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music

slow travel
Adventure, Africa, Europe

Johnny Cash and Slow Travel

8:15 a.m. Self-Service Restaurant “Mediterraneo.” Grandi Navi Veloci ferry from Tangier to Barcelona.

I look up from my breakfast—a somewhat sad assortment of boxed orange juice, cold croissant and drinkable cappuccino—and observe the other diners. Some are in groups or pairs. Many are young Moroccan families. Many are alone.

Of this last group, few are doing anything (checking phones, or even reading). They’re just sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around. For some reason it reminds me of Johnny Cash’s famous response when asked for his definition of paradise:

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

I’m not even a particular Johnny Cash fan, but something about that phrase—or more, the slowness it implies—fits this mood.

People choose to travel by ferry (around thirty hours from Tangier to Barcelona, rather than two or three by plane) for many reasons. The slightly cheaper cost. The relative ease and comfort of sleeper cabins and lots of space to roam. The vaguely romantic allure of faded, Titanic-style old world luxury.

And—I suspect—some people choose it for the slowness.

Sitting in a deck chair for hours watching the boat’s trailing wake. Pacing the endless red-carpeted hallways, hands skimming smudged brass banisters, stepping inside and outside and inside again with no special aim.

Sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around.

Because there’s nothing better to do. Because the boat will get there—slowly—and we have time. Because, just like Johnny Cash, we recognize that the smallest moments contain the whole universe—if we slow down enough to dwell there for a while.

For me, that is the essence of slow travel: dwelling in a moment while everything shifts around us, knowing that we’re on our way.

Another reason to take the ferry: They have puppies!!! (If you’re lucky…)
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Culture, Europe

La Notte della Taranta—or, Where I was on Saturday

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On the road to Melpignano

Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.

Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.

It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.

The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.

The History:

In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.

According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.

Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.

La Notte della Taranta Today:

I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.

But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.

Worth the trip? Absolutely.

Some outcomes of this excursion:

  1. I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
  2. I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
  3. I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.

Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.

Skip to minute 4:00 if ten minutes of Italian folk music isn’t your thing.

 

Skip to minute 5:00 to see a bit of traditional dancing.

 

***
 
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Poetry & Fiction

Sound Impressions from a Hammock

As I lie here resting, gently swaying, I reflect on the day’s noises…
There are the birds who say “Oh Yeah” in a melodic chorus of positivity.
Then there are the birds who welcome me in Swahili: “Karibu! Karibu!”
The birds swoop and swivel and swish and swerve—a limitless parade the likes of which I do not have the expertise to catalog, let alone describe. They wake me in the morning and sing me to sleep at mid-day.
The goats scream with human indignance and bleat with an infant’s piteous yowl.
They caper and cavort, cradle sunlight in the sleek hollows of their sides. They stand on hind legs to grasp out-of-reach shrubbery. They block the roads with impunity.
The children shout, “Muzungu! How are you?” with the the same lilt as the birds who say “Karibu.”
They are sudden apparitions at the side of the road, emerging like smoke through fences and paths. Some smile and wave; others stare with scrutinizing solemnity.
The motorcyclists ask, “where are you going?” and have nothing more to say to my reply: “I’m just walking.”
The donkey wheezes through a comical fit of seeming laughter—or sneezes. Sometimes at noon; sometimes at midnight.
The dogs howl like wolves to the moon.
The crickets chirp a thunder and an avalanche in the otherwise quiet of dark.

My ears are working hard to keep up…
~
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