How Music Soothes the Savage Beast - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Music Soothes the Savage Beast

How Music Soothes the Savage Beast

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because if healing the world starts with flamenco, what a wonderful world it’s going to be. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

Vietnam-born, part-time-Tunisian-dwelling French flamenco guitarist François R. Cambuzat is on a mission.

Forget why most musicians make music — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — Cambuzat, whose musical past dates back to a late-’70s discovery of punk rock, has probably already had a healthy dose of all three from his various side projects. These days, he’s hell-bent on something else: touring the Silk Road across China and deep into the trans-shamanic music of the Uighurs, for the express purpose of saving the world.

“The ancient Uighurs believed heavily in the effectiveness of shamanism,” Cambuzat says of the mystical practice of using the invisible world of spirits to heal or affect change in the visible world. “And music was one of the means they used to transcend fears of life, death, misfortune and terror.” With the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority involved in frequent bloody clashes with Chinese authorities, connecting Islam with shamanism and hammering out a musical solution, as quixotic as it may seem, is probably better than any other kind of force projection.


Flamenco musician François R. Cambuzat is touring the Silk Road.

So, armed with a flamenco guitar, financing from the cultural office of the French Embassy in Beijing, a 6,200-mile tour courtesy of the Wangba record label and a documentary film team led by Renaud de Foville, Cambuzat is hitting the road on a trip that will take him from France to Istanbul and across Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to China and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In a car.

“Cambuzat is not an ethnomusicologist,” says Thierry Zarcone, research director at CNRS-Group of Societies, Religions and Secularisms at the Sorbonne. “He’s a musician, and so his investigation into shamanic Uighur music of devotion, the role of instruments — usually drums, viols and lutes —  the collaborations with young Uighur musicians and crossing the borders between shamanism and Sufism is nothing short of therapeutic in an absolute sense.” Possibly therapeutic in the “music soothing the savage breast” way. Or, in that instruments might be better than guns. Or, in that it’s subversively disruptive to business as usual in the places Cambuzat is playing and with the music and musicians he’ll be pulling into his movable feast.

Which, when Cambuzat pulled out his acoustic flamenco guitar and played for an audience in Bayonne, France, this past December, made much more sense, as flamenco guitar, divorced from the hard-stepping dance that shares its name, seems lighter, delicate and undeniably magical.

“Sure, on one level, it’s just music,” Cambuzat said postshow as he swabbed sweat off his guitar. “But everybody with ears pays attention to music. You cannot say at all the same thing about politics.”


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