Everything down to when Professor Daniel appears is exactly as it happened. From there on it’s fiction we feel helps explain the Street Singer’s very real and continuing influence on our musical life.
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 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.
Through our tears, not knowing quite what to expect, we peered out between the wooden shutters. Below our balcony stood a man who looked like he’d wandered into our twentieth century after taking 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, even seeming to still the car noises from the nearby busy street.
Whatever the reason, our Indian neighbors clearly agreed there was something different about this singer. 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 had we seen them react this way to a street musician. More typically they ignored them, drove them away, or bribed them to leave with skimpy handfuls of cheap rice.
Still crying we watched him accept a little something from everyone before vanishing around the corner.
“It was weird,” Professor Daniel waved his hands excitedly as tabla style he sang the beats and ticked them off on his fingers, “I can count anything, but I kept losing it, it was slow it should have been easy, but it wouldn’t stick in my brain…..”
“You talking about the street singer?”
Daniel looked up and motioned us into the last two empty spaces on the wooden bench,“Yeah, that guy, you heard him too?”
“More than heard him, he made us cry,” without our ordering Munna automatically handed us two cups of chai, “you know, there’s no point counting stuff like that…..”
For a long moment he stared silently down into his sweet milky tea.
“If you can’t count it, it doesn’t have rhythm, and if it doesn’t have rhythm it’s not music,” he pronounced the words carefully like he was repeating a lesson, but you could almost hear the question mark at their end. Which startled me since Daniel is always certain he’s right, not for nothing is he called “Professor”.
“Says who. It sounded like music to me. If you couldn’t count it, that’s your problem. Cavemen played music and they couldn’t count.”
I expected Daniel to fight back, but he just sat there pensively cradling his warm terra cotta cup.
“Could be, could be, but if it was music it was weirder than any I’ve ever heard….” his voice trailed off, “nothing before ever got to me like that, I was counting through my tears.”
Which seemed to be the bottom line. Everyone who heard him cried.
Later as the twilight faded the city felt uncanny quiet, only a few slow moving cars, occasional temple bells, the slapping sound of rubber flip-flops. Fresh mosquito coils burning, ceiling fan slowly stirring thick wet air, we lay on our bed soaked in sweat hoping for a storm.
“…. music from before The Fall, when men could talk with animals, before they played the Piano of Knowledge, before they knew the difference between in and out of tune…”
Genesis as retold by a vocal student, she was only half joking.
“If you checked his stuff with computer, it wouldn’t be in tune,” I agreed, “still it was music alright, music so powerful it made us cry.”
“Music that worked when everything we’re studying, everything we hear isn’t working,” she sighed deeply, “I can’t remember the last decent concert. When we got here the singers, the sitars, the tablas blew us away, now it’s all plump dudes wearing silk dhotis pretending to play Indian music. None of them can really do it. Something’s gone seriously wrong. Can they all be that worthless….”
“….or is something wrong with the way music’s being done…” I finished her sentence. “Maybe that’s his message, music’s not about counting and being in tune, it’s about doing magic. That’s what someone up there is trying to tell us….”
Talking about magic comes easily in Varanasi, the oldest city on the planet, a spot where the worlds touch, where the barrier between us mortals and eternity is gossamer thin, where Hindus come to die because leaving their bodies here means getting off the wheel.
Suddenly she held her finger to her lip, “Shhhh!…. listen!”
Pulsing bow, broken voice, it could only be him, but lighter, less ultimately sad than earlier, and though we didn’t notice it then, we weren’t crying, nor at that point did we know we were scheduled for a miracle. Soon he was again below our balcony.
Without turning on any lights we tiptoed to the front and peered through the monkey bars. He stood quietly in the moonlight, back arched like a young dancer, face a thousand-year-old net of deep wrinkles.
Sensing us, a smile flickered across his face, and he began to play, first softly, then louder and louder until everyone within 10 blocks should have heard him….but no one did, no street doors opened, it was for our ears only.
He knew we were from elsewhere since he started with ragas easy for Westerners to grasp, ones that stick close to major scales, smooth shaped ones with easy transitions between the notes. Then he moved to those so loved by Indians which dance and leap across the minor modes. Finally came tunes so complicated, so virtuoso, they were far beyond our ability to identify.
For each he gave us only a few complete cycles, just enough to show his total effortless mastery. And though his was a crude tiny street musician’s instrument, it sang more richly than the most refined concert sarangi. Deeper than the lowest notes of a double bass, higher than the highest of a violin, smoother than a Stradivarius.
At one point a tabla entered, crisp, precise, with a touch so light Allah Rakha would have gone green with envy. Invisible but perfect. Sometimes just doing its job, building a complicated graceful foundation, coming to the end of each cycle at the exact same time as the bow. Sometimes cutting loose with crazy rhythms Professor Daniel would never dare to count, 13 against 19, 23 against 24…… the ghostly player made them all sound easy.
It could have been hours, maybe it was no time at all, but finally the music stopped. Having shown he could do the impossible, for a few heartbeats he was silent. Then he turned back to his sarangi and with a strange intensity slid into the whale like sounds we’d first heard him play.
Instantly we again dissolved into soft, irresistible, blinding tears.
By the time our eyes had cleared enough to see the street, he was gone.
Still years later when we returned to the West, he’s the one who saved us from giving up on a life in music. Except for him, like our sensible friends who never got off the escalator, most likely we’d have settled for a modest, boring, well-off success.
But we couldn’t forget that night he played beneath our balcony.
And it wasn’t the more than humanly skillful master class which gave us the strength to continue, no it was his noble simple music which made us cry.
Because with it shining before us as a kind of Holy Grail, an example of truly magic sound, we’ve never managed to fool ourselves into satisfaction with any flavor of conventional music. Even when it’s been very beautiful, we’ve wanted it to do more, to cast a spell, to conjure forth tears and laughter.
For years in search of that uncanny power we fruitlessly poked into every cranny of the music world. Finally it became clear if that’s what we were after, we’d need to create it for ourselves. So armed with a heady mix of innocence and confidence, we leapt into the unknown.
Of course with an attitude like that, we haven’t made it. The movers and shakers of the world have totally ignored our music, and our elegant digs are in the slums. But at least of late we’ve been drawing closer to that elder magic. With our huge bowed instruments and giant freely tuned kalimba keyboards, occasionally we’ve even stopped time.
It’s also helped we’re sure the street singer’s still solidly behind us. Some summer nights when the air is hot and wet like India, through our open windows we’ve even heard his voice, his bow, distant but unmistakable.