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Monday, October 29, 2007

How My Day Starts

Right now I'm listening to Uzee play the tampura in the other room. She does this for about half an hour every morning. I can't think of a better way to start the day.

A tampura is a huge thing about five feet long, shaped roughly like a sitar but broader and wider. The base of it is a pumpkin-sized and -shaped sphere. Pumpkin-sized, because yes, it's made of a pumpkin. The one Uzee plays dates back to before partition, before 1947. It's an antique and it has a great sound.

There are four thin metal strings tuned to something like D, A, A and E. The four are plucked in succession and create this dreamy, hazy tone. But what makes the tampura a truly awesome instrument is that there is a mechanism inside the neck, running the length of the thing, which is--I think but I'm not sure--made of a metal strip, against which the strings rattle. This causes the tone of the string to vary once it's been plucked. So unlike, say, a guitar or piano or harp, which is designed to hold its tone once played, the tampura note goes through these "weeoww--weeoww--weeoww" variations. And when all four strings are played in succession, the "wee-owws" start blending and bouncing off one another. The sound is unearthly. Then you get the harmonics, which are high ringing treble tones caused by the wavelengths bouncing into one another; you can get them on a guitar by hitting a string at the right point over a fret, without pressing the string to the fret. (An old guitar trick.) But because the tampura's tones are changing constantly, these harmonics change too; so instead of just getting a "ding!" chime that fades out, you get something that literally sounds like a series of bells ringing in a descending scale over the base tones.

Anyway, writing about music, as the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. But this is how my morning revs up almost every day, and it's a source of great pleasure for me. It's simultaneously dreamy and trance-inducing, yet also energizing. It helps me get in the frame of mind for writing, and helps me stay there longer, and helps me write better stuff.

There's a great deal more to living in Pakistan than Benazir and Musharraf and bomb threats. There are also little things like, oh, music and art and food and textile design and five thousand years of culture. Those get overlooked often, unfortunately, but they shouldn't.

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