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The Symphony of Life Continuing
Brian R Wood

Sounds of life stick in my memory of places that I have experienced on my idiosyncratic world journey. The accumulation of these sounds creates an eclectic and sometimes chaotic symphonic rousing in my head – a jigsaw memory I would never want to forget. I want to talk about the first two movements of this ever growing symphony.

The underlying memory of the entire symphony is, what I think is the most beautiful human sound in the world, the call to prayer of Islam. I had the pleasure of being exposed to this melody of faith both in Africa and in the Persian Gulf. The call to prayer gave me, and still gives me through my memory, a great feeling of comfort that life continues in important daily routines.

I was in Cameroun when I first heard the lonely song of prayer. The beautifully haunting song came from Le Grand Mosque in the wonderful city of N’gaoundere in the centre of the country. I would often be woken up by the first prayer of the day at sunrise which amazingly beat the other wake up call of Africa, the diligent rooster. I stayed with a Christian, polygamous family in a city where Christians made up about 40% and Muslims 60% of the population. Next door was a Muslim family whose father called himself to his own prayer facing the sunrise just outside my window. It was the signal that it was time to start another day, another day that thankfully came and was heralded by the great faith to, for and of the day.

The call to prayer in N’gaoundere was a symbol of the city; a city that was an incredible mix of Christian and Muslim living literally side by side on the savannah of Central Africa. The day in the city started and end in a peaceful song to Allah, but more important for me as a non-Muslim, a song to the future and remembrance of each day. I was lucky enough to have another opportunity to be surrounded by the call to prayer, but this time to the west of and closer to Mecca.

Roughly four years later I found myself in the tiny Gulf Emirate of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula. I lived in the capital city of Doha with a more architecturally structured environment. The walls were much thicker than in N’gaoundere and the sound competing with the call to prayer was the mechanical din of the life sustaining air conditioner keeping the place cool enough to be comfortable in the 45 degree Celsius (plus 90% humidity) summer days in the Arabian deserts. In contrast, the only competition In N’gaoundere was those very dedicated roosters and the first cries of babies in the morning. The AC and call to prayer were competing but in the end it was always the minarets which were always victorious in the very competitive sounds of the urban.

The reason why the minaret was the champion was because there were so many of them in the city. It was call to prayer in stereo. Not only were they competing with the thousands and thousands of AC’s, but also with themselves. Each Mosque had their own call to prayer with loud speakers manning the minarets instead of actual men. At sunrise, throughout the day and at sundown, there was a sudden contrapuntal chaos that strangely fit together nicely into melodic concerts thanks to the unifying notes of faith – concerts that I would open the balcony doors to brave the clothes dryer like air, to listen to the sounds of life continuing.

Another four years later, a new movement within the same symphony came into being while I was in Tokyo. I still had the wonderfully lonesome yet communal tones of call to prayer in my mind when I heard almost the same thing in a nation that takes anything religious quite lightly. About two months after moving to Tokyo I heard a sound I truly believed was originating from a mosque nearby. I realized that the call to prayer was getting louder and closer. It couldn’t have been a mobile mosque but again, I was in Tokyo and anything was possible in this post-modern city of mismatches and appropriations. It was not a mobile mosque and I did not live near a more sedentary one, but a small, white truck with a mini wood stove smoking out the back. The season was autumn and it was the Sweet Potato Man.

The Sweet Potatoman
Roasted sweet potatoes are an autumn delicacy in Japan. Once late September comes about, the scent of sweet potatoes is carried by the smoke into the increasingly crisp air from those small, white trucks meandering in and out of the thousands of neighbourhoods in the Tokyo area. To announce their arrival in your neighbourhood, the Sweet Potato Men play a recording of their voice or of another’s over a small loud speaker. The call to potato is the same lonely melodic sound as the call to prayer in Muslim countries and cities.

But if one thinks about it, it has the same effect. They are both a call to do something. One a religious one and another commercial which, one can argue, is the main religion in Japan. Another thing these movements have in common is the notion that things are going along as they always did for centuries. Maybe not with the loud speakers or trucks, but there is a sense of no matter how weird the world gets, there are some things that remind you of the continuity of the everyday and local.

Today in Melbourne the symphony is still building. There are sounds here that could be the making of another movement. The screeching of the grand old trams trudging their way up and down St. Kilda Rd. just outside my apartment or perhaps the chattering of hundreds of flying fox across the street in the Royal Botanic Gardens could be part of the symphony of life continuing.

© Brian R Wood - Melbourne September 2002

Melbourne's Wonderful Identity Crisis
Brian Wood in Australia
I would much rather have a city exploring its identity than one that is set in its way and stagnates

More on Brian Wood's Japan and other places in Hacktreks

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