…But you could be anywhere. Music doesn’t care where you are, it only cares that you listen.
photos by Taylor Dickie
There I was, a Canadian surrounded by Germans. Standing with my two other Canadian friends in some hip, obscure part of Berlin, Germany. I stopped and looked around me. Based on the lack of English being spoken, it was pretty clear we were the only people in the room who weren’t German. We kept surveying the crowd, trying to blend in – was it obvious that we were foreign? We didn’t know a word of German; we couldn’t help but feel isolated and different from everyone else. Then the lights went down and everything changed.
The room erupted into cheers and Sweden’s sultry pop sensation Lykke Li took the stage. We all danced along to her songs and cheered wildly every time a song ended. One of the friends I was with is short and was having trouble seeing over the crowd, so a kind German man picked her up and put her on his shoulders. Suddenly we were part of the gang and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand a word of their language. Here we were, three Canadians, standing amongst a crowd of Germans, watching a performance by a Swede. And yet, I’d never felt more at home.
I recently spent five months studying abroad in Utrecht, The Netherlands, during which I had numerous opportunities to travel to other countries. One activity that I always tried to do was go to a concert in whatever city I was in because I feel that it gives you a local experience nothing else can.
There is something so unifying about music, something so universal about it that it doesn’t matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re listening to – you’ll always feel comfortable. It’s as if music has this power to make everything else in the world melt away and leave only you and the rest of the audience behind. Language stops being a barrier, culture shock stops being a discomfort.
Dan Mangan is a Vancouver-based folk singer who has had his share of experiences performing abroad. I caught up with him before his performance in Utrecht to find out what it’s like for someone on the other side of the stage.
“I think that if something feels good, it feels good,” Mangan says. “So much of what makes good music is implied, it’s not necessarily great lyrics or necessarily that you have a really great drummer or something like that, but just that everyone plays together in sync in a way that feels good. And I think that when it’s happening well, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s international.”
And true enough, bands like Sigur Ros defy conventional song writing and ignore the meaning of language, creating music that is often verbally indiscernible but still some of the most moving and emotional stuff out there.
“They don’t even speak Icelandic when they sing,” Mangan says of Sigur Ros. “They have their own bizarre little language that they’ve made up. It’s kind of Icelandic, I think, but kind of not. It doesn’t matter, it’s just sound but it feels great. And they just know how to make music inside very your gut; you just want to explore it.”
This exploration is universal. Every time I go to a show in a different city I’m amazed at how many other people, across the ocean, love the same music as I do. I have seen a bunch of different musical acts, from dub step (Caspa in Amsterdam), to indie (Wintersleep and Rah Rah in Rotterdam), to pop (Lykke Li in Berlin), to DJ (Diplo in London), to rap (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All in Amsterdam), to rock (Band of Horses in Groningen), to experimental (Caribou in Amsterdam), to folk (Dan Mangan in Utrecht), and every time my feelings are the same.
The music, in each case, really connects me with the city I’m in and more than that, with the people in the city. It’s amazing because regardless of our language or our country, we connect with each other over a love of some same little piece of sound. Mangan puts it perfectly when he says that “you can’t help but feel moved by really good feeling music;” who you are or where you’re from is irrelevant.
I am especially proud when the artist is Canadian, or like Mangan, is from my hometown of Vancouver. There’s something so special about seeing an artist that you love get recognition in another country. It’s like when a parent sees their child make friends – you’re just so happy that other people like them too.
And I couldn’t have felt more proud during Mangan’s Utrecht performance. The venue was packed, and the primarily Dutch crowd sang along, shouting that they love him and making song requests. Mangan was so ecstatic that he did a 20 minute encore (and actually took some of those requests).
For his final song of the evening, he played “So Much For Everyone” off of his first album, Postcards And Daydreaming. The whole band got off the stage and played in the middle of the floor, the audience surrounding them in a circle. Mangan stood in the very middle, on top of a chair, without a microphone. He belted the words and had the audience sing harmonized back-up “aaaahhh’s.”
I’m no musician, but I have a feeling that night will rank up there as one of Mangan’s top experiences performing abroad.
“I feel like every night I step on the stage here and I want to know, ‘How did you people find out about the gig? How did you find out about the music?’” he says. “It makes you feel like all of those toiling hard years’ work are totally worth it. You kind of step out there and there’s people and it’s kind of everything you’ve ever wanted.”
And it goes both ways, because being part of that packed crowd and making the artist feel loved is all we, the audience, have ever wanted, too. You could be anywhere. There are many ways to say “music,” but we all love it the same.