The Language of Empathy

The words you speak are unfamiliar.

Yet I hear you, I feel you, I know of what you speak.

I have two distinct experiences of The Hu‘s music. I had come across the band in late-2018 or early-2019. I had liked the little that I had heard without being quite enraptured; my listening was rather desultory. Then on my return from a trip to the Arctic circle in mid-2019, I spent a few days in Oslo. I attended the Tons of Rock festival while there; just the one day of it when, among others, I got to see live performances from The Hu, Wolfmother…and Slayer. The Hu played inside a fairly large tent and as often happens, their live show opened my ears to the infectious energy of their music. That packed audience was moving, and how!

After that for an unfathomable reason I didn’t listen to their songs, not a single one. That is, until about a month back, nearly two years since that performance. I pulled up the band’s album ‘The Gereg’, again for no explicable reason. And I have played it again and again and again; almost ad infinitum but never ad nauseum. While their brilliant live performance was physically moving, listening to this album has been for me a strongly felt spiritual experience.

The way I grew up listening to music was…listening to the music. Lyrics were for me (and still are) a nice to have but not THE focus of the music. As a child, listening to Indian Carnatic Classical music which had – to the best of my knowledge – short repetitive words in a language that I didn’t follow made sure that I had no distraction from the music itself, something that reinforced itself into my psyche as I started listening to contemporary Western music (I’ll probably write about how music grew in me later). Of course, I love the written word and I admire great (well, I have a mild partiality to clever) lyric-writing but not having the lines explicitly laid out to me allowed free rein to my imagination. And I think imagination and interpretation are what make our relationship with art enriching, creating our own unique, deeply personal bond with it.

The Hu don’t seem to overthink their music. It seems to flow easily from a place of calmness and assurance, free of any burden of nervy angst or raging anger. There are no screaming, wailing elements here. Instead you’re laved in a reassuring, warm wash of deep Mongolian throat singing and modified folk instruments that convey serenity; serenity that one doesn’t normally associate with music as energetic as this. This might seem like hyperbole – what did I say about imagination running rampant? – but it seems to me that the sound draws from the very earth. It evokes epic tales of meadows and streams and mountains and valleys and rolling steppes and of men and women and of their lives over millenia. It is something that catches you in its sway and has you enrolled enthusiastically as a willing participant in a co-operative, inspiring community togetherness. Perhaps that comes from the roots of this music which probably developed in tribe gatherings in the past. To my mind this is best captured in “The Legend Of Mother Swan”, in its gradually soaring vocals and elemental flute and string parts that uplift your soul.

There are rarely hard truths; our beliefs are shaped by perspective and perspective takes form from repeatedly reinforced narratives which in themselves often do not present the picture with completeness. The world mostly sees the legendary Chengiz Khan as a marauder par comparison, a brutal empire-builder, a terror. Yet “The Great Chinggis Khaan” from these musicians of that man’s land paints a different picture. A reverent tribute and a solemn ode to a hero in his people’s eyes. What The Hu present here is a different narrative that carries its own truth, one that is coloured with quiet pride and dignity.

Your own perspective and interpretation of this music can be very different from mine. The band most certainly would have their own take on where this music came from. Hey! how do I even know if “Shoog Shoog” is not about something as mundane as skinning a chicken and making broth? (Incidentally this song somehow brings to my mind Boney M’s “Rasputin” and I think it could easily take a diversion into that song and come back to its own tune with equal smoothness.) That’s what makes art so interesting turning any assertion that cages it in set definition ridiculous, and perhaps dangerous. If you listen to the deluxe edition of “The Gereg”, you’ll probably get some good examples of changing perspective within the same musical context. There are three songs in it that have guest artists on them. The version of “Wolf Totem” with Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach despite its pumped up, jump-up-and-shout vibe left me feeling cold to it simply because by laying out lyrics in a language I can follow, it killed the magic and mystique of what I felt on hearing the original; it broke my personal connect with the song that I had built with what I imagined it to be. But what if you’re someone that doesn’t follow English either or are selectively deaf to the words? Maybe you’ll make for yourself a different truth of this version. I did just that over multiple listens with the version of “Song Of Women” featuring the redoubtable Lzzy Hale. She complements the solemnity and deeply felt emotions of that song and to my mind, enhances it making it an incredibly moving piece of music. BTW, there are slightly stripped down, acoustic versions of three songs on the deluxe edition just to add more grist to this imagination mill.

Sometimes having a context to the music – for that matter, any work of art – through lyrics, back stories etc. helps you appreciate it more but I think more often than not it is experiencing it not knowing what it is about that makes it rewarding because then nothing comes between you and what you feel for it. Empathy doesn’t need words.

P.S.: “The Gereg” is very strangely classified as metal music, which it is not. I think we shouldn’t really bother much with genre-classifications which with their creation of pre-conceived notions are a block to our discovery of music.

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