The Kentucky Dhol Drum

posted by on 2012.04.13, under Humor, India, Other, Shameless Plug

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

 

At this point of the Dhol drum beat, my shoulders usually assume their role in the bhangra song.  10 seconds is all it takes.  My eyebrows probably rise in a look of confusion mixed with arrogance, to convince anyone watching that I know what I am doing.  Being an inventive, self-conscious, and mediocre dancer is torturous.

It took 24 years for me to realize that I’ve been entirely too selfish about this music.  Like many first generation Americans with immigrant parents from India, I spent a childhood embarrassed by my culture, ignoring it in attempts to fit in with my midwestern peers.  I only realized how much I needed this culture the day I left home for college.  I went from having nightmares about my school friends getting a glimpse of pictures of videos of my Diwali choreographed performances that my mother forced me to do, to shamelessly calling the same mother to walk me through making mutton biriyani over the phone so I could impress a lady friend.  My wardrobe welcomed chinese collared kurta shirts soon after the law approved of my drinking habits.  I even returned to a sidepart hairstyle, which I spent a dozen years deliberately running from in fear of looking like my ancestors.  Now I “Don Draper” it, just like my grandfather did.

But in trying to recover my roots, I might have gone too far.  I made the foolish assumption that this self-narrative was heroic – that my early epiphany of realizing and accepting my identity around this culture had never happened before for anyone else.  That I would show the world I knew how cool India was.  So I moved there, wrote this blog, bought more ethnic shirts, instruments, grew a mustache, and never failed to be the first person at any wedding or celebration to initiate locking legs and circling while fingers pointed in the air to remind the world that our shoulders were designed to move up and down faster than any other creature on land.

And how did this wisdom that I was no hero suddenly find me?  Sudhir Venkatesh’s study on why crackdealer’s live with their mothers in book Freakanomics? Aasif Mandvi’s jokes on the Daily Show? Goldstar’s rock performance at the hotel cafe? Anand Giridharadas’s book about moving back to India after growing up in Midwestern USA?  Neil Patel’s highly trafficked blog about being an entrepreneur?  Slumdog Millionaire? Bobby Jindal’s 2009 Republican response speech?  All these success stories should have gotten through to me, but despite it all I still refused to believe that I was not the voice of my generation.  I now know that my mistake was in believing that “this” was even “mine.”  And I have a performance by a New York fusion percussion n brass band called Red Baraat in Louisville, Kentucky to thank for this enlightenment from a free ticket that I nearly disregarded because the concert buddy that invited me skipped town and left me to see the show in Kentucky by my lonesome. .

First impressions are given far too much credit in our advice dialogue in this society.  And my first impression of the band was full of skepticism.  An Indian guy playing a dhol drum with a bunch of eclectic looking bandmates with a gradient of skin tones from one member to the next.  Dreadlocks! What type of hippie jam band bastardizing a drum beat that Jay-z introduced to our night clubs 10 years ago was this?  This appeared to be as bad for me as it might be for the band that looked out into a crowd filling only quarter of the available seats in the auditorium.  Sitting down to bhangra music!  Would I be the first to teach the room this lesson?  Or would I run as fast as I could to Bombay Grill, or just to the hallway and virtually recruit as many brown people in this mid-southern city from my iPhone?

I did nothing.  There was no need.  1 song in, the singer requested the houselights to be turned on so he could see “his” people.  Maybe 20 Indians total were in the room –  but they were not who he was referring to.  Calmly he advised everyone to leave the seats and proceed to the stage, where an empty dance floor awaited them.  This was the climax of the internal awkwardness I felt at the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts.  As I’ve seen countless times from the stage or the audience, this was bound to fail and the band would just follow the motions and try their best to get through the rest of the set and leave town and forget about that moment of uncertainty.

But the people tonight listened.  Slowly the dance floor filled up.  The singer gave them 4 instructions for how to dance, and they took his advice and followed each step: putting the hands in the air, turning the light, bouncing the shoulders, and swaying the hips.  The music continued, but I sat.  In shock maybe.  Could Kentucky have something to teach me about my Indian culture?

My body felt cold instantly.  Goosebumps on my neck.  My face turned from brown to red.  But it was not from embarrassment.  It was some sort of weird combination of pride, awe, and pleasure.  I looked down and saw a community who had forgotten about the world.  They shared a heart beat from the dhol drum, and breathed in unison the brass sounds.  This could very well be our future.  Young, old, black, white, yellow, brown, all shapes and sizes moved by the complex coordination of sounds.  I was amazed.  I’ve seen a dance naturally take form to live music a thousand times.  But it’s never been music from my motherland that choreographed the motion of other ethnicities.  And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in Kentucky.

My eyes teared up as I zoomed past the 4 year old girl standing on her chair untwisting 100 invisible bulbs to a black mother and 11 year son, both very heavy but using biggest body parts to elegantly infuse the dance floor with soul.  The son mimicked the mother’s moves, trying to pick up on her occasional head turn action that tied the entire routine together.  Once he got it, he side stepped his way to the 70 year old white female employed as an usher by this venue and proved to her that she could do it too.  His glasses nearly fell off, but his smile kept them from hitting the ground.

