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Godawful din

Where music is always amplified

January 1st, 2016

BY RANDALL GILES

Chennai, India

All musical events here are frighteningly loud. People remember and are still amazed that when Yehudi Menuhin was in town at the Madras Festival, he forbade the use of microphones. This was simply not done. The smallest hall will amplify each performer individually, but not then mix the sound at all well, or the “sound engineer” will fiddle around with the levels endlessly during performance, never with happy results.

monkeysThe general civic tolerance for high decibel levels is amazing. I was in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu recently, a bastion of High Anglicanism in the southern-most part of India; villages with names like Nazareth and Bethany dot the landscape. Each has a church with a steeple trying to rise higher than the neighboring village’s, and each steeple has a set of loudspeakers. Some company has cornered the market on tapes to play through these loudspeakers to mark the hours between five a.m. and nine p.m. Just before the hour in every such village, the same cinema-inspired Tamil Christian lyric is blared, then a hugely amplified version of one of those tinny electric chiming clocks booms the hour, then there are two seconds of silence, and then a voice like one announcing train departures (loud and muddy) quoting some scripture verse. The whole experience takes no more than a minute-and-a-half, but it’s enough to blot out what ever one was previously thinking and raise the tension level for the following fifteen minutes, until the half-hour, celebrated by a single bong of the electric chime. There are ordinances against noise pollution, but no one seems to think of this as pollution.


In the village where I was staying, various private citizens owned their own loudspeakers on poles outside their houses, from which they broadcast “Christian music” to their neighbors. It made for quite a din. On the Sunday morning I was there — although I’d been there for three days I had not yet adjusted to this form of public utterance — I thought that the Indian Christian cinema music that began at five-thirty a.m. was coming from the church next door. So I got up, attempted to go see if I could stop it somehow, and found my house’s door padlocked from the inside. My host had evidently had some trouble, and locked the family in every night. So no going to the loo or anything else without waking my host. I woke him anyway (he was sleeping through the concert), went to the sexton’s quarters, and implored him to turn down the music. He didn’t understand what I was trying to say, even though I gesticulated wildly, jumping up and down with my hands over my ears, etc.

I noticed, however, at six a.m., that the music was in fact not coming from the church tower. I went in search of it, and some blocks down the street came upon a corner shop with two middle-aged guys chatting on the doorstep. A half-block away, outside the door to a house, was the culprit: a small boombox at the bottom of a fifteen-foot pole with loudspeakers.

I stared at the box (the shop guy was watching my whole performance) and, with as much of a flourish as I could manage, pressed the stop button. The shopkeeper attempted to start an argument, but I just marched back up the street. My hosts, the local pastor and his wife, doubtless heard about this scene later, but mercifully I left town that afternoon.

I had been in this region once before, about three years ago, and had forgotten this most unfortunate way Christians here mark their territory. Hindus and Moslems are not allowed to own property in these villages. And if I were either, I would certainly not want to be subjected to the crap I’d have to hear on the hour. I have no idea whether this sort of social hegemony is legal in India or not, but it is certainly widely practiced.

In my experience, Moslem villages are similar, but the calls to prayer are exotic enough to me that I find them somehow fascinating rather than annoying. And there are only five of them per day. I went to a wedding in a Moslem village with about twenty mosques, all of which used loudspeakers instead of actual muezzins. It was an amazing thing to hear all twenty do the same call to prayer starting within seconds of one another, panning the sonic horizon from one side of the village to the other. The house I was in was in the middle of town, so the sound started on our left and ended about thirty seconds later on our right.

It’d be interesting to do some small research on social intolerance among communities here from a sonic point of view. But it would probably be futile. I know I would get plenty of blank stares asking about this problem, since it is clearly so very normal a part of life. •

This essay first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Giles | Link to this Entry

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