Monsoon Raag

A journey in sound.

The days would begin with singing, but we never quite knew where it was coming from. Male voices in unison drifting into our room while it was still dark, at the edge of waking. Early morning singing or chanting in Fort Kochi, voices coming from…we could never tell exactly: maybe the Basilica, the rooftop mediation hall beyond the football pitch, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association over towards Mattancherry. Days were edged by this unison singing, in and out of sleep, the sound of people beginning the day together.

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‘Join us for a morning raag’, said the man at the Kathakali Theater, bringing his palms together, bowing slightly, dropping his voice to whisper: ‘Most welcome’. He had one of those voices that tickles the eardrum, that creates ASMR-like shivers even at a distance, that you want never to stop. We would bow and intone it huskily to each other all through two months of travel in south India and Sri Lanka: ‘Most welcome’.

The idea is distinctive to Indian classical music – that certain scales and melodic sets are associated with certain times of day, or seasons of the year: the heat, the rains. But it seems (once you have heard it) utterly logical, beautiful, impossible to do without. A raag, or raga, is not quite a scale (because many ragas can be based on the same scale), and not really a tune (because the same raga can yield an infinite number of tunes.) It has no direct translation in Western music theory, but with it comes the idea that certain patterns of sound have specific effects on the mind and body, that they colour things, hence the Sanskrit origin of the word raag: concerned with pigments and tinting, tingeing or dyeing.

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At night, the younger guy who takes over the reception desk at Raintree Lodge watches series or movies on his phone. The tinny noise keeps us a little awake, slows down our wifi connection to almost nothing. But he is such a friendly guy, all alone all night, so we never tell him to stop. Never get his name, but he has a topknot, so we call him Man Bun Man, which somehow gets put to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Nowhere Man’: Man Bun Man…don’t worry…Take your time, don’t hurry…

In White Noise, Don Delillo gave us ‘The Most Photographed Barn in America’. Raintree Lodge must be the most photographed hotel in Kerala. All day there are shoots happening on its front doorstep, against the vines and creeper-covered balconies of the front façade. We suspect there is something we don’t know about: that is has been the location of a famous film or music video. Perhaps some undeleted images still exist of us walking through a door to join the happy couple or the fashion model, unintentional photo bombers. We even learn to the recognize the sound of a shoot from our upstairs room: the particular call and response of instruction, question, suggestion, preparation, action…

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