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Global Music, Connecting Cultures Stories from the Rajasthani Road... from world music ensemble LIBANA

A Spontaneous International Music Festival in Rural Rajasthan

USA | Monday, 28 February 2011 | Views [1634] | Comments [3]

Drumming and dancing Afunga (from West Africa) at Barefoot College, Rajasthan

Drumming and dancing Afunga (from West Africa) at Barefoot College, Rajasthan

I have now woken up two mornings back home here in Somerville. My dreams are filled with the colors, sounds, and heart impressions of India. I am not sure what to make of anything. This morning it is snowing. Clearly this journey is going to take a long time to process, and I am dedicated within myself to creating as much space in daily life as possible for that to happen in. 

This morning my stream of images have landed back in rural Rajasthan, where we spent a transformational 24 hours visiting Barefoot College in Tilonia (about 2 hours from Jaipur). The road from Jaipur got less and less urban, as we moved into the amazingly expansive countryside. A welcome relief from the vibrant but densely crowded streets of Delhi and Jaipur where we had been so far. This portion of Rajasthan had their irrigation systems in place! Beautifully green fields extended in every direction (next to occasional dry, dusty, fallow fields). Golden mustard fields were interspersed with the green. Across the landscape bloomed splashes of bright intense color--the reds, oranges, yellows, and fuchsias of the saris of Rajasthani women as they worked their fields--in the same manner as there ancestors for centuries before. Some were walking through the fields carrying bundles of harvested plants on their heads. Others carried large bowls on top, most were bent over at the waist. Vibrant flowers, hard at work. 

Our small bus eventually turned off the highway onto a dirt road. We passed lots of kids, small homesteads with piles of dung patties, an occasional roadside well, goats, cattle, a few camel-drawn carts. A couple miles later we pulled into Barefoot College and were met by our guide for the time we would spend there--a man named Ram Nivas. Wrapped in a shawl, he graciously greeted us, as the peaceful air filled with birdsong and gentle breeze and an occasional barking dog enveloped us. I felt we had been delivered into the arms of the Goddess.  

We were shown to our accommodations for the night ahead-- small, bare rooms with the ubiquitous hard Indian mattresses. I remembered what our friends back at the American Embassy School had said early on in the planning process of our trip: "And if you decide to go into rural India, well........well kudos to you!"  None of that mattered. It was just so peaceful there. 

Barefoot College was founded in the 70's by a visionary man Bunker Roy (for an inspirational video of the meeting between him and the Dalai Lama, who had visited Barefoot a mere two days before us, watch http://www.barefootcollege.org/videos/Altruism2.htm ). He felt that the way that India was going to change was from the roots up. Harvesting and sharing the time-tested wisdom of rural people, he began offering  empowering classes and apprenticeships that taught skills to primarily illiterate local women that would help them transform the quality of life in their communities. They became solar engineers, experts in water purification, dentists, healthcare workers, architects, even menstrual pad makers. And of course gifted artisans. 

Ram Nivas showed us everywhere, explaining not only what was being learned by each group of women, but the philosophy that infuses the school. He shared his own personal story with us of having grown up a member of the untouchable caste, and the emotional pain he endured while being heavily ostracized as a young boy because of that. Bunker Roy trained him to be an accountant at the college, which completely changed his life. 

At Barefoot, there is no caste system at work. All are equal. All are human. All have wisdom. All have intelligence. All have the power to change their world. 

When we got to the room where the puppets lived, his whole demeanor came alive! He is a puppeteer. Several of us were reminded of Bread and Puppet Theater as soon as we walked in that room. The room was filled with puppets of all sizes and varieties, and a group of musicians awaited us. Puppetry is a traditional art form in Rajasthan, and in the hands of Ram Nivas, accompanied by the musicians, it is now being used to teach and challenge the hearts and minds of its rural audiences on social issues such as domestic violence, health care, water-borne diseases, etc....The rural communities listen--it is the puppets who are doing the teaching.

We were treated to several tribal songs by this traditional band -- 2 singers (one of them Ram Nivas with his amazing voice), a harmonium, a 19 year old amazing drummer, clanging large hand cymbals... and then a small puppet show. In this small, darkish room, the arts and social change were being magically interwoven. 

After a full day of visiting the activities of the college, and having eaten two meals there, it was time to get ready for the concert we were to give after dinner. There was an outdoor performing area with a stage (opensided with a roof), illuminated with solar electricity generated by the women there and three microphones. We had been told that an hour concert would be long enough, and that that timeframe would include translations and a couple of songs by some of the women at the college.

