(Image above is ‘Kanchenjunga’ by Nicholas Roerich)
“If all the old songs are lost, then we don’t remember who we are.” (Aboriginal Tiwi elder, Lenie Tipiloura)
We had no songs. That’s what it boiled down to in the end, we really had no songs to offer. And now here we were, six westerners sitting around a fire in the Himalayan foothills of northern India looking awkwardly at one another while a ring of happy brown faces and expectant smiles awaited our contribution. To be honest, for me it was more than just embarrassing. It was much more than that.
The porters, guide and cook all looking at us, “Yes, yes! Please sing some songs where you are from!”
It was our last evening together. We had completed the Yuksom to Dzongri trek in Sikkim. It hadn’t been a long trek, less than a week. But from a 13,000 ft. ridge festooned with Buddhist prayer flags, we had seen the light of sunrise shining through the morning mists and illuminating the upper reaches of Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. A place and a vision I’ll never forget.
We had been really enjoying being an appreciative and enchanted audience as the porters took turns singing the traditional songs from the valleys and villages where they were from. Their work for us was done, everyone had been paid well and now it was a time to celebrate together. It was the kind of experience that makes travel to such distant places and different cultures so worthwhile.
But now this sudden and completely unexpected role reversal. Now they were the audience and we were to be the singers.
Because this is what they had been doing. Singing the songs that they had grown up with that they had learned as children. They were singing the songs their parents, aunts, uncles, neighbouring families and grandparents had grown up with.
Even the shyest among them sang in such a natural, lit up, open and unselfconscious way. A way that I found amazing- given how things are for most of us in our culture. I doubt that it ever occurred to any of them at any time in their lives that they couldn’t sing. They would have grown up with singing as being as natural as talking or laughing.
I’ll never forget that feeling of awkwardness, of how we all looked at one another. Weak jokes of maybe singing ‘Oh Canada’ or ‘Frere Jacques’ or maybe ‘Row Row Row your Boat,’ or some popular rock song we all knew. But that was not what was being asked for here in this place. All the while I was just squirming inside- like I was at a potluck dinner and now everyone wanted to know and taste what I had brought. And I had brought nothing.
Anyway, our ideas soon fizzled out into an awkward fidgeting silence as it dawned on us that we had no songs, we had nothing to offer.
Fortunately, they soon rescued us and started off on another of their own songs and we six could all breathe a sigh of relief and once again simply watch, listen marvel and enjoy.
But I have never forgotten that feeling of what it felt like to ‘have no songs’ in a place where everyone else did. It felt like a kind of poverty. It revealed a place of emptiness, a place of silenced voice in me that I hadn’t been aware of before. I’m aware of it now and its not a comfortable feeling. For to feel a sense of ‘something missing’ there must also be a sense that there was once something there. I wonder what that ‘something’ was?
That was in the fall of 2005, and I really hope that they and their people of all ages are still singing their songs in that beautiful place. It would be a great loss if they weren’t.
And according to Wade Davis, I have great reason to be concerned…
“If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite – the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment – is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times.”
― Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
I wonder about these things. I wonder about the idea that not only are we losing such things as the traditional songs of people and place along with species of plants, animals, birds and old growth forests- we are also losing the species, nuances, sensations and illuminations- the sense of pure wonder of our own experiencing that our encounters with such diversities grant us. No matter how far away we are from that place, when such things disappear from the world we all lose something.