And then the white tuba player in the band, wearing green shoes and losing his hair to its recession grabbed a microphone and started freestyle rapping.  A black college age man put on his sunglasses, walked up to the stage, gave some respect to the tuba player through his smart phone, and then switched the tone of the dance floor into hip hop party.   The music continued, mixing in Latin flavors, jazz reminders, all while grounding the rhythm in Punjab.  I even saw hipsters shaking their hips in ways they probably never did before.  Friendly tension started to build though, as the community formed into subgroups.  However these new divisions ignored our normal demographic divides of color, age, income, or sexuality.

A dance-off took place between a 15 year old athletic black break-dancer and a 75 year old bald Chinese man wearing glasses and Air Jordan’s.  Both parties won the contest in their own rights, and I could hear their laughter despite the distance or noise.  Head stands followed.  (Not by the elderly).  The group of teenage friends was an unlikely bunch.  A flamboyant white kid wearing a skin tight golf shirt who didn’t need to maintain control of his arms in order to express himself encouraged the rest to show off their best moves.  Moments before, he failed to get a cheer from the audience behind after his headstand building on the momentum from the two break-dancing moves that preceded it.  He just didn’t care.

The dance circle continued and new moves were displayed, but for some reason the oldest looking, biggest kid of the group kept crossing the circle like it was a moshpit, refusing to share his own moves, but instead trying to dominate the ring.  Surely now the harmony of the room would be broken.  But I was wrong again.  The clumsy kid, realizing he was out of line after a 9 year old kid pulled him aside to teach him about dance circles, finally found his signature and invented a move turning a bicep flex into a synchronized step for the entire group to adopt.

The break dancer who faced off against the older Chinese man picked out a lady, and brought a 1960’s feel to the show, spinning her around while still maintaining respect for the dhol.  Behind them stood a 240lb white woman wearing a shirt that reached her knees.  However, her knees were in constant motion and at that exact moment in time she needed no one to dance with.  This new form of music she had discovered was the partner she had been looking for all these years, maybe.  To her left stood the Guru – A 30 year old Indian man with long hair, a beard, and wearing traditional attire.  He began the experiment with dignity, offering the room authentic movement to the sounds, though they were subtle.  He had now become the leader of what resembled a soul train, teaching others his eastern ways.  Close behind was the affable college student who brought my father a plate of Indian food 1 year ago during the cricket World Cup.  He borrowed moves from the Guru, but incorporated a timely pause and look towards his friends who were seated, begging them to join in on the fun.  The hand wave that followed this break brought his actions back into the dance, and soon enough back into following the Guru’s lead.

A 6 year old black boy taught a smiling middle-eastern student how to move both of their feet faster, but I still don’t understand how. Far away, a group of hippies with less exaggerated upper body movements, but much heavier and repetitive stepping movement, start gesturing a motion of slicking their hair back, embracing their unkempt appearances.   And a tall preppy white high school student wearing a sweater vest and glasses coordinated a train that snaked the invisible boundaries of the party to unite them back together for balance of the show.  Feet leaped from the ground as everyone on stage and on the dance floor jumped at the same time as the show came to a close.  I looked at those who were once seated and we are all now standing.  Two plump older Italian looking women in the very back by themselves were clapping as hard as they could and hooting and hollering as the dhol beat became faster and faster.  I entered a flashback to every enjoyable dance experience I’ve ever had despite not having danced once this night.  These bloody New Yorkers managed to recreate the best parts of awesome weddings without requiring any sort of commitment through the Red Baraat disguise of a traditional Indian wedding band’s makeup.

Would this all have happened if the venue marketed the event to the vibrant Indian community that lived minutes east of us?  Could such a diverse integration of a community happen again on a dance floor in this city?  Was this dhol drum somehow articulating a Morse code-like narrative to give hope for our future by the consequences of its noise tonight?   Questions burned.  They still burn.

But a great weight was taken off my shoulder.  I no longer felt responsible for achieving fame in order to share this “thing”.  It wasn’t mine to share.  It was within everyone in that room the entire time, and is probably within the reader of this nonsensical attempt at a memory.  This really has nothing to do with culture, India, or the dhol drum.  Nothing that humans have created over the past thousands of years through our decisions on how we organize ourselves can take credit for it.

It is simply encoded in our souls, this thing, that we are designed to experience moments in life that can’t be taken away and destroyed.  Moments when we realize our power, purpose, and passion.  An instance when a temporary language is created between us that will never be spoken of again.   And though we all hear the beat, the melody, the words, the feeling that we share at the core of the music puzzles the greatest writers on our planet about how to best describe it using the  incompatible characters that we are limited to in our many languages.  Perhaps I came the closest I will ever come by simply saying:

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

Du-dugga dug . . . .

 

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