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Tales of the tape recorder

Two couples, two continents and one bulky cassette recorder: audio vignettes from India and Africa at the millennium

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Weighing in at 15-pounds-plus, it seems like such a clunky thing to be carrying around in the digital age. But, twice at least, lugging this particular Marantz Superscope cassette deck with its excellent, lighted VU meters and array of bias settings has paid off. Two couples, two continents, same tape recorder; this is a story about being somewhere remarkably different and being able to bring some of the moment back home. --KR

"India? For your honeymoon?" It's been nearly five years and occasionally someone will still ask us that. When Amy and I were married we still hadn't decided on where we would honeymoon. But we knew we wanted to use the opportunity to have more than a vacation or even an adventure. We were after a life-changing experience, a rite of passage to mark this new stage in our lives.

The decision to go to India was influenced by a set of interests that seemed to point toward the subcontinent--specifically, our fondness for the 1994 film Latcho Drom, gypsy culture, Hindustani music and documentary audio. We saw India as the destination that would provide some memorable experiences and a chance to indulge our amateur ethnomusicologist ambitions.

It is widely believed that the Rom--or gypsies--have origins in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan and that they departed India in several migratory waves over a period of centuries. Their journey is represented beautifully in Latcho Drom as a series of vignettes depicting gypsy music and dance filmed in some of the major centers of Rom culture in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The film's breathtaking opening scenes were filmed in Rajasthan.

In November 1999, our backpacks jammed full of clothes, cameras and our rugged (read: bulky!) old Marantz Superscope CD-330 tape recorder, we headed off on a month-long adventure. --CJ

The Harmonium Shop
We walk toward the river accompanied by a blue-horned cow with scores of bells around its neck. Chuck is carrying the recorder in his backpack. He's got the mic in his hand. The street is lined with workshops. In most you can see one or another woman using an iron sewing machine, the old Singer kind that is black with gold paint, powered by pedaling your foot to the treadle. In others shops there are ironworkers, hammers on red-hot irons, sparks flying inside the wooden walls. Over the clang and hum of treadles and hammers, a thousand Bollywood themes are soaring from the speakers of battered shopfront cassette decks. There's more than a few blown speakers in this mix, enough to build a percussion of static. The blue-horned cow is keeping time with everything, sending out a compact racket of tiny bells with each step.

We head to the residential side of Udaipur hoping to find something to record. Ever since our first walk through the streets here, we find again that everything seems like something to record.

As we cross a bridge we attract the attention of two teenage boys. They stand out because they are wearing Western clothes--shirts with triangle collars, belts and pants. They smile and wave to us like they have been expecting us to arrive.

"Hello, is that a microphone?" asks the younger boy, with a cracking adolescent voice. "What sort of microphone, what are you doing, what is it for?"

We tell them we are looking for music to record, someone playing music. "Do you know of anywhere we should go?"

Their uncle has a store with some harmoniums (small, table-top pump organs). "They are so old though, you might not like that," says the older. No, no, old is better, we say.

We walk to the store, but the place is closed. Inside we can see all kinds of instruments, and they all look about 100 years old. "Oh, he's gone somewhere, don't worry, he will come back," says the younger and motions to a nearby child, telling him to go find the uncle. We wait in the shade, silent for a long moment.

"So, I am wondering, do you know Armani?" the younger boy says suddenly, looking at me, and then at Chuck. I am not sure I heard him right, I look at Chuck and he is also raising an eyebrow at me. "Armani? You mean like, the designer of clothes?" Chuck asks. "Ah, you know him!" shouts the younger boy, jumping up with a leaping gesture and coming down like he's snatched a bird from the air with his bare hands. I hold out my hands in the universal 'whoa, nellie!' gesture as Chuck says, "Well, I know of him, I know who he is, I don't know him personally, if that's what you mean"

"Ah, but you do know of him!" shouts the boy, completely thrilled. He then tells us an elaborate story about Armani's visit to town.

