Divya Manian

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Serious Play in Music

Like all middle-class Tamil children, I was also forced to learn classical music and dance. Thankfully, my parents did not press on with the dance classes (given all the expenses it involved) but my mom remained firm in her resolve to put me through Carnatic Music classes.

I learnt music for about 8 to 9 years, learning to sing and play the Veena (very badly I must say). Needless to say, it was not an experience I enjoyed until the last two years when my awesome teacher introduced me to the science and rules of the music I was learning.

The best part about Carnatic music, I feel, is the scope for experimentation and play that it permits. Professional artists spend hours every day, in addition to practicing timeless music pieces, experimenting within the rules of each raga those music pieces were set in.

It is this idea of play, or experimentation that seems missing in popular music, or even live non-jazz music played across all bars. From my limited experience, most bands seem to play a set list of songs, but no time is allocated to experiment.

When I saw Baaba Maal in Cambridge this May, I was floored by how much of the music seemed impromptu. Today, I am listening to Habib Koité’s live recordings, and the same spirit of play is obvious.

Bela Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart is also a fantastic experimentation and exploration of Banjo’s roots in Senegal/Gambia/Mali/Uganda/Tanzania.

This also ties well with Paula Scher’s talk on Serious Play. I like to think Carnatic and West African Music are some of the few disciplines that actively advocate Serious Play.

Seeing people indulge in Serious Play, is an inspiring experience. It seems so simple, but at the same time so profound. I think it also explains the popularity of Improvisational Theatre or Performance Poetry.

I do hope you get to see the performances by some of these West African artists! It is an experience worth having!