Soft and slow and broken his voice drifted up from the street and instantly both of us began to cry the sort of tears one cries when confronted with something so beautiful it’s difficult to believe it’s real.
Outside in the holy Indian city of Varanasi it was beastly hot, cows huddled in the shade of stained concrete buildings, dogs panted too miserable to bark, while with no object beyond mere survival we lounged in the front room of our digs.
Not knowing quite what to expect, we peered out between the wooden shutters and saw a young man who looked like he’d accidentally wandered into our twentieth century having taken a wrong turn a thousand years before.
It’s difficult to say what gave this impression. Perhaps it was his impeccably tailored garments carefully sewn together from small rags like something made in a time unlike our own when even the tiniest scrap of cloth was precious.
Or perhaps it was the aura of pre-machine age quiet which surrounded him, framing his music, and even seeming to still the car noises from the nearby busy street.
Whatever the reason, our Indian neighbors seemed to agree there was something different about this singer, because as we watched, door after door opened and people appeared to offer him sweets, and curd, and rotis. Some even held out garlands like they would to a holy man.
Never before had we seen them react this way to a street singer. More typically they ignored them, drove them away, or bribed them to leave with skimpy handfuls of cheap rice.
Through our tears we watched as he accepted just a little something from everyone and then disappeared around the corner.
He stayed in our neighborhood at most a day, but that was long enough so later on when we talked to our Indian and expat friends, we discovered everyone had heard him and everyone had been blown away just as we had been.
And yet both his singing and his bowed self-accompaniment had been so simple they could have been perceived as monotonous. Neither had seemed to be particularly skilled, or even exceptionally pretty. Rather they’d had some elder, now-forgotten magic power to pierce directly to his listeners’ hearts.
And the more we thought about it the more we realized this was the direction our music should go, the more we realized we should take this street singer whom we’d seen and heard just once as a most important musical guide.
As for his “reality”, even though it’s been many years now since we left our holy city to rebuild our lives in this modern world, this world where everyone knows everything is just atoms falling through the void, we still find it difficult to believe he was human.
It’s easier to think of him as a celestial musician who for reasons of his own decided to pay a brief visit to our godless world.