A recent poll of Western music listeners showed that 85% of people interviewed said they listened to music to “relax”. I’ve no way of knowing if that notion of “relaxation” is the intent any of this pan-Asian music has for their individual cultures, but for Westerners this collection is a soothing brew. Following the concept of a previous compilation, Music from the Coffee Lands it seems only fitting and natural that Putumayo turn attention to gathering some rare blends from the Music from the Tea Lands.
East is East, West is West, and fair is fair. Tea, after all, is thought to have been around a lot longer than coffee. Chinese folk tales concerning the accidental discovery of tea as a beverage date back nearly 5,000 years when some windswept leaves gently fluttered from a wild bush into an Emperor’s pot of boiling water. Since then, tea has become the more familiar and commonly used beverage for most of the world. If coffee is linked with the West together with the notions of getting pumped to go, go, and go some more, then Western notions of tea seem to associate that beverage almost with the opposite effect. While Westerners may perceive a good cuppa as an invigorating and refreshing pause, there is an association that tea is a “gentler” beverage that promotes a calming effect and a kind of tranquility.
Steeping together with that notion is the fact that tea is produced in a broad array of distant and somewhat mysterious Asian cultures that are as geographically wide-ranging as they are broadly diverse. What little we know of those cultures usually first shows the differences between us. Imagine tropical geographies with unusual flora and fauna, a different rhythm and pace to life, a variety of languages, ancient customs, religions based in meditation, and music that is both strange and odd-sounding to the unaccustomed Western ear. All these are gathered here in this delightful array of musicians from Tatarstan, India, China, Indonesia, Japan, Turkey, and Iran. If I were a truly generous spirit, I would buy a copy of this CD for every person I know and might encounter because not only is it that good, but it will probably be that good for them.
The music is a fine collection of rather obscure musical traditions worthy of more attention. I could not in my imagination come up with the sound of a Chinese erhu, an Ainu tankori, or an Iranian tar, which are just some of the instruments played. But it was easy for me to imagine those musicians evoking every day sounds of nature, the sound of wind whistling through reeds, the sound of water falling between rocks, and the sound of a melodious rain. There are some harp-like sounds and many stringed instruments which can have a predictable effect. But the stunner is the amazing percussive effects of classical Persian music performed by Kamil Alipour. This is a startling expression, representative of a strong breeze rushing through miles of tall grass, but every bit as invigorating as walking face into the brisk wind.
The last track is a wonderful gamelan piece, which made a lasting impression on me. This is a rare form of gamelan as played in Western Java, a degung played by a smaller orchestra and in a style that seems more accessible to an outsider like me. “Kang Mandor” unfolds gently as a roll of silk cloth from the bolt. The displaced accents and highly developed counterpoints combine in a refined and fluid presentation. The repetitions and regular sequences of the keyed metallophones and the underlying vibrant pulse of rawhide drums are background for the melodic design. The melody is carried aloft by the wistful sounds of a highly pitched bamboo flute, the suling. Ujang Suryana, a blind composer of degung, leads his ensemble here with his flute.
Although at first “Kang Mandor” seemed too sweet for my tastes, I found myself eventually charmed by its warmth and the feeling of easiness the music brought, which provided the satisfaction and sense of contentment that a good cup of chai can offer. The sounds of the metallophone and the notes available may allow the listener to somewhat anticipate the music from that instrument before the note is struck. So that may provide some element of familiarity. But the rippling multi-layered melody and the beautifully executed variations on it evoke pictures of birds soaring through a canopy of trees, breathtakingly perfect flowers, and the natural peace of a forest hermitage. Those images, and the feelings they evoke, stay in my mind and with me long after the last notes of the music finish echoing.
Most of the Music from the Tea Lands is based on a completely different harmonic system than Western music. The chances are good that each and every sound has a particular intent for meaning, emotion, or desire that may be inseparable from the context of the musicians’ individual cultures. Yet these pieces seem to have a predictably soothing and restorative effect on a Westerner’s psyche which is surprisingly long-lasting. This phenomenon is undeniably worthy of study, but in the meantime I am satisfied to merely be grateful. As I said before, if I were immensely rich, you’d all have your taste of Music from the Tea Lands but all I can really do is encourage you to go out and find this one.