The Last Note
by Sami Yusuf
In music there are a hundred thousand joys
And any one of these will shorten by a thousand years
The path to attain knowledge of the divine mysteries.
–– Ruzbihan Baqli
What is lost when the last note is sounded in a musical tradition that spanned centuries? The most immediate, direct, and primal means of communicating the ethos of a people is lost, because traditional music reveals the heart and soul of a people as no other art form can. In its framework of sounds are the stories they tell of their past, of their present, and of their vision for the future. While it offers outsiders a glimpse into the collective mind and sensibility of a culture in a language with no need for translation, it also binds members of a community together, for it holds memories and ways of knowing that no one individual alone can keep. The sacred music of a civilisation that reflects celestial harmony on the earthly plane is a means of transcendence. Whether complex, nuanced, and sophisticated or direct and penetrating in its simplicity, a culture’s music is inextricably bound to its identity. Its loss signals an end to the forward transmission of that culture, and the great treasure that is the totality of our world’s artistic heritage is forever diminished.
Traditional music is woven into the identity of a people in a way that is at once recognisable and fundamental, and it is also the means of expressing that identity to others. When it is played, the music immediately evokes the cultural homeland where it originates, as if the land itself were singing. An art without language (although often paired with poetry), it communicates the essence of identity through tonal and rhythmic systems developed over generations. And because it is the universal language of humanity, it is a cultural ambassador par excellence, easily reaching its listener in a place beyond discourse, distrust, or misunderstanding and finding resonance in the heart of another. It is a direct means of recognising our own identity, our own self, reflected in the other. Our cultural identities give us roots in this world from which we can grow and interact within our communities and in harmony with others. Knowing who we are and where we came from is crucial for understanding others. And traditional art is key in shaping that identity. The beauty of traditional music in all its myriad moods can pierce veils of separation between peoples because it issues from a place in the human soul that understands the oneness of humanity underlying its multiplicity of forms. When it falls silent, a pathway to understanding between cultures shuts down.
Today, traditional arts and the cultures that birthed them are dying at an alarming pace. In the field of music, we are drifting ever faster toward a homogenised world sound that is produced and globally disseminated at the service of the music industry, whose sole motive is profit, with the result that the creativity and knowledge needed for a new generation to add its unique voice to the chain of artistic transmission is becoming more and more rare. Music that has been crafted to allow the performer and the listener to penetrate into an inner dimension usually inaccessible to ordinary consciousness is like a refuge in a raging storm when compared to the soulless, formulaic, and forgettable pop tunes that now pour out into every street from Yangon to Cairo to Berlin. There has always been a place for the creative energy of popular music in our societies, but the current sheer quantity, general lack of quality, and omnipresence of songs that have no relevance to the land or the people where they are now the dominant sound can only hasten traditional music’s demise.
We are at a juncture where great care must be taken to preserve and protect the musical traditions that represent the trajectory of intellect and imagination of world cultures, so that the fullness of human artistic creativity can continue to nourish us into the future. Much is being done and much more must be done to protect and preserve traditional music by all those who are drawn to the mysteries contained in its melodies and rhythms. Each culture’s traditional music is a voice meant to be shared, to flow like a river from person to person, to bring listener and performer into the vibrant, creative space of the present moment, that moment poised between memory and vision. We must do all we can to carry that voice forward to the next generations, for if it sings its last note and falls forever silent, we will have lost an essential part of our very selves.
Published in UNESCO: The Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity: Marking the 20th Anniversary