Goa, first encounter

Part 4/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

In Mumbai, there were sounds that I wished to hear but was unable to. I thus spent my first few days here in India writing more about silence than about music, more about the gaps in our knowledge than about what our surroundings can teach. Now, however, I am in Goa (in Benaulim, to be precise), and the masala of sounds around me now makes me marvel at how much there is to hear in this world. This tantalizing re-engagement with sound, and music in particular, seems highly fitting, as New Year’s Eve, the day of excitement and of horizons, is only hours away.

In Goa, I hear the Arabian Sea, and multilingualism (Konkani, Hindi, English, and a hearty amount of Russian), and the musical richness of India, and the almost full moon (which has a sound to me), and laughter. This is a laidback soundscape, closely linked to a way of life that can perhaps be described as “beach culture.” Beach culture exists all around the world, has no fixed point of origin, and is easily identifiable by all who know it well.

The sun had just set over the sea when I reached the shore yesterday. Goa faces directly West, and sunsets here typically involve a red sun, straight ahead, descending swiftly towards the horizon. The sun had disappeared yesterday evening, but the sky was still rather light. As its pinkish blush faded into night, I listened to the waves. For me, this is perhaps the most sublime sound on Earth.

I felt myself coming home. I marveled, as usual, at the intricacies and indecipherability of life beneath the sea’s surface. I laughed at the thought that, in spite of the anthropomorphism that we are bombarded with, we can so easily love a world that is so separate from human experience.

Perhaps that is what I cherish so much about the sea. It reminds us of how microscopic we are, and of how much we rely on the rhythms of the waves, of the planet, for our own survival and our own peace. For a second I forgot where I was, in a social and cultural sense. This happens when I am on the Atlantic coast, too. Encounters with the ocean, for as long as they last, take me to a consciousness that is somehow transcendent. As per usual, the moment I turn away from the water, the specificities of place return, and observation of humanity resumes.

The first thing I hear is the gulping sounds of a tabla. Next to the sea, it creates a beautiful sonic symbiosis.

(I can go no further, by the way, without telling you that a riotous concert of crows is taking place around me this morning. From my perch on a little porch surrounded by palms and just out of view of the sea, I cannot help but listen. I also cannot help but laugh.)

The tabla was coming from a set of speakers that belonged to an open-air restaurant. Over lightly fried pakoras and Limca soda, we listened as the owner (formerly a DJ) switched over to a piece by Bismillah Khan that I can only describe as soul-wringingly (not a word, but it is now) sublime.

Bismillah Khan is a shehnai player whose name and music I’d heard before, but I’d never put the two together. I listened in awe of the music, and in amusement about the fact that on one of the world’s coasts, a shehnai might play in the open air; on another, a djembe; and on a third, a steel drum; and the people in each place may not have any familiarity with one another. Yet for all we may or may not know about each other, all of us “beach people” are inevitably linked in complex, and simple, ways.

The sky turned to night, and at another open-air venue, a live performance was taking place. A number of Manganiar musicians from the desert state of Rajasthan play a style of music that has been passed down within families for many generations. Their tablas and harmoniums and voices carried far, and the sound took my gaze to the moon. It was almost full, just as the year is almost over. Does the progression of a year, or the evolution of an encounter with a new place, happen in fits and starts? Or is it like more the moon — more gradual, and constant, than we might allow ourselves to believe? Maybe travel, and change, and time, are more peaceful than we might feel.

May we find peace for the planet, and for each other, in 2018. नमस्ते.

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