Music, Culture, and Tourism
by Anne Elise Thomas
The following discussion focuses upon a musician's travel narrative that came into my hands (virtually speaking) through an email listserv created for participants in an annual "Arabic Music Retreat" in Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts. The retreat is a weeklong workshop for the performance of Arabic music, attended by musicians from the New England/New York area as well as other parts of the United States. Started three years ago by such notables as Simon Shaheen, a Palestinian virtuoso `oud-player and violinist who lives in New York, and Jihad Racy, renowned Lebanese musician and ethnomusicologist currently on the faculty at UCLA, the Arabic Music Retreat brings together musicians and students of varied backgrounds with a common interest in the music of the Arab world.
The author of the narrative, Cameron Powers, an `oud-player who lives in Boulder, Colorado, participated in the retreat in previous years. He begins,
"I wouldn't inflict you all with this much personal information if Kay hadn't suggested it... but this is why I wasn't with you all at this year's retreat..."
Framed as an explanation of absence and a communication among friends, the author follows this introduction with a 20-page, 42-kilobyte description of his summer travels to Morocco, Spain and Greece. The readership he has in mind is presumably composed of his acquaintances from the retreat. In this sense I am an outsider, as I have not attended the retreat but am involved with the community of retreat-affiliated musicians in the Boston area. I have never met Cameron firsthand.
Music is a prominent, though not exclusive, focus of the narrative. Cameron's trip seems to have been inspired, for the most part, by musical interests, and certainly the quest for live music and musical interaction shapes the events he relates in the narrative. As I and (I imagine) others in the reading audience ourselves travel for the purpose of playing and experiencing music, this travel style is appealing and familiar. The audience's attention is sustained in part through personal identification with Cameron and his travel goals. Cameron's travels, performed as a text set in the past tense, exist in a subjunctive and pleasurable "play" frame for his audience. It is a trip that I, and others in his audience, enjoy participating in, if only vicariously.
From the narrative, one learns that Cameron himself is an accomplished musician and seasoned traveler with significant previous experience with the Mediterranean region and its musics. The particular destinations for this trip were initially proposed by his 23year-old son who planned to travel to Morocco, Spain, and Greece with his girlfriend, a musician herself. Cameron was enthusiastic about the planned itinerary for a number of reasons, including his proficiency in Greek and Spanish languages, his family and friend's-family "connections" in Greece and Morocco, and his keen interest in the musical offerings of each destination, including the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, Morocco.
Clearly, the trip is not designed to be a classic "sightseeing" excursion. Cameron and his companions seek to experience the cultures they visit in ways inaccessible to the "tourist" as typically imagined. Accompanied by a cast of characters in their early twenties, Cameron's travel style is "alternative" in a number of senses, although he indicates that he had intended to "travel in a little more luxury this time." As it turned out, the "creature comforts" he had thought to indulge in turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. Sending home his laptop computer "and every ounce of unnecessary baggage," he ultimately favors travel simplicity over luxury.
The performance text achieves narrative unity through the author's use of a number of recurring themes throughout the account of his six-week journey, three of which I will discuss here. First, the author highlights a number of "connections" activated by Cameron and his companions that enable the fulfillment of their travel objectives. Cameron writes of his friend who "extended connections to his family in Fes," the musical "connection" which enabled communication when a common language was lacking, a "connection to a village party" where Cameron and his companions enjoyed their last night in Spain, and connections with musical kindred spirits along the way. Again and again, "connections" land the author in a position to experience many of the meaningful encounters he describes in the narrative -- this style of travel, it seems, would be impossible to undertake without their existence. "Connections" also become the foundations of the interpersonal relationships that are the most memorable and valuable results of Cameron's travel performance.
A second recurring theme in the narrative is that of challenges met and overcome. Cameron and his compatriots suffer numerous setbacks to their travel goals, including lost luggage, a hungry ATM machine that confiscates Cameron's main debit card, language barriers, illness, loneliness, pickpockets, tight schedules, and an unfortunate allergy to olive oil that has tragic consequences in Greece. Like so many travel narratives, the narrator emerges as hero of a tale of trials and trials left behind, if not overcome. One learns about the hero through the way he performs in the face of misfortune; or, in this case, one learns of the hero through his own telling of this performance. The third unifying trope I identify in the narrative consists of a series of musical encounters with local musicians. Describing one such encounter, Cameron writes,
"At our hotel, the Cascade, situated right inside the main gate, Bab Bujloud, to the most ancient part of Fes, Fes el Bali, we immediately met young Moroccans excited about our musicianship. We played on the roof of the hotel, watching huge flocks of swallows swirl through the evening skies."
"I want to invite you to my house," says Ali .... These are no empty invitations. Out of 11 or 12 nights spent in Fes, we spend 3 of them partying `till 4:00 am with young men we have met near the hotel, and 3 nights at Nabil's family's house, feasting and playing music, all the while "chatting" as best we could in our rudimentary combinations of arabic, french, and english."
"They all knew songs like Abdul Halim's "Sawah", Farid al-Atresh's "Hibbina", popular Mohammed Abdul Wahab pieces and of course Um Kalthoum-sung pieces like Daret el Ayam. We all sang together; the young men danced and when I began my vocal improv "mawal" "ya leili ya leili ya. . ." I was greeted by choruses of "Allah, Allah." I knew I had found the right mix of traditional form and personal ecstasy. Two young guys, Majid and Mohammed took turns with me playing oud and I was astounded to hear their mastery on the instrument. That also freed me to add some elementary nay taxims, something I'm sneaking up on, not generally ready to perform... They provided such a reception for my efforts that I couldn't help but just laugh and laugh ... ... not the best condition in which to play the nay, but oh well . . . . . . which is more important... the music or the laughter?"
Here, as in other passages in the narrative, Cameron's musical encounter is made real for the audience through the use of performative gestures. The author's vivid sensory depiction of the scene and characters involved evokes a richly tangible context for passionate musical exchange.
Largely missing from Cameron's narrative are encounters with "the tourist establishment" -- in fact, his few dealings with its representatives (after misfortunes such as losing his ATM card or passport) are represented as challenges to overcome. He expresses no antipathy toward mass tourism; other tourists, apart from his traveling companions, simply don't figure into the story. The one major tourist event he does mention attending is the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, a twelve-day event presenting well-known performers of spiritual music from various world traditions. Given the large scale and extensive advertising of this event, I assume that its main audience is made up of international tourists. How does Cameron characterize this festival? He doesn't. He mentions the festival in passing and lists the performers he saw; one surmises from the lack of vivid description that perhaps it wasn't all it was talked up to be. Perhaps for Cameron, the presentation of music in this large-scale format wasn't nearly as compatible with his travel style as was his own performance of music in less formal social settings.
Cameron's narrative tells a tale of a traveler quite different from the supposed tourist found in much of the literature on tourism. As a musical and linguistic "insider" to the places he visits, he travels with the goal of building upon this insiderness, activating previously-made connections and establishing new ones through musical exchange. Avoiding the trappings of modern mainstream tourism, which "promise the presence but deliver the representation," Cameron enacts an intriguing and "authentic" travel performance for an audience of musically traveling peers.
Attention to the performative component of travel offers promising direction for future studies of travel, tourism, and music. Understood in this way, the traveler becomes an active producer, rather than passive consumer, of authenticity.
As Cameron closes his travel narrative with gestures of gratitude, so I wish to conclude this paper by thanking Cameron Powers for generously allowing me to use his "trip story" in this paper.
Cameron would like to express his gratitude to Anne Elise Thomas for her skill and effort in acknowledging aspects of my travel style which are not always so easy to put into words... Thank You! -- Cameron Powers