My Semester At Sea

Carolyn Dethlefson

© Copyright 2002 by Carolyn Dethlefson

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

Nothing like "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" or "The Love Boat," the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea offered me the most practical way to travel and study many countries at once. The best classes filled the twelve units required with a maximum of cross-cultural experiences. Taking World Music on the now scuttled freighter S.S. Universe during the Fall of 1991 taught me more about music than any choir director I've had and more against bigotry than any of my Sociology professors.

Every World music student saw Japan that September after three weeks of steeping in Noh theater clips, Japanese opera sound bytes, and reams of intermediate theory. As a singer trained in the western world, I always looked down my nose a little at Asian music although my only experience consisted of a Japanese choir performance at my junior high school. I'd stereotyped Asian singers as having reed thin voices and poor enunciation. Even as an adult, I didn't expect the talent I heard in Japan.

Awhile riding the Nara-and-Kyoto-tour bus back to the Universe's berth in the harbor at Kobe, my group's guide played a tape of traditional Japanese music over the public address system. Two selections most undermined my preconceptions.

I never learned the titles of either of the solos or the names of the artists who sang them. Yet the first showcased a man whose voice, though not deep enough for bass, had a wonderful baritone and diction. Negating the difference between his voice and my bias, I thought "Of course he sings well in his own language"; the soloist I'd heard in junior high sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady." Still I couldn't deny the taped man's tone and depth outdid many a tenor or bass sectional I'd winced through in rehearsals. This baritone's richness, fullness, and emotion exemplified everything the latter male singers failed to accomplish.

The woman in the song following that of the baritone inspired me as much as other western singers had done. Her full, rich tone didn't alter when she sustained notes; envy of her breath control made me practice singing once I returned to the ship after a long lapse. I was eating my 'opinion' of Oriental soloists as fast as I could swallow it. However, there would also be an adjustment to my prejudice against Oriental choirs.

That Japanese choir I'd heard at fourteen made even less favorable an impression than did its soloist, although I'd already been in three American choirs that could also fail. Four women I overheard praise singing at a shrine in Kobe, on the other hand, had perfect pitch and sang in almost complete unison. Choir directors would have salivated to get those levels of tone and blend from Alto and Soprano sections in which I've been. We couldn't do it because we lacked the initiative; that quartet had red hives on their legs from concentration when they finished.

Aside from a disturbing intensity, the singing I heard in Japan matched the best of the United States. China, by contrast, proved an instant challenge to my burgeoning inclusiveness: it looked socially and economically strained to near snap. Thus, I never thought to find a remnant of American vaudeville in Beijing.

The live variety stage show I saw there had two men in brown suits for the finale. One of the men began to chirp like a bird so realistically that at first I suspected he lip-synched to a recording. The other man pointed at this imaginary bird, contemplated it awhile, then started to chirp as expertly as his partner. Gradually the birds began having a conversation reminiscent of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine. The 'bird men' had incredible breath control.

The duo next transformed into a marching band of drums and horns. The band altered to an imaginary bicycle tire pumped until it exploded.

Shorter of the two men taking center stage, he brought to life the start, taxi, and takeoff of an airplane. The sound of waves crashing against the shore followed as the tall man became the cries of seagulls flying above the sea. His partner jarred the calm image created by making a fog horn blare offshore. Audience laughter completely broke the calm while mimicry cars passed each other over and over on a crowded highway until an accident occurred. The duo waved good-bye to the sound of a departing train and to the audience as the curtain fell.

Their performance utilized sound in an auditory counterpart of pantomime called soundscape. Those men had no props or scenery to help set the stage. Even with inherently strong breath control, building enough reserve for each imitation took several minutes. I finally understood why Vaudeville was so appreciated: an active imagination encourages dreams.

Discovering this stood me in good stead while looking for native music in Taiwan , for most of what I found could only be heard in my imagination. What music I did hear consisted of Occidental pop songs by the original artists, pop songs by local bands, or Occidental pop songs by Taiwanese artists. I wish I could have heard the native music instruments which I did see in Taipei.

Most of the instruments I saw during the Faculty Directed Practica or FDP of the National Palace-- the country's equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution. On one floor, our tour guide pointed out a carved, late Shang Dynasty bone ocarina. She said the ocarina was an early wind mainly used in China to call animals during a hunt. Blowing into a hole in the top, covering two finger holes carved in the mouth of one animal caricature, holding three in the eyes, and pressing one in the nose of another caricature on the opposite side made a whistle.

Unlike the ocarina, musical instruments among the bronze artifacts were listed and displayed separately from other bronze items. Chengs, Chungs, Pos, and Ch'ings comprised the types of ancient instruments.

Chengs-- also from the Shang Dynasty period-- came in medium and large cup shapes soldered to a long tube and covered with raised designs. Since the open end of the tube resembled a mouthpiece, it could have been a horn.

The Chungs, in use from 300 to 800 B.C. and which looked like upside-down Chengs, hung in a group of nine from hooks on a long, horizontal pole. From the largest to the smallest chung, they swung by their long tubes' short handles between the grip of bronze mouths in a frame shaped like two double headed dragons.

The Ch'ings hung in the same manner in a set of ten. Both Chungs and Ch'ings were played like gongs with mallets, but Ch'ings had a total effect like that of a piano.

Pos or bells, also used from 300 to 800 B.C., seemed designed to be swung like cathedral bells due to their barrel shapes.

The last instrument I not only saw but heard played by a woman in the lobby of Taipei's Hilton hotel; it matched Japan's guitar like Koto in sight and sound. Unfortunately, she only played lounge music I'd heard in the States. Taiwanese music on the whole tantalized and frustrated.

