Soundtrack of Our Lives
Odds and Ends
My musical career was tragically short lived. A brief flirtation with the trumpet aged nine and a school recorder masterclass were the zenith of my virtuoso aspirations. But I still have music in my soul and, sitting on a cross-border bus between Bolivia and Peru last weekend, Ryan Adams providing the soundtrack to my journey, I was thinking about how important music is to the way we travel.
Looking around I noticed the number of trademark white earphones negotiating border control at Copacabana. There were more nationalities present than a United Nations symposium, but the one unifying bond from the Israelis to Irish was the fact that so many of us were appreciating the landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano with a tailor-made selection from our own iPod’s shuffle function.
Music provides more than just aural chicken soup for the soul on long, bone-shaking bus journey, however. Indeed, I’ve learnt as much about a new destination from tuning to a local FM station, or browsing a local record store, as I have from glancing through the local newspaper over my morning coffee. By getting to know the music that the locals listen to, you gain an insight into the politics, values and social mores that are the soundtrack of their lives.
These days no trip to Japan is complete for now without an afternoon spent sifting through vinyl in a Shinjuku record shop, searching out the latest bubblegum pop sensation to tickle Japan’s notoriously fickle musical tastebuds. In Scandinavia, meanwhile, I always try to get along to one of the live music venues in Reykjavik or Stockholm to catch the latest fuzz-guitar outfit, which will be breaking big on the global scene any day now.
But music is about more than fashion. In an age of pre-formatted talent shows churning out an endless stream of pop gimps for 15 minutes of fame and a lifetime of repentance, it’s easy to forget that, echoing the words of Billy Bragg, pop and politics are long-established bedfellows.
The Estonians, for example, quite literally sang their way to emancipation from their Soviet oppressors in August 1989. Their peaceful, musical protest formed a Singing Revolution, which exorcised the demons of Soviet oppression through the sheer force of their lungs. Today, meanwhile, from Corsica to China, protest songs are bouncing off the walls of the corridors of power as a reminder that you can silence the vocal chords of lone critics, but the band still plays on.
So next I’m on a long bus journey, give me the back catalogue of Nick Cave or Jeff Buckley to soothe the ride. And next time I’m jet-lagged in a strange hotel room and wide awake in the early hours, give me the sound of a local radio station for company. Just don’t give me one beer too many and let me near the karaoke machine. Otherwise I’ll soon be slaughtering Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust with the kind of questionable aplomb normally reserved for the terminally tone deaf.
Music may be the international language that crosses borders and brings down governments, but while I’m on the mic, it’s time – in the spirit of entente cordial – to reach for the mute button.
David Atkinson is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. For more of David’s stories, visit