Thursday, 4 February 2010

Music From The Top of the World

One of the first things that you notice when travelling around India, apart from the oppressive humidity and the persistant smell of plasticine, is the music. Pumping out of practically every building and vehicle, the familiar playback style wafts along alleys and highways like a fragrant wind. Those slightly distorted and overdriven vocals so familiar from Bollywood movies soon become engrained in your consciousness, and inside days you'll find the pace of your walk has changed to match the skip of the music's beat.

It's pretty much the same wherever you go, but venture North and the musical landscape begins to make a few subtle changes. Travel up the country to Kashmir and more Arabic influences begin to appear. But once you pick your way through the mountain passes and enter the Himalayan region of Ladakh, you'll notice a sudden marked change. Gone are the pulsating skittish off beats of the dholaks and maddales. Instead a more organic, insistant skip of a rhythm takes over. Sing the phrase 'tummba-tiddily tummba-tiddily' to yourself gently under your breath and you'll get an idea of how it sounds.

And it's so happy too. Ladakh offers a stunning but bleak terrain, and many parts are completely cut off from the rest of the world in the long winter months. Rainfall is minimal, and as such the crops are spartan. And yet its people, predomenantly Buddist, and more akin to Tibetans than they are to any Indian nation, are some of the most cheerful I've ever met. So it's no surprise that their pop music is among the most whimsical and optimistic on the planet.

From what I could gather there are three main themes to the Ladakhi pop song: either a young soldier boy is stationed in the mountains and thinking of his girl back home in the village; a young girl walking around her village, seeing things that remind her of her soldier boy up in the mountains; or lastly the boy and the girl are together and thinking of their future and the landscape that they live in. And that's it. Every song sounds much the same as the last, and they all appear to be recorded not only in the same studio, but by the same plinky plonky keyboard, probably esconced in some chap's ad hoc studio in the capital Leh. But the music is so infectiously sweet that you'll find yourself longing to hear it for years after you visit the area.

The videos, too, are impossibly cute. Always filmed outside, and taking in the glorious scenery and unearthly light, the sweet-faced singers are always gently revelling in their surroundings, and dreaming of their loved ones as they're about their daily business. And you see them everywhere. Compilation discs of the lastest faves are played on tiny boxy screens in restaurants, bars, tourist offices and trinket shops. Ladaki pop is the heartbeat of the region, and the moment you begin to head South again, and the music pumping out of the massive, but always slightly damaged speakers on the buses shifts to more traditional Indan pop sounds, you feel like you're leaving behind an old friend.

There isn't a single Ladakhi pop act that I could recommend, they're all so reassuringly similar. Just listen to and watch some of the videos throughout this post, as they'll give you a flavour of the glorious sounds and images of a remarkable part of the world.

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.

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