India's native music neither tantalized nor frustrated; it moved the country to 'joyful noise.' I found music everywhere: on the pier as the Universe docked in Madras, in a street near Fatehpur Sikri, at the hotels of the Taj Mahal standard practica or shore excursion, and at the FDP on Bharata Natyam dancing. The Faculty Directed Practica at New Delhi's Ashok Hotel most impressed me because of my developing knowledge of world music's singing techniques.

That aside, I could devote my attention to the show only after sampling the outdoor buffet to my left and spending the last of my rupees in the temporary shops on my right. That night's singer and his band didn't mind my tour members talking to each other or shopping possibly because the musicians performed from the far left corner of the stage. All male, dressed in white, the band just served as accompaniment to dancers and acrobats.

Noting the soloist's unison with the oboe, aspects of indigenous music which had escaped me when listening to vocalists before became clear. Indian solos had choruses. They crescended and decrescended with the band instead of leading it. Accustomed to controlling the tempo when I sang, he merely meshed with the other instruments. It takes an incredible sense of rhythm to be led by a band and still have perfect pitch.

Malaysia offered a sweet respite from watching bands. The music of the Universiti Sains Malaysia's shadow puppet play provided what class taught me to expect, but seeing the delicately enchanting detail it performed live made it beyond entertaining. Semester at Sea and U.S.M. students didn't care about having straw mats for seats, the Gamelan or band to the left, the fake 'newlyweds' on the lavish dais to the right, and the grassy slopes around us.

We focused on the backlit, white screen wall of a small wooden building before us. The presentation of the Ramayana-- a classic Indian folk tale-- began with a Hindu priest rehearsing a smaller Gamelan behind the screen; large open windows allowed the clang of gongs and kettledrums to float through the sides of the building. This allowed for natural amplification: I saw no amplifiers or microphones,

The band ready, it accompanies the priest as he awakened the spirits of the puppets. The music seemed to fly with the spirits to the screen's center where they gathered.

Since the SAS students couldn't understand the words, the music acted as narrative; when Rama, the title character, and his brother fought the devil for Rama's wife, the crescendo of drums grew faster towards the fight's climax. Each character from "The Ramayana" had special theme music; the devil roared to clamorous gongs and drums or pleaded with Rama's bride for water to timorous gongs and drums.

Too soon the priest sent the puppet spirits back to sleep. As the larger Gamelan played a kind of lullaby., the soft melody gradually faded past pianissimo to silence.

Africa woke me with a thrill after Malaysia's restfulness, although Kenya and South Africa reminded me of Taiwan: I heard very little indigenous music. The hotels and restaurants on my Nairobi photo safari and the University of Western Cape's Welcome Reception simply featured old western pop or lounge songs. Most native songs seemed unoriginal or over-rehearsed. After my request for African tunes, a University music professor pressed into playing piano for the reception banged out Afrikaner ones he said had nonsensical lyrics and simplistic structures. The live band in the disco attached to Nairobi's Carnivore Restaurant lacked enthusiasm to such a degree that disco really did seem 'dead'.

Buffalo Springs Lodge in Kenya, to my relief, provided a sole demonstration of authentic African singing amidst dances by Samburu tribes people. Met on our way to this performance by a spear carrying warrior wearing the traditional red and white of the Moran Samburu, my roommate on the safari and I followed him through a worn gate to a now proverbial outdoor amphitheater. After the other woman and I joined our group on shaded wooden benches, the same warrior collected our tickets. Three more Moran men huddled together inside the fenced dirt circle while a trio of little girls sat far to our left.

After the introduction or Mijitso, the male group performed four dances-- joined twice by the females in perfect Alto unison-- to a capella "call and response:" three of the men sang in plain voice from their diaphragms , each repeating and varying his own short verse. The warrior got most of my attention, however, since he took the place of percussion. Air forced straight out his mouth from his diaphragm created a beat like an asthmatic's wheeze; coughing between dances bent him double and seemed to make swallowing painful.

Less grim to watch, the dancing combined Samburu and Maasai movements to tell stories of difficulties, safe animals, hunting a lion , and the nomadic lives of the Moran. The three girls rocked their hips to the beat, this typical movement swinging their necklaces up and down like the rattles of tambourines. Similar to their Maasai counterparts, the men sprang high into the air to punctuate the songs. This rhythm visibly strengthened all the singers' breath control.

Though the percussionist sang most of the solos and these people had performed this same show twice a day for two months, they still forgot their audience in music and movement like any musical artists.

Brazilian and Venezuelan musical blended all the study, difficulty, fantasy, and mystery of the ports I visited during Semester at Sea. I joined the Bahia by Night standard practica to hear live music, but the dancers performed to recorded music blasted over discretely placed amplifiers. Both discos I visited in Caracas had house bands, yet my group didn't know to siesta to stay awake when dancing began. All of us left early for bed.

The only authentic South American sound I remember of duration longer than fifteen minutes set the mood for the Capoeira: a karate style dance in which mock fighters only move their feet and never touch their opponents. As it began, a nonnative man explained and then played a triple stringed, banjo like instrument with a twang like that of native Australians' digiridoos.

Capoeira melodies repeat a note in triplets and duples until it becomes monotone-- a prime example of Latin America's popular music. A capella song, emphasized African rhythms, string instruments, and the former meters are mixed with dance. The music might not have become popular without Capoeira, but the combination easily matched the excitement of 1990's action films.

Thanks to my World Music class, I arrived home in December of 1991 ready to listen to everything and everyone I heard. Although time tempered my enthusiasm, it didn't alter the tolerance which all the world's sounds inspired.

I usually write freelance fiction. Another nonfiction piece of mine will soon be published in Seeing The Face of God-- a collection of inspirational vignettes for hyperactive children.

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