By the time they had found a table and a couple of chairs for us (everything happens on the floor there), unpacked instruments, set up the stage, figured out how to best use the three microphones and changed into our wrinkled performance attire (no way to iron....) there was not even time to vocally warmup. Our audience had assembled and Ram Nivas (who was to emcee the evening) was ready to go. I asked him how the concert was going to be organized. He said that he wanted his group of musicians to start with the traditional summoning music (all drums, clanging cymbals and blown conch shells...) and then we would sing our first song. After that? How about we alternate? He would improvise an order of events and all would be well. 

We were flexible. We were ready for anything. But we were in no way prepared for the two hour spontaneous international music festival that occurred on that stage that evening under solar lighting in the middle of rural Rajasthan.

Although we knew that sometimes women from other parts of the world would come apprentice at Barefoot, we had only met a small group of Kenyan women earlier that afternoon who were making candles and working with electricity (a hearty rendition of Kwaheri was sung together, followed by many hugs).

But in the "audience" that evening were assembled women from many areas of India as well as Kenya, the Congo, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Guatemala, Columbia, and beyond.

What ensued was a festival of song by these "Barefoot Engineers". We would sing a song, then Ram would summon the Masai women from Kenya who spontaneously laughed their way onto the stage and sang and danced traditional song from their village. And then we would sing a song, and then the women from Burkina Faso would offer their tradition. No one knew this was going to happen. When we sang Beleil, our Bedouin Arab song, the Jordanians erupted from their seats and joined us on stage in disbelief, singing their hearts out (I was congratulated on my oud playing by a somewhat shocked Jordanian at the end of the song.....). On through the evening, one elated group of (mostly) women after another (including us!) made their way onto the stage and with not a drop of competitiveness and full of pride--all sharing our souls with each other. Even our two Punjabi bus drivers joined the festivities! Needless to say, by the time Allison and Linda had donned their Garba costumes, ready to dance this traditional dance done across Gujarat and Rajasthan, the audience went wild.

The evening came to a close with Ram requesting a rendition of We Shall Overcome. We began, singing a verse on stage, followed by the audience members singing it in Hindi, and then another verse by us, followed by a version of that verse in Hindi.  

Transcending any possible boundaries, the universal joy of shared music and dance rang through the night air uniting us all in an unforgettable sea of song.  

And as soon as the music was over, the lights went out, leaving only one solar powered lantern to illuminate the crowd of people that was gathering onstage to look at our instruments and talk to us. An afterglow party ensued (giving a total new meaning to that phrase). Gathered around that small table with our instruments, it was requested that I play my hammered dulcimer.

Improvising a little, everyone was transfixed, and for some reason that prompted the Rajasthani musicians to sing another song which I jammed on my hammered dulcimer with. Cheryl's husband Alan blew their conch shell (summoning up his shofar blowing experience), and Marytha and I sang a Balkan song.

The Rajasthani guys sang us a traditional goodbye song which we all LOVED (they said it is mostly sung by women in the villages, and it will definitely make its way into our repertoire!). Eventually everyone else had dispersed and all instruments safely (and miraculously) returned to the safety of their cases, leaving only some of Libana and Ram and his band of Rajasthani musicians (who now, having seen us do our thing and having just moments before tried out every drum and instrument, were incredibly animated and conversational). An invitation ensued to come back and spend 6 months--Ram would take us around to all the villages so we could learn thousands of songs..... 

We stood there for quite awhile, by the light of a solitary lantern talking, exchanging touring stories (this band had traveled to Europe once), and.... much to our amazement (and yet again, not)--hearing Ram talk about his time working with Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater while in Germany! He was blown away that Marytha and I have also sung in a couple of Bread and Puppet productions.  

How small a world can it possibly be? Or is it so vast that it is beyond comprehension? 

I do know that it was the spirit and essence of Libana's 31 years together that catalyzed that amazing rural Happening. And it took Ram's intuition to know that it was possible. 

After a short night's sleep on those hard mattresses (and I will not discuss the bathrooms), we woke to more birdsong and the best breakfast chapatis imaginable. After many closing conversations and tearful hugs and Namaste's, we got back on our bus, driven by our new best Punjabi friends, and headed back to Jaipur to catch a plane to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. 

I knew, as we drove back down that dirt road towards the highway, that something sacred had happened. 






Libana - I have LOVED these stories, and I so look forward to reading more as they unfold. What an incredible voyage, transforming, amazing...Thank you for sharing...Jane

  Jane Culbert Feb 28, 2011 12:53 PM


Your account of the spontaneous concert brought tears to my eyes. (and we'll compare bathroom stories in person...)

  Jane Goodman Mar 1, 2011 4:57 AM


Again, kudos to you!

  Douglas Mar 3, 2011 2:30 AM

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