Musings on Music

by Iris, Civic Semester participant

One of the first activities we did over Zoom (before we met in person) was to go around and say our favorite artists or songs. As soon as we met up on campus we made a shared playlist where we added anything and everything we were into. Since then, there has rarely been a moment without a carefully curated soundtrack.

“peru! 🦙💓🏔” is over six hours long, with 110 songs switching randomly from indie folk to high-energy Spanish pop to billboard top ten to French ballads. I love it, and it has ruined my Spotify Wrapped.

There are too many moments with music to write about them all (I finished this entire yak only to realize that I had forgotten Ligia teaching us to dance in her living room, karaoke, and having our very own at-home discoteca!), but here are some of my favorites.

At salsa lessons we learn to count in in 4/4 time, skipping the 4 and 8 beats for rests. Over and over in my head I repeat the rhythm: uno dos tres (pause) cinco seis siete (pause). Uno, dos, tres, (pause), cinco, seis, siete (pause). We listen to the same songs repeatedly as we learn more and more complicated moves, getting comfortable with the basic steps and leveling up into spins and switches. During our last lesson, we DJ at the end. At this point we are familiar enough with the beats that we can play music we know, with lyrics that we can shout along to. We play Vivir Mi Vida by Mark Anthony, because of course we do, and yell along to the lyrics as we clap and turn, step and pause. Laugh and dance and enjoy.

Voy a reír, voy a bailar (I’m going to laugh, I’m going to dance) Vivir mi vida la la la la (Live my life) Voy a reír, voy a gozar (I’m going to laugh, I’m going to enjoy)

Near the end of our stay at the hotel, we cook constantly. Many of us are tired of the catered food, and what used to be a once-a-week rotation of groups in charge of one dish to supplement dinner soon becomes an anyone-who-feels-like-it anytime-they-feel-like-it hodge podge of homemade dishes. As we cook we play music – sometimes the same peru playlist from on campus, but often just whatever comes to mind, all of us yelling out song suggestions. Three people cook and five others crowd around the counter and the couches, dancing and yelling along to the lyrics. We’ll salsa to anything, but we have range. We also wobble. Some of us learned the dance to “Paint the Town Red” by Doja Cat and perform that. The kitchen is always filled with songs and laughter – when asked what our favorite parts of the semester are, Emma says: “dancing around in the kitchen.” I can’t help but agree. When I think of my most joy-filled moments, it’s those. During my time here, the sound of music has become nearly synonymous with laughter.

Bonding with my host family was challenging for me. My Spanish could be stronger, and I tend to get frustrated and embarrassed, making it even more difficult to communicate. But one night my host dad started playing music and an R.E.M. song came on, and I immediately lit up. REM is my real dad’s favorite band, and I know every word to every song. For the next hour, I tried my best to translate the lyrics for my host family, and we started listening to other bands, discussing the meanings of the songs, and talking about their cultural context. When we’re just talking, it’s so much harder for me to follow along. But with a soundtrack, I can easily keep track of what’s going on in the conversation, and feel freer to join in and offer up my perspective.

A couple of weeks later we drive to ice cream and Bohemian Rhapsody comes on in the car. The first yak I ever read featured Bohemian Rhapsody, and even then I understood that it was the perfect song for the semester. At the time, Tsering told us that that song always ends up being a Thing for dragon groups. It never caught on with us, but as it played through the car speakers I let myself feel it. I sing along a bit, and my host parents join in. After the song ends, my host dad turns around and asks me what “carry on” means. I think for a moment, then say “seguir,” except I mess up the pronunciation and they have no idea what I’m saying. I try again, getting it right this time, and they nod and “ahhh” (for the record, “continuar” would probably be a better translation, but I was doing my best).

We run into the other Peru Dragon group in the plaza. It was the first time we’d been with people our age for a long time (in Urubamba most people go to Cusco for university, so all the young adults are only home on the weekends), and we quickly started comparing experiences. The biggest difference is that we have our phones. After the initial “Oh it must be so nice to talk to your friends and family” one of the girls clearly has a eureka moment: “Oh my god, you guys have music!” She asks us for our phones, and pulls up Spotify to start playing Steve Lacy. She sways in place, mouthing along to the lyrics, and others join in. “I’ve missed it!” she says, laughing, and soon people are fighting over what to play next.

In general, I’m neutral on the fact that we have phones. I like being able to communicate with people back home, but I also see the appeal of going completely off the grid. However, in that moment I’m so deeply thankful for technology.

I can’t pack unless someone keeps me company, so the night before we leave Peru for good Ella sits on my bedroom floor at midnight and watercolors while I play Tetris with my packing cubes. She plays music quietly from her computer – it’s a playlist her friend made over the summer for leaving home.

“It’s crazy that this is the same music I was listening to when I was so scared to come here, and now I’m listening to it so sad to leave,” she says.

I have songs like that too – that have transcended time and morphed to fit completely new moments. I listened to “Rivers and Roads” on repeat while I was writing my personal statement. At the time, the song represented all of the things I felt I had lost and grown out of. I’ve been listening to it again recently, but now it’s about what I’ve gained. It will always be a song about leaving, but the emphasis is different. I’m devasted to be leaving my friends, but now the song sounds like “My family lives in a different state” – how remarkable is it that I have people I love scattered all across the world?

I downloaded that playlist and am listening to it now on the plane. Not only does music connect us to our past selves, but it also connects me to a version of Ella that I never met, and her friend from home who I only know through her stories.

We spend some of our last hours in Peru gathered around a table in a cafe near the hotel. Teagan asks the group what our songs of November are, and a couple of people throw out song titles. After we all land at home, I text the group chat, asking what everyone’s “Song of Peru” was – what music do we feel encapsulated our experience over the last three months?

Here’s our soundtrack: