Beijing, 31 July 2013
Well not really the grasslands. We were more where the grasslands of Inner Mongolia meet one of the province’s deserts, whose dunes are gradually invading the grasslands.
The government has been struggling for decades to stop the dunes in their tracks. It has had some success, but only some. We were visiting a man who was trying something new. He wanted to make a sustainable business of desert-control (something which the government is incapable of). He was contracting local farmers to plant sand willow bushes on the dunes, paying them to coppice the willows every three-four years, burning the resulting biomass in a small power plant, and selling the electricity to the local grid. Finally, with a small portion of the carbon dioxide emissions he was growing Spirulina in ponds around the power plant to sell as a food supplement.
Very impressive. But actually what I want to write about today is the cultural highlight of the trip, the evening’s karaoke session. After the usual banquet, with its toasts and pledges of eternal friendship, we were all ushered downstairs into the hotel’s rec room. It actually wasn’t clear to either me or my colleague what was going on until an English-speaking member of the company staff brightly informed us that we were going to have a karaoke session. My colleague looked at me. This is not what we had signed on for. But what to do, you have to follow local practice. So putting a brave face on it, we followed everyone into the room and took our seats facing the screen. What would we be invited to sing, we timidly asked? “Edelweiss”, we were informed. Well at least I roughly knew that song. The first couple of songs were Chinese – popular ones, by the smiles and nods around the room – and were belted out, first by the General Manager and then by the Deputy General Manager (I felt that the GM looked somewhat peeved with the DGM’s performance; was it somewhat better than his?). Then came our turn. My hands gripping the mike were slightly sweaty. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, dressed to the nines in their Austrian costumes from “The Sound of Music”, danced onto the screen, the music swelled, the words appeared helpfully on the screen, and it was all systems go.
In all modesty, I think our performance was quite creditable. My colleague and I managed to follow the verses more or less in tune and in time, and I was able to give a satisfying Frank Sinatra-like croon to the chorus. We certainly got enthusiastic applause at the end – perhaps in the manner that parents energetically clap at performances in kindergartens, to encourage the little ones. This gave us the courage to accept to do another song later in the evening. Here, my colleague took the lead. He knew the song, while I had no idea of either tune or words and just hummed along helpfully. Shortly afterwards, the session wound down and we all stumbled off to our rooms.
It’s a rum thing, this karaoke. I remember back in the 70s when it first appeared on our radar screens in the West as another Japanese export, along with Sony walkmans. I remember how we tittered at these pictures of staid, middle-aged Japanese businessmen singing what we were told were pop love songs, somewhat out of tune. I mean really, did these people feel no embarrassment?
We might have tittered, but karaoke swept through the rest of Asia, becoming all the rage. My first (and until Inner Mongolia, my only) encounter with karaoke had been in the 90s, in Malaysia. There too our hosts had declared what fun it would be to spend an evening karaoking and dragged me and two very reluctant English colleagues off to a karaoke bar. We got away with singing Beatles songs – “Michelle, Ma Belle” went down particularly well with our hosts, as I recall. And as far as I can make out, karaoke is now making serious inroads everywhere else in the world. The film “Duets”, with that wonderful, wonderful actor Paul Giamatti who plays a stressed-out businessman going AWOL from job and family and becoming a karaoke devotee, is surely showing us that the desire for singing our hearts out in front of others is spreading.
What is it that makes people willing to bare their souls through singing? Well, music – like sex, delicious food and (alas!) certain drugs – increases the levels of dopamine in our brains, which we feel as pleasure. So when we sing we increase our pleasure levels, and hopefully those of others around us (if we don’t sing too awfully …). And why would music have this effect? Because probably it thereby helped our ancestors to share emotions, to work together, in a word to bond. And that helped us to survive. Those readers who are interested in all this should read “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” by Steven Mithen. Great book.
So I suppose this explains why I liked singing around the campfire in the Scouts, the closest I have ever got to living like a Cro-Magnon man …
.. why the massed choir which I heard singing Carmina Burana decades ago at York University brought out goosebumps all over my body …
… and why my heart is torn from its place every time Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” sings to the loss of her love, whom she is giving back to his father and to bourgeois respectability.
Sand dunes of Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sound of music: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdtx7kdI111qc1i8lo1_500.gif
Japanese businessmen karaoking: http://www.corbisimages.com/images/Corbis-42-15959733.jpg?size=67&uid=b4af3e21-08c3-4b08-be43-4e83d45b134a
Paul Giamatti-1: http://images.dailyfill.com/7f3ed4d25d034a68_9ea55287e2c98de4_o.jpg
Singing Neanderthals: http://www.hachette.com.au/cover/large/9780753820513.jpg
Boy scouts campfire: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aMXEdTSATSU/UAbGYL5LNgI/AAAAAAAAFAE/7TPQ72FLd5k/s400/campfire.jpg
Carmina burana choir: http://sz-n.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/0192-e1370696994658.jpg
La Traviata: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/La_Traviata_-_Giorgio_Germont,_Violetta_Valerie_und_Annina.jpg