark contrast is striking. People are sipping tea, working on their computers, and the folk music performance is about to begin in the next room. Newspapers are scattered about the table where we sit, all covered with stories regarding the young female victim of the murder. Mahi joins us as we finish our chicken sandwiches and oolong tea, and we settle in for the performance.
The Kashmiri folk instruments are fascinating. There is the Rabab, an instrument that is somewhat similar to the banjo in sound, but has a lot more strings. There is also a couple of Sarangi players, which is a bowed instrument, similar to a violin, but also with many more strings. A Nout, which is a large percussion instrument, is played by the lead singer. And finally there is a Harmonium, which is a combination squeeze box and piano. You find this instrument in all forms of Indian folk and classical. It’s a mainstay of the sounds of this entire region. We sit, enjoy the performance, and taste a couple of treats they serve to the listeners. At set break, we get to chat with the singer, as our friend Mahi translates. In talking with them, I find that they have been together as a band for 30 years!
After the performance, we head back toward the boat for another early night. We have a delicious dinner and relax with a drink. Outside I can hear the chants and speeches of an angry population just across the lake. Friday (tomorrow) is prayer day in the Muslim faith, and I can feel the anger increasing with each sentence and song. We have been advised to stay on the boat tomorrow to ensure our safety. Things are a bit tense between the factions involved, though I feel safe in our surroundings and with the people looking out for us. I will be more relaxed however, when I am back in New Delhi, coughing up fumes, and trying to catch a rickshaw for a ride in the city.