The sound of hand drums echoed in the distance. For a second, I thought I was in Berkeley. A daily feature of my graduate school years, I can’t remember a seminar I sat in where I could not hear a jam session in progress. ¬†Located somewhere in Sproul Plaza, drum circles would normally get going in the mid-afternoon, rising in volume – and membership – by the early evening.

“I hate how it’s always white guys,” my friend Keith once said, as he handed out anti-capitalist leaflets on Sproul for the Spartacist League. “They can’t even keep a proper rhythm going.” Surveying a drum circle that had gathered nearby, I had to laugh. It was a distinctly WASPish-looking group of longhairs, beating out irregular rhythms on their bongos, too stoned, perhaps, to play anything structured.

These beats were different. They had some sort of direction, and there were a lot of them. Bouncing off the stone walls of Piazza Castello, the acoustics were also in their favor. Their sound was so crisp, it was as though the drummers were playing in a studio, with all the right mics in place.  Drawing closer, I could hear a group of men shouting along, erratically, in what sounded like Arabic.

Unsurprisingly, the players turned out to be migrants. North African, perhaps, considering Turin’s heavily Tunisian Arab community. Approaching them from behind, four of them were playing dumbeks, alongside a table staffed by a young woman, wearing a hijab. In front of them stood an androgynous-looking, middle aged Italian woman, wearing shorts and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt, dancing. Eyes glazed over, shuffling her feet, it was hard to tell whether she was either mentally ill, or incredibly high.

As it turned out, the drummers were providing a soundtrack for a Giovani Musulmani d’Italia (Young Muslims of Italy) table. Intended to promote local awareness of Islam, the scene had an obviously foreign flavor to it, which the music, ideally, would help temper. The Italian, though, was not necessarily clued in. The beats were still exotic, as though to demand an interpretive dance, in response.

Interpreting the Middle East

Interpreting the Middle East

I stood there for ten minutes, recording and photographing the event, wondering whether anyone else would join the dancer, or pick up any of the leaflets being given out. No one ventured forth. Perhaps it was the Italian woman’s fault. Insistent on responding to the beats, her awkward physical gestures established their own no man’s land around the table. The Arabs, cognizant of what was going on, looked over and laughed.

I wasn’t feeling as charitable. As crazy as the dancer appeared, there was still something quite recognizable about her. Perhaps it was what she had in common with the hippies back in Berkeley. Her moves were their bad bongo playing, in European translation. But I resisted going any further. The moment, in all its complexity, was still worthy of its own monograph. That would be enough, by itself.

Thankfully, I don’t hear Middle Eastern music in Turin with the same degree of frequency as I heard its parallels, back in Berkeley. A longtime fan, going back to my childhood in Israel, I often find myself conflicted for liking it, out of fear of being associated with the sorts of admirers one often equates it with in places like Berkeley – the jam session variety of my grad school days, or hippie dancers – for whom world music, albeit from the global south, is always an excuse to do the so-called jerk.

Listening to the structure of this recording, it’s hard not feel that way. Certainly, the playing is a bit sloppy, and the rhythms collide with each other at times. Still, there is something composed about it, both musically, and culturally, that’s worth paying attention to. I’d like to that that this is what its value is, amplified as it is, by the context in which it was recorded.


Joel Schalit. Photographs and recording courtesy of the author.