“ A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.”
- Frank Zappa
It’s not that I am a snob about music but any world traveler will tell you that one of the most essential item in your rucksack is your music. My choice of tunes has become the soundtrack for many of my journey and it has saved my sanity. I can attest that there is nothing better then listening to your iPod under the influence of Ambien on a trans-Atlantic flight. It is a wonderful hypnotic chemical that takes you away from the crying babies and exasperated mothers on El Al Airlines (not the Ambien, the song). The music has isolated me from Egyptian wedding parties at two o’clock in the morning as well as helping me pass days (not hours) while waiting for a flight out of Kabul. For me, Justin Bieber just doesn’t round out the experience of tearing across the sun bleached sands of the Sahara Desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser – although, the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” does a terrific job in setting the mood. I have collected CD’s from souks, bazaars, back alley kiosks and hotel lobbies. I’d like to think that my taste in music is eclectic; you can find Middle Eastern Dance, Bollywood, Japanese Pop, Electronica, Soul, Rock, Tango and Neapolitan ballads on my iPod proving that I am in constant search for my own personal soundtrack.
Like a still image, a song can transport you back to a moment in time that has been forgotten. For instance, during the wild fires of Southern California in 2009 I had a very real flashback when Shakira’s song; “Whenever, Wherever” blared out from the radio while driving on the Glendale Freeway. The smell of a burning hillside mixed with fumes of diesel, the thump, thump, thumping of the helicopters overhead transported me immediately back to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Music is sort of a synthetic acid which enhances flashbacks of one’s own memories.
Scans of the brain show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active. Which may explain why I have overcome a learning disability with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Strange as it may seem, when I listen to Groove Salad on somafm.com (as I am doing right now) it forces me to focus and keeps my ADD at bay. Growing up, my parents could never understand why I would play music when reading or studying. They would just shout at me to turn the record player or radio off. But, instinctively I need this learning aid to focus - go figure! Music helps me concentrate. Once I sit down, play my music I fall into a zen like zone and my brain slows down to a crawl so that I can concentrate. If it were not for music and the computer I would probably be selling used furniture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In all societies with the exception of one that I know of, the Taliban. Music’s primary function is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. People singing together, dancing together in every culture when allowed. We have been making music since that first camp fires a hundred thousand years ago.In Kabul, Afghanistan I spent the afternoon eating lunch that was cooked on the sidewalk in front of carpet store on Chicken Street. I was invited by the owner and his son to stay and have lunch so that he could practice his English. When Kabul was under Taliban control, paper bags, white socks, kite flying and music was forbidden. This was serious oppression, for instances, possession of a paper bag constituted the death penalty. Never mind, what would happen if there had been a flash mob dancing to “Eye of theTiger” by Survivor - the Taliban would have nuked Chicken Street. To celebrate my host and his son’s new found freedom we played my CD “Jump Around” by House of Pain on his chrome trim ghetto blaster which he kept hidden from the Taliban. It must of been very amusing for the ISAF ( International Security Assistance Force) troops to see a couple of Afghans and one big white guy jumping to the beat of the music in front of the old carpet store. To this day, when I hear “Jump Around” I can smell the Pilaf cooking, feel the heat of the day and in my minds eye seeing the physical expression of freedom on the owner and his son’s face as they dance with joy.
Prior to a shoot in Egypt I listened to Egyptian singer Amr Diab which gave me some insight into modern Egyptians taste and a clever way to win over friends. I phonically learn Amr Diab’s hit “Nour El Ain - Habiby”. Never mind that Arabic is not a language I can grasp quickly, I know a few phrases like; tiizak hamra, “Your ass is red” (i.e. like a monkey's) or moxxu gazma, “His mind is (as low and dirty as) a shoe”- This is pretty insulting. I persevered and mimicked Amr Diab’s song “Habiby” before leaving the States. Once we landed in Cairo we hit the ground running and start shooting, on a production like this there is not much time in building a friendly relationship with your Egyptian fixer, crew and driver. We were all very courteous to each other and worked really well together in spite of the language barrier. On day four, we traveled from Cairo to Giza by van and the opportunity presented itself. Abubak our driver pulled a cassette tape out of a black box of his personal collection of music - which he was very protective of. I was sitting in the back of the van as the Egyptian crew sat up front smoking Cleopatra cigarettes, the music started with it’s instrumental, my stomach turned a bit with butterfly’s as I prepared to sing out loud “Nour El Ain- Habiby”. Amr Diab sang the first lyric and I stood-up as much as I could in a van and belted out “ Habibi ya nour el-ain , Ya sakin khayali , A’ashek bakali sneen wala ghayrak bibali. Translation: My darling, you are the glow in my eyes, You live in my imagination, I adored your for years, no one else is in my mind. Chorus: Habibi, Habibi, Habibi ya nour el-ain (My darling, my darling, my darling glow in my eyes). I swear to God, that one of the crew members cigarette dropped out of his mouth and I could see in the review mirror Abubak eyes widen - he nearly rear ended a Cairo taxi in front of us. There was a momentary shock of silence that a big white guy from California was singing one of their most popular songs in Egypt. They began to clap in unison to the beat of the the song, then one-by-one they stood up and held hands high and swayed their hips as the we all began to sing the chorus “Habibi , Habibi”. The remaining seven days of our shoot when flawless, at the end of each day we all spent the evening together smoking shisha, playing dominos and learning each others curse words.
At the end of the shoot and before checking in for the flight back to the States, we all stood in the Cairo International Airport parking lot to say our goodbyes. I passed out their payment with the traditional bonuses when I noticed Abubak walked from the cab of his van with something wrapped in the Egyptian Gazette newspaper in his hands. As he approach, Abubak reached out and presented me with my very own hookah and shisha as a gift. Music had become the needle and thread that sewed our humanity together and we became brothers.
Chapter 7 from my book, Cue the Camels.