“For Hindus, there is no holier place than Varanasi”, writes Ralph Koper in his fine introduction to Ancient Pulsations, a collection of field recordings collected on a visit to India. The city is sustained, physically and spiritually, by the Ganges, used for both washing and cremation. On this recording, life, death, and rebirth form a swirling cycle with no definitive beginning or end, much like a river flowing to the sea.
But if Varanasi is intensely spiritual, it is also intensely musical. Few field recordings capture so many chants, snatches of songs, and ritual instruments. The streets are awash in notes that filter through the air like scents. Listening is like passing through a bazaar and a temple at the same time. At any time, the next strain of filtered melody or struck bell awaits, joined by individual and group singing. Perhaps the oddest sound to Western ears is the happy chant, “Jai Ho” (“Let there be victory”), as it was popularized in a homogenized version by the Pussycat Dolls a few years back. This, however, is the real thing.
Animals and other creatures play an important role in the recording as well. Cows are heard on various tracks, as well as bats, birds, insects, monkeys, dogs and frogs. “I was very happy with the frogs”, writes Koper. In Hindu life, what is ordinary to others becomes sacred; all life is intertwined. But an appreciation for life is most clearly felt in moments that merge the traditionally holy with the secular sublime ~ the massed cymbals of “Aarti puja and the harmony in chaos” joined by a child’s voice demonstrates a lack of internal conflict. In other cultures, the child would be hushed, and this admonition would become the discordant note. As the ceremony continues, it sounds like a parade.
Where there is death, there is sadness, but a belief in reincarnation allows Hindus to celebrate anew. In this sense, the culture is loosely connected with that of New Orleans, in which a funeral procession provides an opportunity for joy. When the veil between this world and the next (or more accurately, the concurrent) is thin, the heart is able to make the leap. Listening to Ancient Pulsations, one begins to think, we sing goodbye, we sing hello, and all of creation sings along. When a bicycle bell sounds at the beginning of “Boat sir”, does an angel get its wings? Perhaps the angel is riding the bicycle. Where heaven and earth are intertwined, anything is possible. (Richard Allen)