05 April 2016

The lifelong friend we rarely acknowledge

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." - Plato

Where does the wind start, where does the wind end?  A little girl asked me and herself this question some years ago.  We don’t know but that doesn’t stop us from imagining origins.  It’s less unclear with music.  Music comes to most of us almost as soon as we are born.  Even mothers (and sometimes fathers) who cannot sing to save their souls find voice when they cradle a baby in their arms.  They sing.  They hum….doi..doi…doi…..  A baby will learn about rhythm as he or she presses against the mother.  From then on, life is full of music, full of words, melodies and rhythm. 

Of course this music doesn’t come uncluttered by sounds that clearly rebel against melody and lyric, and yet, there’s nothing to stop us from gathering from the cacophony around us those sounds that are beautiful.  In time we learn to like certain songs more than others, certain kinds of music over other kinds of music.  But we are all common in our love for music.  Maybe we won’t all call it ‘love’, but few if any will say ‘I hate music!’ 

And that’s how we are, from cradle to grave, we move from birth to death, from childhood, through adolescence, youth and middle age to infirmity and death, always accompanied in varying degrees by song.  Leaving aside those who are totally irreligious, even those who have a little faith in some religious doctrine will be calmed by the melodious murmur that is prayer.  This is why at important moments in our lives we seek and find music in one form or the other, be it the jayamangala gatha, hymns or other chanting associated with other faiths.  We are soothed by pirith as much by the musicality as by the wisdom. 

 A few weeks ago, a popular singer, Keerthi Pasqual, acceded to the wish of a dying child, visiting her in hospital to sing her favorite song ‘Sanda Latha’.  A video of him singing that song for that little girl went viral on Youtube.  Not all patients, in whatever condition they may be, asks for music, but music does heal us.  We sing when we are happy.  When we are sad, music helps us deal with sorrow.  We hum, whistle or sing our favorite songs.  Even if we don’t hum or whistle or sing, the melodies we can always summon the melodies that move us – they play in our minds.  And all of a sudden the world appears to be more beautiful or less sorrowful. 

My grandmother, then in her nineties and with little memory left in her, would always sing an old song she had sung to her first love (she claims he wasn’t, but we all believe he was).  All I had to say was ‘Aththamma, sing the song that Dudley sang to you’ and she would oblige:

‘When you played the organ and I sang the rosary
Life was so much sweeter
Than the sweet melody’

A few weeks before she died, when she could only remember people closest to her and was oblivious to most other things, we arranged a bikkhu to chant pirith for her.   She clasped her hands.  She smiled the most beautiful smile.  She died in her sleep.  Peacefully.  We don’t know if the music of her last days gave her peace. We don’t know if some melody of her youth stayed with her in her last moments. We do know that music made her smile. 

We know that infants get attached to certain melodies and songs and that in their worst moments of bawling a mother would croon these and calm them down.  We know that songs have lifted us when we were down.  We know that music makes us dance.  We know that even unfamiliar melodies make us tap our feet to the relevant rhythms.  We listen to the songs that marked particularly poignant moments in our lives and relive those special moments. 

Music is a friend ever ready to be at our side.  From cradle to grave.  Never charges us a cent.  Never says a harsh word.  Just gives. And gives. And gives. 

This was written for a souvenir for concert organized by 'Heal the Life', an organization dedicated to support cancer patients.