"Ever since then," he explains, "is to put on our best clothes, like what you see I am wearing now, we fix our hair and everything, and wait at the bridge, just in case Armani may come back." The older brother grabs our hands and squeezes them. "When we saw your tape recorder, we thought, maybe you had some connection. But it is OK that you don't, it is nice to meet you anyway."

The old man finally arrives and smiles and nods to us. He takes an old key and unlocks the heavy wooden door. Inside, he gestures for us to look around. The youngest boy goes to him again and says something excitedly, and the man nods and goes to the shelf to take an old harmonium down and set it on a table. It is German, looks to be from the '20s or '30s.

He encourages me to try it, and I do, but soon stop and in my by now well-practiced language of gestures ask if he would play it. Chuck then takes the most difficult step of asking if we can record him playing. There is something about even asking that feels so intrusive, and sometimes neither of us can do it. We have missed some good things simply for lack of guts to ask.

There is a pause as the man looks at us and lowers his eyes to the recorder. He seems to suddenly lose interest in the whole idea. We're both smiling, feeling awkward with the microphone and hoping we don't look like salesmen and hoping, hoping. He sits down and points to the microphone, and somehow we can tell he's saying, "Go ahead, turn that thing on."

He begins to play a shaky, waltzy tune. The younger boy is crouched on the floor, the older by the window, the sun is turning a golden pink behind him. The mud and plaster walls are lit with rosy light and the smell of river water, cow dung and dust blows in from the street. I can feel my shirt beginning to dry, the midday sweat evaporating in the beginning of the evening air. It's an oddly European song, it has a dusty ballroom quality, even with the slipping Indian scales. --AW

We stash our bags in a hotel as far from the center of town as possible and head out with the tape recorder to the desert, where we figure we'll find the camel fair. Though still five days away, from the trickle of tourists arriving so far we already know we want to be far away long before it hits its stride.

We head across town and into the desert. It is quiet at the edge of the city, with nothing but trucks rumbling by. As the Doppler trail of a big truck fades around us, we notice drums and a sharp, full, winding call from a schwam, an oboelike instrument. We follow the sound.

Hitting the top of what turns out to be a scrubby path, we're greeted by snapping rows of fiercely colored flags--pinks and oranges and greens and reds. Men in turbans are all over the place, and people are selling stuff on blankets all along a skinny road to our left. There are men in turbans of day-glo orange; this is the first and last time we see this color in a turban. Sloping close below us is a row of painted Ferris wheels, tents with hand-painted billboards portraying 10-foot visions of freakish humans, and state-fair-looking agricultural demonstrations, featuring John Deere tractors, German-made generators, irrigation systems and an unlikely tent featuring Wilkinson razor products. Beyond that, to the other side, is the desert and clumps of camels resting here and there.

We snake through a maze of tents, step over spikes and ropes. We turn a corner between two empty tents and see a strange figure about 15 feet ahead run swiftly across the line of vision, darting between the short gap between the tents. It looks like a part human, part dog--or maybe a tiny, misshapen person riding an equally misshapen dog. We discuss this briefly but we didn't see anything about a dog-man on the freak-show billboards. It is creepy out here--circus tents, huge desert, a sliver moon is rising and the sun is turning red. I can feel the drums all the way up in my chest.

It sounds like the schwam is being held up to take in all the wind; it is a terrible and preposterous wail. We turn on the tape recorder and when we look up we see the dog-man again, flashing through the tent alley with uncanny speed. The drums are in our throat as we round the corner and confront two men on a small platform, one with a drum and the other with a schwam. From around behind them the dog-man comes prancing up, completely caught up in himself. He is a small man with a costume that has a part starting at the waist to make it look like he is on a horse. Little fake legs flop against the horse rib cage. The men look startled to see us and the drummer stops completely to stare at us with an open mouth as the horseman stumbles slightly and looks up with a startled 'ah!' sound.

But these are professionals, it's clear; they pick it all back up in a second. They play even harder than before, and the horse-man dances. --CJ

The Singing Contest
Whether you were walking or riding as we were in a splendid Toyota Hilux, a double cab pickup, there is no fast way to get to the high plain at Malefiloane. It was maybe 20 kilometers from Mokhotlong and it took three hours even though some of that went quickly on the new blacktop.

