Mike Hallenbeck
Just Before Diwali - Field Recordings from North India

India is a wondrous cacophony of cultures, faiths, languages, politics, and -- not surpisingly -- sounds. I recently had the chance to find this out for myself. A marriage gave me new relatives in the north of India, so I had the chance to meet my new family and travel a bit, recording gear in

The most common sounds I encountered in India were bells of all kinds. Another frequent sound, curiously, was the sound of firecrackers... many people set off fireworks to celebrate the approach of Diwali, a religious festival celebrated by people of many faiths in India and an occasion of roughly the same prominence as Christmas in the West. Diwali approached during my Indian travels; this accounts for the frequent booms and cracks of fireworks you'll hear resonating throughout these recordings.

India and its people were very generous with me over the course of my trip, and I wanted to be able to give something back as a part of this project. Throughout the following descriptions you'll find links that will enable you to partner with Indians who are working to make India a more livable place.

Special thanks to Jen, Tom, Reshma, and all my family.

These recordings were gathered using a Sony MZ-M10 minidisc recorder and an Edirol R-09 digital recorder. All recordings were made binaurally with MM-BSM-8 in-ear mics (except for the Joy Train and the Delhi streetscape, where the R-09's self-contained stereo mic was used).

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we010 - Mike Hallenbeck - Just Before Diwali - Field Recordings from North India (58.4 MB)

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Track 01 - Sweets Vendor, Lucknow (0.9MB)
We begin with a brief moment in the city of Lucknow (capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh), at a festival in anticipation of Diwali. Here a vendor of sweets hawks his wares by turning a crank festooned with bells.

Track 02 - Alley Weave, Varanasi (4.68MB)
A pilgrimage destination for Hindus and Jains, and near the purported site of the Buddha's first sermon, Varanasi is considered holy ground and a pilgrimage site for many people of faith. The city is a renowned center of cultural and academic life as well.

Varanasi is also the site of vibrant commerce, especially silk production-- the beauty of the city's silk goods, exported worldwide, is breathtaking. In this recording we wind through the alleys of the old city on our way to the banks of the Ganges River, through a variety of acoustic environments as we move in and out of the silk workshops and hear the clacking percussion of machinery used in the production process.

Almost without exception, the machines heard on this recording are operated by children. Though technically illegal in India, child labor continues unchecked in many places. For those who wish to join with Indians fighting against child labor, a group called CRY is a good one to get involved in.

Track 03 - Cows, Lucknow (4.08MB)
Held sacred in the Hindu religion, cows do indeed roam freely in many parts of India. Here, they graze contentedly on the grounds of La Martinière College in Lucknow.

Track 04 - Dandhi Ghat, Varanasi (4.26MB)
Sometimes said to have originated in the hair of the Hindu god Shiva, the Ganges River is sacred in the Hindu religion. Often worshipped as a deity, the river is known variously as Mother Ganges, The Pure, Destroyer of Sin, and Light amid the Darkness of Ignorance.

In the old district of Varanasi, the banks of the Ganges are lined by stone steps and platforms known as ghats. These ghats-- an iconic Indian image-- host religious rituals at night and early in the morning, and even to immerse oneself in the waters is seen by many as physically and spiritually purifying. This recording offers an audio snapshot of the crowd that gathers at the ghats to splash around during the day.

Sadly, the river is so polluted with sewage, pesticides and industrial waste that the water is in fact a disease vector. While many continue to risk ill health by bathing in and drinking the waters, many Indians are struggling to return the love Mother Ganges has shown them and cleanse her of pollution. The Sankat Mochan Foundation is one such group.

Track 05 - Rama Puja, Lucknow (10.5MB)
We stumbled on a large public outdoor Hindu ritual (or puja, as it's called) honoring Rama, also in anticipation of Diwali. This recording is a continuous, uninterrupted binaural walk through the grounds. The voices and other sounds we hear emanate almost entirely from loudspeakers along the way, emerging and receding as I pass through the space.

Track 06 - Lion and Tigers and Birds, Lucknow (3.81MB)
Sometimes a field recordist must venture into the wild, uncharted regions and brave untold dangers to bring back sounds to the public. It was with this steely courage that I strode into the Lucknow Zoo and proceeded to gather the calls of the beasts assembled therein.

OK, maybe it wasn't all that adventurous, but I enjoy the sounds here: during this recording we encounter the vocalizations of (in order of appearance) a Bengal tiger, an Asiatic lion and a white tiger, interspersed with a variety of birds, a man sweeping the grounds, and a variety of zoo patrons. I managed to get close up to the big cats, closer than I should have probably... so maybe it was a little teeny bit dangerous. But not much.

Track 07 - Monument, Lucknow (2.68MB)
A quiet moment by the "Laat", a monument on the grounds of La Martinière College in Lucknow. Birds, insects, a distant train, and occasional fireworks weave a quiet soundscape.

Track 08 - Ice Cream Bell, Lucknow (1.10MB)
The ethereal overtones of bells often accompany sacred experiences around the world. This one, however, beckons patrons of the Lucknow Zoo to consume ice cream. It's just a guy pulling a rope to jingle a bell by his ice cream stand. I like the sound though.

Track 09 - Joy Train, Delhi (5.31MB)
India is renowned for its passenger trains. This recording, however, does not document one of them. It is, rather, the sound of "The Joy Train", a children's attraction at Delhi's National Rail Musem. I barely fit in the small passenger compartment, but I found the sound appealing.

Track 10 - Karol Baugh Streetscape, Delhi (8.40MB)
The art of field recording needs another recording of trucks in the street like I need a hole in my head, but I found this particular sonic situation valuable.

Indian traffic is truly a spectacle to the Westerner: cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws of both the bicycle and automotive variety, camels, and even elephants are not uncommon modes of conveyance on the streets.

Such a variety of transportation generally results in a cacophony of engines and horns as drivers jockey for position with an aggressiveness that takes some getting used to for an American. This recording, on the other hand, was made in a fairly remote and relatively deserted street in Delhi's touristy Karol Baugh district at night. As a result, the listener can discern the discrete sounds of individual vehicles.

Track 11 - Mortar/Pestle ?, Jaipur (3.05MB)
In brief, I have no idea what the source of this recording is.

Jaipur was the city I enjoyed visiting most on this entire trip. (If you're ever there, don't miss Jantar Mantar and the Raj Mandir movie theater.) But ironically, this is the only sound I found myself recording in Jaipur. I was on the way down the hotel stairs when I heard this sound through the latticework on the outer edge of the stairwell. Peering outside, I could barely see a man on the other side of a fence, seated, hunched over with his back to me, apparently working on something in a bucket. As far as I could tell, his work roughly approximated the manner of a mortar and pestle; that's the more pronounced sound. The subtler percussive impact might come from a necklace he was wearing hitting the bucket as well.

Track 12 - Puja Bell, Varanasi (7.30MB)
Pujas (Hindu religious ceremonies) occur frequently along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. By the ghats and out in boats on the water, countless people gather to enact various rituals involving incense, candles, torches, and bells. (The image used to present this collection depicts a candle floating in the Ganges around the same time as this recording was made.) This binaural recording places the listener directly in front of a structure housing a large bell as people wander back and forth just ahead. Other bells of various variety (at least one handheld, from the sound of it) appear occasionally as well.

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