The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2014 - page 97

Ray Peppers was an FSOwith the U.S. Information Agency from 1967 to 1998, serving in Dhaka,
Islamabad, Kabul, Lome, Kuwait City, Lahore andWashington, D.C. Since retiring from the For-
eign Service, he has given more than 1,200 lectures to international relations classes, civic groups,
corporate boardrooms and other audiences.
Jasmine and Lilacs
hen my wife, infant son
and I first arrived in
Dhaka, in what was then
known as East Pakistan,
in 1967, I was determined to learn as
much as I could about the culture of this
mysterious place.
I told my Bengali staff that I wanted to
hear local music and try to learn to like
it. One of them said he would call a man
who ran a music school to see what might
be arranged, and I was invited to visit that
(At this point I must explain to every-
one younger than I that a very popular
film of the time, “Never on Sunday,”
starred the fine Greek actress Melina
Mercouri as a religious prostitute who
would not sell her body on Sunday. Its
music was composed and performed on
the bouzouki by a genius named The-
odorakis. The score remained the most
internationally popular music for several
years. Now back to my story.)
The music school had a long side
verandah used as a stage, and I was ush-
ered to a comfortable chair on the lawn.
There I was, awaiting my introduction
to local music, when a young man came
out with an electric guitar and proceeded
to play “Never on Sunday.” It was as far
from what I wanted to hear as P. Diddy
is from Placido Domingo. I politely
applauded, and left as soon as I could.
It turned out all right, though,
because I soon became acquainted with
the Bulbul Academy. (In Bangla, “bul-
bul” means “nightingale.”) My wife and
I spent many magical evenings listening
to the masters of South Asian music and
their students discussing and playing the
music we soon came to love.
My title then was Information
Center Director. The center consisted
of a well-used library and a little-used
auditorium. We showed films sup-
plied by the U.S. Information Agency to
meager audiences largely made up of
casual passersby taking a breather from
the oppressive heat. My mission was to
design programs to appeal to the opinion
leaders whom we wanted to engage.
Bengalis, like all descendants of a pre-
literate culture, love poetry, an impor-
tant medium for transmitting history and
culture through the generations. I read
We spent manymagical evenings listening
to the masters of South Asianmusic discussing
and playing the music that we soon came to love.
that the death anniversary of a beloved
Bengali poet named Nasrul was coming
up. Because he had once claimed Walt
Whitman as an influence, I decided to
prepare a program called “Nasrul and
Whitman.” (In South Asia, all important
poems are set to music; and in poetry
recitals, the selections are not recited,
but performed.)
My staff and I prepared guest lists
and delivered invitations, and on the
night every seat was filled. When the
stage lights came on, we were all sitting
crosslegged on a carpet, the musicians
in their Bengali garb and me—in the
American uniform of white short-sleeved
shirt with tie and somewhat removed
from the musicians.
The performance began with a Nas-
rul poem, beautifully performed. The
audience gave it tumultuous approba-
tion. When the noise abated, I began to
intone, “When lilacs last in the courtyard
bloomed...” But I was loudly interrupted
by shouts of “Sing it!” Eventually the
audience realized that I did not know
how to deal with poetry, and cheerfully
allowed me to carry on.
The evening was a colossal success,
written up in the newspapers and talked
of on radio. From that evening, we were
able to engage the audiences we sought.
Subsequently I heard South Asian
music in its great variety and in sev-
eral countries—quwalli, Sufi songs of
devotion, morning and evening ragas.
But when I think of the music, my mind
always returns to the Bulbul Academy.
Those jasmine-scented evenings
remain among my fondest memories.
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