We had been in Lesotho--in Mokhotlong along the South African border--about two weeks and were leaving soon. The May 2000 Agric Show at Malefiloane was a perfect culmination to the trip. It was a kind of county fair, not too surprising since the guy that cooked it up is a native Midwesterner.

My wife, Sally Heiney, met Lyle Jaffe in college and has stayed in touch with him as he traveled to various parts of Africa working on development projects. He'd been in Lesotho for about 12 years as director of GROW, an international nonprofit whose Lesotho project was aimed at water sanitation and crop diversity. He is a thin, wiry man with a determined gate and a lot of energy. He and his wife, Simone, had stayed with us in Indiana after they got married, and when Sally and I got married we got an invitation.

It had been a strange and wonderful two weeks starting with frantic preparations at GROW headquarters over the impending visit of the king, Letsie III, and his new queen, Mrs. Karabo Seeiso. Two days after we drove from Durban up the Drakensburg escarpment and onto the plateau of Lesotho, the king arrived at GROW preceded by 30 men on horseback and a couple of military pickups. There were a lot of speeches, singing and praise poetry that day. The king gave a speech praising GROW's literacy volunteers and the new couple planted a tree before moving on to their next visit. That night the king instructed the power plant to run late. The lights stayed on in Mokhotlong and we all had a heck of a party.

I taped a bit of the singing at the party and at one point a group of senior GROW folks and I went next door to work on an arrangement of their new theme song.

Over the next few days, I gathered mostly atmospheric sounds along with late night African radio evangelists. Although I never regretted taking Chuck up on his offer to loan us the Marantz for the trip, but it wasn't until we got to the Agric Show that lugging that tape deck all over the mountains really made sense.

We knew a little of what to expect; in addition to horse racing, a feast and crop judging there would be a singing contest. Several of the primary schools in the area had been challenged to come up with original songs celebrating things like clean water, nutrition and diversity.

People started arriving, most on foot, around midday. At the core of each group were schoolchildren, more than a hundred in all, from different villages each in their school's uniform--yellow, green blue or black. Each group announced their arrival by singing a song as they walked into camp. Ululations and cheers from the growing crowd of parents and grandparents greeted them as they came into view.

We knew a little of what to expect from the kids, too. A few days earlier we'd traveled to the village of Likoae and visited the Nazareth Primary School. It was bare bones--almost no books nor much to write with, no blackboard. Lesotho had just made primary education free and little schools like Nazareth were overwhelmed. We gave the teacher some rands to help pay for a blackboard. It wasn't much but she was overjoyed and ran back into the school. We heard some cheering and the whole class followed her out, formed a semicircle around us and they gave us a preview of their songs.

The choral music of Lesotho is a joyous music. It's got a heavy beat arranged with groups of voices creating rhythms and counter rhythms.

The recording made at the Agric Show, is quite literally, a field recording. The plain, maybe a mile or so high, was so windswept that it took a while to get the mic screened from the gusts. Each school had two or three tunes worked out, some with dances and speeches woven in.

They would march up to a microphone connected by a long cord to a beat up blue pickup with a couple of speakers mounted on top. Some groups would dance as they sang or march around in a circle. One group bought carrots and pictures of latrines that GROW had built for their school.

The competition was fierce and the judges, including the local chief, were lobbied hard by the crowd.

Winners, including our friends at Nazareth, got an encore set and the adoration of the growing group collecting on the plain. Most of those recordings of the second set are all but drowned out in places by the sounds of cheering grandmothers and mothers who would run up and with a shout place a coin at the choir's feet and dance away proudly.

We converted the tape to CD and got it mastered when we got home. It has always been a dream to put out a CD of the kids and within a few months we did--five of them in all--which were shipped back to Mokhotlong, where in certain villages, we're told, they were top of the charts. --KR

Hear recordings made during the tape recorder's trips to India and Africa: www.indymusicawards.com/resources

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