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Issue 72. Amplified Emotions June 30, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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GREEN_BOOK

I love our internet radios, both given by me as gifts to my husband who first stumbled on the idea. One, a Roku Soundbridge, connects to the stereo system and the other, a Grace radio, is self-contained. These radios allow us to browse and listen to any radio station in the world that streams over the internet, for free! Right now I’m listening to Radio 2Moro 1620, an Arabic radio station streaming from Sydney, Australia, where they are playing an intensely lively piece for 4:20 am, Sydney time. I have no idea what it’s about.

I didn’t intend this blog to be an advertisement for radios or for any particular radio station; I have nothing to gain by advertising. But I have been thinking about the claim that any particular music — ok, the news lately in many places has been about Michael Jackson’s music — really transcends its culture. The US culture, of course, transcends its borders all the time, but just because you find evidence of US cultural products in Europe or China doesn’t necessarily mean that we have transcended cultures.

But there is something about music that is remarkable in the way it can provoke an emotional responses, even if you are listening to music that comes from another place or time.

Many years ago I discovered Andean music: the quena, the charango, the panpipes. I was charmed by the haunting, sweetly heartbreaking, sadness I found in the music. Sometimes on hearing a particularly well-played melody, I hold my face in a certain way and I am aware of the unstoppable passage of time, and the loss of moments that will never come again. The quena particularly had this effect for me. Among the many videos you can find with quena music, I selected the video below (or in the link above) to illustrate the sound of the quena, and if you understand Spanish, to explain a bit about the techniques used to produce that sound. It reminded me of the techniques for playing the recorder that I am trying to learn, but it also reminded me of the neighborhood in Lima where I lived for two months, adding another layer of connection for me.

There’s nothing like being in a concert hall with many others, hearing some music you love, played well, and believing that all of you in that hall are bound together in the same powerful emotions. This has happened to me more than once, but I’m thinking now of quena concert in Quito, sometime in the mid-1980s. It was a solo performance and I was enthralled. I felt connected to each and every person there, even though I had come alone and in those days my Spanish was quite limited. But listening to the quena did not involve the digital coding of language; it was pure sensory experience.

Where do these feelings come from, and why are they evoked by this music? It’s difficult to compare my feelings with others, but I tend to believe that I am really bringing my own cultural context (and sense of time) to the experience of hearing the music, which maybe both similar to and different than the context and emotions of the original composer or the musicians interpreting it. It is difficult to prove the impact, but it also very hard to deny it.

This is not, perhaps, so different than the reactions of exchange students to their experience abroad. Their emotional reactions to the experience of another place and culture are highly amplified, and the relationships they form with other people during this highly charged experience take on a special importance, one that frequently transcends some of their obvious differences in values, assumptions and beliefs. Even though their memories of the events they lived through together may not match years later if they return to talk about them, the emotional certainty of the importance of this friendship is not questioned. Can you measure the value of the friendship in terms of its longevity? Frequency of contact? Common habits or outlook? Mutual influence? None of these is very convincing to measure the corner of my heart where such friendship lies.

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Issue 65: The Smell of School May 4, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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pink_bookWhile cleaning out some files the other day, I came across an old article by Michael Paige in that strange blue-violet type made by a ditto machine. I realized that part of the educational value of the piece, in addition to whatever Michael had written, was its iconic value as a representation of the culture of education in the baby boomer years. Stacy, my incredibly bright and competent graduate school intern, had never smelt the dittoed quiz passed overhead to her by the student seated in front of her, or walked past the principal’s office where the dittos were being run off for whatever class needed them. It was the smell of school, though the odor has long left the Michael Paige article. I know because I automatically lifted the page to my nose. Nothing. Only then did I start to read the article and appreciated the fact that this ditto had been very neatly typed. There were no obvious remnant scratches that signaled a corrected typo. I felt like a curator from Antiques Roadshow, with an impressive knowledge of some ancient technology.

jaipursmall

Jaipur picnic 1991

Much of our experience of cultures and places is sensory, and the sense of smell is one of the strongest ways we experience a place.  My memories of India include the smokey, spicy smells that I sometimes discover lingering in fabric or clothing made in India. And there are emotional memories that this scent evokes, much stronger than the memories evoked by photos like this one, taken in Jaipur late in 1991. The colorful saris against the beige ground are striking, but if I could smell the burnt edges of the naan bread baking inside those barrels again, I would feel myself taken back to that picnic on the mountain.

When people have trouble adapting to a new country and culture, or have trouble accepting immigrants moving in next door, they often complain most strongly about body odors, cooking odors, or the cologne that they may use.  An American host mother once told me about her dilemma of feeling nauseated at the family dinner table by the smell of the Sri Lankan exchange student’s cologne. She didn’t want to say anything to the boy, but at the same time she was so overcome by the odor that she could hardly eat her dinner. It wasn’t enough for her to know that this was just one of those cultural differences.

As Rachel Herz pointed out in her book, The Scent of Desire

“Our responses to the scents of one another profoundly influence almost all our social interactions and relationships. The feelings that emerge when we catch a whiff of someone else can range from unconditional love to repugnance and prejudice.” (Chapter 6)

So what is a host mother to do when she wants to love a newly arrived exchange student but is repulsed by his cologne? In this case, the host mother managed to communicate her feelings without perhaps wanting to do so, but she seemed less able to interpret the students feelings when he seemingly spontaneously stopped wearing the cologne after a few days.  For her, it seemed that a problem was thankfully and quickly resolved.

Although this happened decades ago, I would not be surprised if the scent of that particular cologne still leaves traces in their minds that would immediately recall for both the host mother and the student the way they each felt in those first days together.