L’usage du monde

Macedonian tunes usually have something scholarly and ornate about them, reminiscent of church music. Even in the most vigorous ones there is an air of Christian melancholy. One would think that in the era when there was nothing but scrub, Byzantine monks must have chanted their canticles and psalms in the same harsh, piercing, blood-stained voices. The bagpipe, however, was an exception. It cannot have changed since the time of the House of Atreus. It is antique, the bagpipe, and made to express immemorial things: the cry of the jay, the sound of a downpour, the panic of a girl pursued. And it is really Pan’s instrument because the heart of the blower, the skin and the mouthpiece all belong to his reign. The old man played faster and faster. We were carried away. When he came to the final dance, an imperious cackling welled up from the depths of the ages, the room was black with people, and all the backsides and big toes in the cafe were wiggling.
After that day, the operator of Radio Prilep, who made up the programmes as he pleased, sent a little French music over the loudspeakers in the square to please us. When the sun abandoned the boiling street and the town looked out through half-closed eyes, the quivering of Ravel’s quartet stole trembling across the carts and roofs, and we savoured fifteen minutes of dandified capitalist broadcasting, kindly provided by a good Marxist.

— Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World, trans. Robyn Marsack, p. 66.

Macedonian bagpiper, courtesy Flickr user liato

Macedonian bagpiper, courtesy Flickr user liato

Bouvier, a young Genevan journalist and collector of folk music, and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set off to travel from Belgrade to the Hindu Kush in 1953, driving a tiny Fiat and prepared to spend months in Tabriz if the snow catches them (as it does). They find people and places in transition, certainly, but still deeply linked to the past. I chose this bit because of the music connection, but the whole thing is quotable, really. It’s another of those NYRB books; I don’t think I’ve found a dud yet.

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